Who Invented The Light Bulb?…Wrong!

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  Right?…Wrong!  We’ve all been taught that, but the truth is the actual inventor of the incandescent bulb was an Englishman.  J.W. Starr developed the light bulb using a carbon filament inside a vacuüm bulb in 1845.  After Starr died, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan continued to work on the design and patented a carbon filament bulb in 1879.  Now here’s where it gets interesting.

The idea was to find a material that could stay illuminated for a long period of time without burning up the filament.  What Swan found that would work was a carbonized piece of cotton thread.  He did this 10-months before Edison stumbled on the same idea.  Now, understand “a long period of time” was about 13 hours.  Edison later used carbonized bamboo and was able to get 1200 hours of use.  His patent was issued in 1880.

Thomas Edison

Edison made Swan a partner and eventually bought out his patent.  The idea of the electric light bulb, obviously did not spring up miraculously in Thomas Edison’s head.  He knew that it was being worked on and that some patents had already been issued.  Humprey Davy, an English chemist, really invented the electric light in 1809.  He connected two wires to a battery, put a strip of charcoal between them, and it glowed, making the first arc lamp.  In 1835, James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated a constant electric lighting system with a prototype vacuüm bulb.  That was 10 years before Swan developed his light bulb and obtained a patent, and almost a year more before Edison filed his patent.

Fast forward, and what happens next is the Edison Electric Light Company sues the  United States Electric Lighting Co for patent infringement in 1885.  Edison prevailed in 1893.  So he continued after the other competitors in the electric light business;  Beacon Vacuum Pump and Electrical Company, Boston, the Columbia Incandescent Lamp Company, St. Louis, and the Electric Manufacturing Company, Oconto, Wisconsin.

Enter Henrich Goebel for the defense.  Henrich testifies that he had seen and experimented with electric light bulbs back in Germany as far back as 1854.  He used carbonized cotton thread for light bulbs that he made for personal use.  He did not however obtain a patent.  What the defense was arguing is that Edison did not really come up with the idea of the incandescent bulb, so his patents were useless because of this “overseen invention.”  Many witnesses testified that they had seen the Goebel light bulb well before 1880.  The court held..well, there was never a final hearing in the cases.  The Edison Electric Light Company did not pursue it after the initial court decisions seemed not to favor the monopoly.  Interestingly, it wasn’t about patents at all, it was about money as it usually is.  These other companies continued to make light bulbs, but none as successfully as Edison.  Goebel got nothing for his testimony in the civil cases. 

Edison’s Original Patent

In 1906 General Electric Corporation patented a method using tungsten as a filament and this is the bulb you still see today.  High melting point and low vapor pressure made the material the clear advantage.  Plus it was cheap.

So now you know more about the electric incandescent light bulb then you ever cared to, I suppose, but I didn’t want you to go on thinking that Thomas Edison had invented it.  I’m looking out for you.



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32 responses to “Who Invented The Light Bulb?…Wrong!

  1. Shannon

    Hey, did you know that the longest burning bulb is still burning after 110 years? It’s at a firestation in Livermore CA.

  2. No I did not, but I’m checking into it.

  3. Very enlightening post. I like your blog debunking the plethora of myths that pass as facts in our culture. Great job researching! You’ve got a new fan!

    • Thanks, I always appreciate “new fans”. Most of the stuff in this blog amazes even me. I’m not really sure yet what the focus is. I write about history, and current events, and sometimes political commentary, and sometimes funny personal stories. But I hope you hang around and read some more.

  4. Pingback: “They certainly don’t make them like this anymore” | YOU DECIDE

  5. thanks for that that just helped me with my homework thank you

  6. Fred

    1875 – Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans patented the light bulb.

  7. caitlin

    the Real inventor of the Light bulb was actually James Watt Scottish inventor who was also the inventor of the steam train.

    • Chris

      James Watt did not invent the light bulb. Thomas Edison is regarded by most people to have invented it. Electric light was invented in 1806 by Humphrey Davy. Joseph Swan patented a light bulb in a vacuum in 1879. Ten months prior to Edison’s patent of the same thing.

