If it wasn't for Thomas Edison's perfection of the light bulb on October 21, 1879 you'd be reading this in the dark. See how much you know about Edison’s famous invention.
Who was Working on the Light Bulb?
The idea for a light bulb didn't suddenly pop into Edison's head one day, like in a cartoon when a, uh, light bulb appears over a character. A device called an arc lamp had existed since 1806, but it was too powerful and too much of a drain on resources to be practical for homes or most businesses, even after numerous improvements and modifications were made.
So the search was on for a more feasible light source. Numerous inventors, including ones with sweet old-timey names like Moses G. Farmer and William E. Sawyer, developed incandescent bulbs, but they were either too short lived, too expensive to produce or drew too much electrical current to have much commercial practicality. The concept was widespread, but a sound execution was lacking.
How Did Edison Improve on Earlier Designs? Edison's main contribution was his experiments with a variety of filaments. He and his team tested over 1500 materials before finally settling on carbonized bamboo, which lasted over 1,200 hours while producing a reasonable amount of light and using a reasonable amount of electricity. For the sake of comparison, Edison's first "successful" test was a bulb that lasted just 12 hours. Edison took a common idea and made it feasible.
What Came Next? Edison's real contribution wasn't the light bulb - in fact, he ran into legal difficulty patenting his invention because he had piggy-backed off of the ideas of so many other scientists. His real genius came in commercializing it, which he accomplished by inventing the whole system of electricity distribution. The Edison Illuminating Company, besides having an awesome name, provided generators, wiring and light-bulb fixtures. Edison had found a way to make the incandescent bulb commercially practical, and he wasn't about to let anyone else take the extraordinary opportunity away from him. Other scientists failed to develop a system to actually use their bulbs with, and that failure, alongside the technical improvements Edison made, are why we recognize his invention today.
Did Improvements Continue? You bet. It seemed like improvements to the electric system, both from Edison and other inventors, came at a staggering pace. One of Edison's earliest experiments and promotional stunts for his light bulb came in 1880, when a steamship was outfitted with them. In 1882 the first ever Christmas tree lights were developed. It's estimated that in 1885 300,000 light bulbs were sold, while by 1904 sales had reached 50 million. And, of course, they're everywhere today, while people still try to make improvements on their efficiency and environmental impact. And this decades long legacy all started with Edison's practical improvements.