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No. 1330:
Electric Lights Before Edison

Today, we go looking for the first electric lights. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Say "light bulb," and Edison's name comes to mind -- Edison's alone. Yet electric lighting is far older. It really got rolling just after 1800 -- almost eighty years before Edison's invention.

Two kinds of electric lamps competed through the 19th century. One was the incandescent lamp, whose light is created by passing an electric current through a filament. The other was the arc light, created by an electric arc leaping the gap between two electrodes.

The electrochemist Humphry Davy demonstrated lights of both kinds in the early 1800s. At the age of only twenty-two, Davy was made a lecturer at the new Royal Institution in London. He was a dazzling speaker whose lecture-demonstrations soon became major social events in London for both women and men.

In an 1802 lecture he showed how we can cast light by passing an electric current through a platinum strip. In 1809 he demonstrated how to impose a large voltage across the air gap between two carbon electrodes to create a brilliant light.

Commercial arc-lighting followed three decades later in England. For a long time, arc lighting was more showy than practical. It was becoming really viable about the time Edison created his system.

But as early as 1820 the French inventor de La Rue made a successful incandescent lamp by putting an expensive platinum coil in an evacuated glass tube. In 1840 an English inventor named Grove used similar lamps to light a whole theater. The lighting was dim, and its cost ran to several hundred pounds sterling per kilowatt-hour. Still, this was a public use of incandescent lighting, forty years ahead of Edison.

Many other incandescent lamps followed. In 1878 Joseph Swan made an evacuated carbon filament lamp. He also managed to get patent protection before Edison duplicated the feat.

Edison finally installed his complete lighting system on the steamship Columbia in 1880. He created cheaper, longer-lasting bulbs than anyone else. But he also provided the public with an electrical supply system. He created a complete user-ready lighting system. Of course Edison had to get around Swan. To do that, he took Swan in as a business partner.

Edison's contribution to electric lighting wasn't its invention, but its development. He tenaciously took the idea all the way to the marketplace. And we're left wondering why Edison gets the credit. For one thing, he was his own spin doctor. He wove his myth as he wove his machinery. But he also wove the technology itself: complete and full-blown.

There is no single inventor of any great technology. Ideas rise out of a whole community. But people who can put full-blown systems together are rare. And in that sense, maybe it is fair to say that Edison invented the light bulb, after all.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This story is told in many places. A very good summary is given in the Encyclopaedia Britannica under the word "lighting."

For more on one particular early electric lighting system, namely limelight, see Episode 1268.

This episode is an expanded version of Episode 11.


Two typical 19th-century arc lights
From Arc and Glow Lamps, 1886


Grove's Incandescent Lamp, made 40 years before Edison's
From Evolution of the Electric Incandescent Lamp, 1889