      James Watt, is responsible for giving us the unit of measuring power that is his name (watt). The unit is derived by extending on Ohms law, to include that Voltage (e) times Amperage (i) = power.

  8. Pingback: Watts with The Light Bulb, Jobs, GE and Tesla « Ahrcanum

  9. Why, who’d a thunk? I love this entertaining but factual bit of enlightenment…no pun intended. Of course, I haven’t checked your facts, but you stated them so authoritatively that I’m willing to believe you. Refreshing bit of writing.

    • Thank you, Linda. I’m pretty sure of my facts on this one, but you have to be careful with me. What I don’t know, I’ll make up. If I can’t dazzle them with brilliance, I’ll baffle them with bull. LOL Particularly if you see a statistic like 9 out of 10 or some such. Just kidding. Check away. Several other commenters are sure I have the inventor wrong, but I stand by my research.

  10. Sionna

    I was told to reseach Michael Faraday, for homework, as appearently he invented the light bulb, which was then patented by Edison… According to your article this isn’t the case. I’m now quite confused! Please help! Thanks. 🙂

    • Sionna, my post shouldn’t be considered a complete history of the invention of the light bulb. The point I was trying to make was that Edison did not invent it, but did patent a working vacuum tube light bulb and he wasn’t the first to patent the idea either. The problem was getting the filament to last long enough to make the bulb practical. Michael Faraday was more known for his work with electric motors. Faraday died in 1867. If he invented the light bulb prior to J.W. Starr in 1845, I never did find any mention of it in my research. But, he did know Humpry Davy who was issued the first patent for the light bulb in 1809. Hope that helps.

      • Sionna

        Thank you for your insight. I shall mention the different theories, as to who invented the lightbulb. Many different sources vary in conculsions, which confused me slightly. Thank you for your time.

  11. BTW, Edison didn’t invent the motion picture, either. The Lumiere brothers were already showing motion pictures publicly in Paris before Edison claimed to invent the technology.
    One thing that Edison definitely did invent was the electric chair for executing people.

    • Very good points. Edison was more a visionary, than he was a pure inventor. He could see the marketability of inventions and would improve upon them. So, I don’t think he ever publicly claimed to invent the motion picture technology either.

  12. Shreya

    i still cant figure out aho actaully invented light bulb

  13. stas

    Thomas Edison was a businessman and actually didn’t invent a lot of things that he is wrongly credited with, like a motion picture camera or an electric chair. A lot inventions patented by him where either bought from other inventors, or invented by someone working for him. Tesla invented an AC generator, and Edison was making money off of a DC generator, and didn’t like Tesla, because Tesla was interested in improving the world, and Edison was into making money, partly the reason why today’s society is collapsing, because they think it’s the purpose of life, to make money.

  14. khoa

    Hmmmmm…http://didyouknow.org/who-invented-the-light-bulb/ Thís confuse me alot. Don’t know who ís right 😦 is anyone know who invented the light bulb please reply back.(sorry i got bad english)

  15. edwardandelion

    Would it be appropriate to have Nikola Tesla included? I’d say he had a significant part in developing the light bulb.

  16. TeslaCoyl

    I found what you said in this article very informative and very intersting, and to the comment above Tesla helped inprove and invent a lot of things, but im not sure he helped with the developing the light bulb. But Tesla was a great man and did a lot of great thing! 🙂

  17. RickG13

    My mother claims (and being a good son, believe her) that Heinrich Goebel is a ancestor of our family. I think people at parties are getting tired of my claims however.

  18. James Willis

    Our government is horrible i argued with my history teacher over this she favored edison but my point was not only so much about who invented the light bulb but the fact that government has always been ran by big business since day one the “gilded age” is nothing but American corruption business leaders influencing government officials to secure legislation. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and so many other who supported social Darwinism even if they would say they did not fall under that category and the case is just the same for giving Edison all the credit and not giving anyone else a penny. This vicious cycle will not stop not even when a handful of people control 99% of the world currency it greed will not let it stop till there’s only one.

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