The Electric Light


The Electric Light Essay, Research Paper

On October 22, 1879 Thomas Edison created the electric light or what we know of it today as the light bulb. To make a statement like this that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb is both a huge hyperbole and a huge understatement all at the same time. A more correct view is that he perfected a practical light bulb and that his real plan and accomplishment was the invention of an electrical system to produce and distribute electrical power. He did in fact invent a light bulb with the correct filament but the invention of the light bulb was already pretty much already done.

In 1878 the best source of lighting was gas. Unfortunately it was far from convenient and just made one more thing for mom to clean up. It was unsanitary, so of course it was unhealthy, uncomfortable and dangerous. When gas burned it creates a black residue called soot. Back then there was soot everywhere; soot on the fixtures, soot on the wallpaper, soot on the furniture and even soot on the carpet. The fixtures in the whole house alone had to be cleaned almost every day. It ruined the air quality by producing soot and taking away the oxygen supply. During the summer it made the air even hotter and more uncomfortable. The houses built back then were not built for good circulation and this did not help out very much. It caused explosions, fires, and how were you supposed to trust your kids at home by themselves. One slip and the whole house would go up in smoke. (

Although, from an industrial’s point of view, the light bulb had no negative characteristics, it indirectly created many environmental and social ramifications. After the invention began to catch on, a great demand for electricity began to take place. Power plants, which were extremely ineffective at first, began to spew pollutants into sky. The original concept of electrical generation was steam-powered turbines. In order for the water to be evaporated, large amounts of heat had to generated. The only economical method of heat generation of the time was fossil fuels. Although today we can filter many of the pollutants out before they are exposed to the air, there simply was no knowledge on how to do this at this time. The power plants began the domino effect that led to the pollution problem we have today. For decades inventors and businessmen had been trying to invent a better way – a light source powered by electricity. They had already worked out the basic outline. It would be made of a filament in a vacuum, and when a current was passed through the filament it would glow. But they could not get it to work well. The bottom of the problem was finding a filament that would not fall to pieces. (Grolier multimedia encyclopedia 1998)

In 1878 Edison decided to throw all of his attention and resources into the perfection of the light bulb. The way he went about this goal illustrates several most important features of how he worked. For example, he usually did not invent something out of a vacuum. Other people had worked long and hard on the incandescent lamp, and he built on what they learned. The only major exception to this pattern was his invention of the phonograph. Another feature of his work was his inventing methodology. Edison was not an inventor interested in theory. He used a painstaking trial and error method. He literally tested thousands of different substances as filaments and sent men all over the world to try to find better materials. The last feature of his work was that he did not work alone. He was not a solitary inventor working in his basement. He had a large staff and organization to carry out his experiments. There were several other men with prominent roles in the perfection of the light bulb: Charles Batchelor, John Kruesi, Francis Jehl and Frances Upton. To a large degree these men were willing to contribute not only their work but also creative ideas to Edison for little or no credit. (Grolier multimedia encyclopedia 1998)

For a brief period the material of choice for the filament was carbon. But because the quality of the vacuums that could be created was so poor carbon filaments disintegrated quickly. Edison switched to the more durable material platinum. In 1879 he obtained an improved vacuum pump called the Sprengel vacuum, and it proved to be the catalyst for a breakthrough. Edison switched back to experiments with carbon filaments because he thought it would be more successful and because platinum was expensive. He tested carbon source after carbon source and on October 21 and 22 he carbonized a piece of Clark’s sewing thread to form a filament. It burnt for an amazing 13.5 hours – a huge breakthrough. Soon by changing the shape of the filament to a horseshoe it burned for over 100 hours. Edison and his colleagues had invented a practical light bulb and by doing so they opened up the way for the establishment of the electrical power system. This was a brilliant breakthrough in the field of technology and soon every one in the world would have this electric light in there home to light up their house when the sun went down. (

It was this power system that became Edison’s real achievement. This is soon to become a huge new industry that would drastically affect everyone. This was because once a house or business had electricity installed for lighting an almost endless amount of other items could be developed and sold: electric irons, fans, electric motors, refrigerators and eventually items like air conditioners and computers. There were dozens of new items that had to be invented or improved in order to produce and distribute electricity. Edison ended up inventing dozens of new devices used to produce and distribute electricity. Items like screw top sockets, meters, insulation, fuses, switches, junction boxes, indicator panels and better dynamos. The improvement of the dynamo in itself was a significant achievement. The dynamo was the device the turned mechanical energy into electrical energy. When Edison started working on the light bulb the best dynamo around produced electricity at only 40% efficiency. He developed one that was 82% efficient. All these technological development made it possible for Edison to start providing electricity commercially to New York City. By September of 1882 he had opened a central station on Pearl Street in Manhattan and was eventually supplying electricity to a one-mile square section of New York.

Edison did make a lot of money off of his inventions but he was never as brilliant a businessman as inventor. In 1878, even before he had a decent light bulb, he had found backers and started a company called the Edison Electric Light Company. As he went along he created a half a dozen other companies in the electric field. They merged in 1889 to form the Edison General Electric Company. In 1892 it merged with a company called Thomson-Houston to form General Electric. The dropping of Edison’s name was a symbol of the dropping of Edison. He had sold out his shares and power to gain time and money for his other interests. He made a good deal of money, but he sold out too soon. Today General Electric is one of the largest corporations in the world. It has revenues of $70 billion a year, 222,000 employees and operates in 100 countries.

One concludes that although the light bulb was a turning point for American technology, and it allowed us freedom to do anything with out the suns light, it did in some way cause one of the major problems in our world today. The appliances we take for granted today – fans, refrigerators, electric irons and computers – could not be powered by gas. I am sure glad that the electric light was invented it really has made a huge impact on our world.

Grolier multimedia encyclopedia 1998


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