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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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