Ask any elementary school student and they’ll tell you Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Though today Edison receives the credit for the invention, it was the discoveries made by numerous other inventors that paved the way for the patenting and commercialization of Edison’s incandescent light bulb in 1879.
In 1800, Italian inventor Alessandro Volta used zinc, copper, cardboard, and salt water to conduct electricity using a copper wire. This discovery is considered one of the first steps towards incandescent lighting.
In 1802, after Volta shared his discovery with the Royal Society in London, English chemist and inventor Humphry Davy invented the electric arc lamp. Though the arc light was too bright and inefficient, the principles behind Davy’s invention were the backbone of many later developments.
Discoveries Tackling Efficiency and Cost
The next two discoveries in electrical lighting were by Warren de la Rue in 1840 and William Staite in 1848. Rue used a coiled platinum filament instead of copper to delay burnout, but the high cost of platinum was an obstacle to commercialization. A few years later, Staite used batteries to power a clockwork mechanism that increased the conventional arc lamp’s longevity. As with Rue’s discovery, Staite’s light bulb was too expensive for commercialization.
The Race Towards Commercialization
According to an article by Live Science, “In 1874, Canadian inventors Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans filed a patent for an electric lamp with different-sized carbon rods held between electrodes in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen. The pair tried, unsuccessfully, to commercialize their lamps but eventually sold their patent to Edison in 1879.”
One year earlier, in 1878, English chemist Joseph Swan patented a light bulb that used carbonized paper filaments to increase cost-effectiveness. Unfortunately, Swan’s prototype was not very efficient because of the low-quality vacuum pumps.
Thomas Edison saw the flaw in Swan’s prototype and decided to create a light bulb that used a thin filament with high electrical resistance that could last 14.5 hours. After Edison demonstrated his prototype in December 1879, Swan adopted this improvement into his light bulb and founded an electrical lighting company in England. Edison sued Swan for patent infringement, but Swan’s patent held greater weight and the two eventually joined to form Ediswan in England.
Two other American inventors during that time, William Sawyer and Albon Man, patented an incandescent lamp in the U.S. After Swan’s and Edison’s success, Sawyer and Man’s Thomson-Houston Electric Company merged with Edison’s U.S. lighting company to form General Electric.
Why Edison Has Received the Most Credit
After the light bulb was commercialized, Edison continued to develop inventions that expanded the use of electrical lighting. Edison developed the first commercial power utility called the Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan and introduced a way to track electricity usage by developing the first electric meter.
Many more discoveries and improvements were made by inventors in the 20th century to improve the light bulb’s efficiency, price and performance. Yet Edison (and Swan) are remembered for making the incandescent light bulb commercially available.