When discussion about the invention of the light bulb comes up, most people attribute it to Thomas Edison. However, contrary to popular belief, that is not true. He is not the sole inventor of the bulb, but he improved the technology, to the greatest extent. The story of this invention is a long one. In my research, I found about more than a score inventors, who have contributed to its development.
Who was the First to Come Up with the Idea?
The story of this invention is the evolution of an idea and its progressive development into what it is today. Besides Thomas Edison, there are 23 listed inventors that have contributed.
In the year 1802, Sir Humphry Davy, also the inventor of the arc lamp, invented the first incandescent light, by the conduction of current, through a platinum strip. This was made possible by the powerful electric battery that Davy had created. Platinum was the chosen element because of its high melting point. However, the creation was not very bright and it didn't last long. Though Davy didn't succeed at creating a light bulb that gave sustained light emission, his invention was an inspiration for future inventors.
The principle behind Davy's invention was that any object, when heated, emits radiation and some elements (particularly metals) when heated, emit visible light on heating. This phenomenon is called incandescence and the light appliance based on this principle is the 'Incandescent lamp'. It is not clear who made the first use of a filament. Many of the inventors used platinum and carbon filaments.
After Davy, many people tried to replicate and improve the idea by using Iridium and Platinum wires in an evacuated enclosure, which prevented the oxidation of the metal. In 1840, Warren de la Rue created an incandescent lamp using a platinum filament and enclosed it in an evacuated bulb. The cost of platinum made it an impractical commercial application. After this, a string of individuals created their own versions of the incandescent lamp, which included:
- Fredrick de Moleyns of England, who was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp, in 1841
- American John Starr, who got a patent for an incandescent lamp made up of carbon filament, in 1845
- Frenchman Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin demonstrated his version of a light bulb, in 1851
- A.N.Lodygin, who got a patent in 1874, for his version of the incandescent bulb
- Canadian duo of Woodward-Evans, who created the first incandescent bulb filled with Nitrogen gas, in 1874
- Joseph Wilson Swan, a British physicist and chemist demonstrated a workable incandescent lamp in 1878. However, his version too wasn't commercially viable initially. He started his own company and later developed better carbon filaments. This was the person, whose house was the first to be lit by a light bulb in the world.
Finally, Edison arrived on the scene in 1878 and developed his own version of the incandescent lamp using carbonized bamboo filament. People investigating the invention history, have found Edison's version of the incandescent lamp to be the best, compared to all his predecessors. The factors that set it apart from other versions invented previously, were the choice of an effective incandescent material, a much more low-pressure vacuum, and a lamp with a high resistance power. Other than that, Edison didn't just invent the bulb, he created the entire electric lighting system which included a generator (a.k.a Edison Jumbo Generator), mains, feeder, and the distribution system for electricity.
After Edison, there were many who kept on improving the quality of the incandescent lamp through innovation. Finally, they settled on a Tungsten filament, which gave light, when heated in a bulb, filled with rare gases.
Many brilliant scientists and engineers made the incandescent lamp what it is today. The person who invented it first is difficult to point out. The first to come up with the idea was Sir Humphry Davy. Edison and Swan were the first to create commercially viable incandescent bulbs and popularize them. In every discovery and invention, many hands and heads are involved. The real credit attributed to one person is, most of the time, only partial.