How Has the Lightbulb Changed Over Time?

Although Thomas Edison is most often hailed as the inventor of the first light bulb, his invention of the carbon filament, which evolved from patents he bought in 1875 from two other inventors, occurred 70 years after English chemist Humphry Davy came up with the idea of connecting two wires to a battery and then taking the other ends of the wires and connecting them with a charcoal strip. This contraption resulted in the first arc lamp. The next seven decades had inventors competing to not only come up with a longer lasting bulb that produced enough light to be practical, but one that would be affordable to the common man.

Light bulbs: They've come a long way.

Early Progress in the 1800s

Lighting the way.

William De la Rue's platinum coil was perfect in design but the cost of platinum prohibited mass marketing. Fifteen years later, in 1835, James Bowman Lindsey invented the first bulb, but it still lacked a filament. It took another 15 years for Edward Shepard to come up with a workable charcoal filament, and Joseph Wilson Swan experiment with carbonized paper filaments the same year.

Developments of the late 1800s

The battle over the filament.

A major stride in the light bulb's perfection was made in 1854 when Henricg Global successfully placed a carbonized bamboo filament inside a glass bulb. Its only flaw was the oxygen inside the bulb killed the glow. This was fixed in 1875 when Herman Sprengel got rid of the air by placing a mercury vacuum pump inside the bulb. Later that year, the first light bulb patent, which was later purchased by Edison, was secured by Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans.

The Filament Wars

After the filament and bulb were successfully paired and the vacuum was in place, the race was on for the best filament. It not only had to be made of a readily available material but had to burn for extended periods of time. The first to reach this milestone was Sir Joseph Wilson Swan. His bulb had a carbon filament developed from cotton and it burned for 13-1/2 hours. The next year, Edison came up with a similar filament that burned for 40 hours. Less than a year after that, his filament life jumped to 1,200 hours by incorporating bamboo into its construction.

Lighting a New Century

Although the latest filaments burned for impressive lengths of time, they still turned the inside of the light bulbs dark. In 1903, Willis Whitnew solved that problem with his invention of a metal-coated carbon filament. Three years later, General Electric Co. patented tungsten filaments for light bulbs but the production costs made them impractical. William David Coolidge saved the day four years later with a groundbreaking method he invented for making cost-effective tungsten filaments. Other than the 1925 production of the first frosted light bulbs and the invention of the 60,000-hour magnetic induction light bulb in 1991, no great strides in light bulb improvements were available to the public until the early 2000s.

The Light on the Horizon

Compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs), also known as energy-saving lightbulbs, were the brainchild of Pete Cooper in the late 1980s and were used exclusively in the photography industry. The design was improved by George Inman of GE and was the prototype for the CFL invented in 1973 by Ed Hammer and GE. Based on manufacturing costs, it was never mass-produced and the light bulb concept and design ultimately became public knowledge. In the early 2000s, CFLs hit the retail market and have steadily increased in popularity as their luminescence improves and the pricing becomes more competitive. By the end of 2012, none of the old-fashioned filament bulbs will be available. The next phase of energy-saving light bulbs is believed to be LED lightbulbs, which are the most energy-efficient alternatives available and last as much as 50,000 times as long as their predecessors.