These days, it is almost impossible to imagine life without electric lighting. Thomas Alva Edison’s ingenious invention of the lightbulb in 1879 was a ground-breaking achievement. That, at least, is what most history books tell us. But did Edison really invent the lightbulb? Or was he simply a businessman who exploited other people’s ideas for his own ends?
The invention of the lightbulb
“I have struck gold with electric light,” Edison is said to have told a colleague in 1878. Yet the invention attributed to him was anything but innovative. Numerous sources attest that several creative tinkerers from around the globe had already worked on the design of an electric light source decades before him. As early as 1835, Scotsman James Bowman Lindsay unveiled the first experimental lightbulb. In 1841, Englishman Frederick de Moleyns was awarded what was likely the first patent for a lightbulb for a model that used two glowing platinum wires in a glass bulb. An American named John Wellington Starr likewise patented a lightbulb in 1845, this time using carbon sticks to produce light. However, all these designs had one thing in common: They were not suitable for everyday use. The resourceful Edison was indeed the first to achieve this master stroke.
British physicist and chemist Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) had also worked on a lightbulb design earlier than Edison. In 1860, he developed a lamp which he caused to glow using carbon filaments. Eighteen years later, he finally succeeded in lighting up a whole house. In the same year, he filed for a patent in England for his handy, practical lightbulb – about two years before an equivalent patent was awarded to Edison in the United States. So, which of the two was the true pioneer of the lightbulb?
Who is the true inventor of the lightbulb?
A court of law was called on to decide the matter. Swan and Edison engaged in patent litigation, with the latter emerging as the winner. The reason? Swan had used a low-impedance carbon filament, whereas Edison’s high-impedance version caused no flickering and no fluctuations in brightness while the lightbulb was on. Strangely, the two inventors quickly patched up their differences after the lawsuit and, in 1883, jointly founded Edison and Swan United Electric Light Co Ltd. in London. Although he never became world famous like his business partner, Joseph Swan did receive a number of honours: King Edward VII knighted him for his services in 1904. The Swan Medal for Applied Physics is also named after him, and not a few history books today single him out as the real creator of the lightbulb – or at least put the two gentlemen on the same level.
The quarrel over who played the more important role in the story of the lightbulb was still far from resolved, however. While the Edison versus Swan case was still before the courts, a third inventor likewise got involved: Heinrich Göbel (1818-1893), a native of Springe near Hanover in Germany. An émigré to New York, the watchmaker claimed to have already developed a model that worked with high-impedance carbon filaments in 1854. His only mistake, he argued, was that he had not filed for a patent on his invention. Protracted legal disputes ensued and gained considerable attention in the USA and Europe. The court doubted the credibility of his claims, however; and Göbel died of pneumonia in 1893 while the case was still in progress.
Though the watchmaker was initially forgotten, he later became the stuff of legend. Opponents of Edison revived his assertions, and one German engineer faked additional “evidence”. Especially in the era of National Socialism, the sketchy image of the ingenious but unsung German inventor took on solid contours. In 2004, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Finance went so far as to issue a postage stamp emblazoned with the claim “150 years of the electric lightbulb”. The stamp bore the likeness of the eau de Cologne bottle that Göbel had allegedly used as his glass bulb. A year later, a TV broadcast gave second place in a list of “Germany’s best” and greatest inventions to the lightbulb – again attributing it to Göbel.
An unresolved dispute to this day
The issue of who paved the way to the modern lightbulb remains an open issue. Was it Edison, Swan or Göbel? Or perhaps even some other bright mind? Either way, it is safe to say that Thomas Alva Edison surpassed all his rivals in the way he marketed the idea: “I am a good sponge. I absorb ideas and make them useful. Most of my ideas originally belonged to people who never took the trouble to develop them further.” These are the words with which Edison – who filed more than 1,000 patent applications in his lifetime – is said to have once commented on the story of his successful career. Did he perhaps give the game away with this statement? Was he making use of other people’s intellectual property? In all probability, Edison simply had greater business acumen than others. He knew how to advance existing designs to maturity.
His basic patent, awarded in 1880, earned Edison worldwide recognition. In the years that followed, he worked constantly to optimize the lightbulb, filing another 30 or so patents relating to this electric light source. One of them was for the screwed socket that is still used in modern LED lamps. His company quickly ramped up the volume production of lightbulbs that could each shine for up to 1,000 hours. Yet Edison’s vision went far beyond this: He wanted to electrify whole cities. Starting in 1881, his firm began laying hundreds of kilometres of underground cables in New York, and the USA’s first central power station went into service in 1882. International orders followed, and his company ranked among the biggest in the world by 1886. So, was Edison the inventor of the lightbulb? Maybe. But the honour certainly does not belong to him alone. He was simply the one whose keen eye for business made the lightbulb ready for the mass market.
Milestones in the history of electricity
The electric shocks used by certain fish to catch their prey were known in Egypt as far back as 2750 BC. The Ancient Greeks too were aware of natural electrical phenomena such as static electricity in amber. Around 600 BC, Thales of Miletus described this force of attraction and later became known as a pioneer of electricity.
What is known as the “Baghdad Battery” was not discovered until the 1930s but was used far earlier. It consists of a ceramic pot fitted with a copper tube and a rod of iron. Tests have shown that, with the aid of grape juice as an electrolyte, a voltage of 0.5V could be produced.
British physicist and doctor William Gilbert became the first person to draw a clear distinction between magnetism and static electricity. He was also the first to coin the adjective “electric”, thereby initiating the doctrine of electricity. In 1733, French naturalist Charles du Fay proved that two different forms of electrical charge exist: positive and negative charges.
The American Benjamin Franklin launched his famous kite experiment, which he developed into a lightning conductor. At the end of the century, German physicist Georg Simon Ohm became the first to link together the physical parameters current, voltage and resistance. Ohm’s Law was born.
Samuel F. B. Morse built the first telegraph in 1833. The first electric locomotive was patented a year later. And, in 1844, the age of electrical communication began with the Morse code. In 1843, the Frenchmen Henri Adolphe Archereau and Louis-Joseph Deleuil succeeded in using carbon arc lamps to illuminate a public square for the first time. The subsequent invention of the lightbulb once and for all ushered in the age of electricity.