It may seem as though we’ve made it – from discovering that lightening is electricity, to harnessing electricity in batteries, surely light is the next plausible step, right? Fortunately for Edison and a few others, we have about 100 years of thresholds to cross before we get to electric light bulbs however; and fortunately for me and other writers on this topic, many of them come from one key figure: Joseph Henry.
Joseph Henry was born in New York right at the end of the eighteenth century (1797) to poor, Scottish parents – making his feats in science all the more remarkable. Building upon Alessandro Volta’s battery, as well as William Sturgeon’s electromagnet, he was able to “insulate wire around a ferrous core to make an extremely powerful electromagnet” (https://edisontechcenter.org/JosephHenry.html – for a more detailed look at his life and his many inventions, check out this link as well as the corresponding YouTube links within, which demonstrate how these innovations came together!). For example, according to edisontechcenter.com,
“Joseph Henry took what he had learned a step further and in 1831, created one of the first machines to use electromagnetism for motion. This was the one of the earliest ancestors of the modern DC motor. It didn’t make use of rotating motion, but was merely an electromagnet perched on a pole, rocking back and forth. The rocking motion was caused by on of the two leads on both ends of the magnet rocker touching one of the two battery cells, causing a polarity change, and rocking the opposite direction until the other two leads hit the other battery. Henry’s work on motors allowed Thomas Davenport to invent the first real electric motor in 1834. Davenport used his motor to operated a small model car and train. This helped lead to street cars developed by Frank Sprague and the Electric Car.”
Check it out here: https://www.si.edu/object/joseph-henry-constructs-electric-motor:siris_sic_12452?edan_q=Joseph%20Henry%20inventions&destination=/search/collection-images&searchResults=1&id=siris_sic_12452
This marvel allowed another recognizable inventor to create the first “telephone”, also known as, the telegraph: Samuel F.B. Morse. By sending power through long wires, while using Henry’s “intensity batteries,” Morse and his colleagues were able to send electrical signals over long distances – in fact, “In addition to helping invent the telegraph, Samuel Morse developed a code (bearing his name) that assigned a set of dots and dashes to each letter of the English alphabet and allowed for the simple transmission of complex messages across telegraph lines. In 1844, Morse sent his first telegraph message, from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland” (https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/telegraph).
These inventions gave rise to the very first electric light, and “in 1835, the first constant electric light was demonstrated, and for the next 40 years, scientists around the world worked on the incandescent lamp, tinkering with the filament (the part of the bulb that produces light when heated by an electrical current) and the bulb’s atmosphere” (https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-light-bulb#:~:text=Incandescent%20Bulbs%20Light%20the%20Way,possible%20with%20the%20arc%20lamp.)
Now comes the tricky part as there is some debate as to whom the credit goes for the very first electric light –
- Thomas Alva Edison tinkered with a few different big-ticket experiments like the first stock ticker, a carbon transmitter, and then a phonograph, until finally discovering the modifications needed to create the incandescent light bulb. (https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-electricity-1989860#:~:text=Ben%20Franklin%2C%20Henry%20Cavendish%2C%20and,first%20practical%20application%20of%20electricity). After some trial and error with different filaments, “In October 1879, after fourteen months of hard work and the expenditure of $40,000, a carbonized cotton thread sealed in one of Edison’s globes was tested and lasted forty hours. “If it will burn forty hours now,” said Edison, “I know I can make it burn a hundred.” And so he did. A better filament was needed. Edison found it in carbonized strips of bamboo.” Edison would also go on to create the world’s first power plant in “London, in 1882, and in September of that year the Pearl Street Station in New York City, the first central station in America, was put into operation.”
- “One can’t talk about the history of the light bulb without mentioning William Sawyer and Albon Man, who received a U.S. patent for the incandescent lamp, and Joseph Swan, who patented his light bulb in England. There was debate on whether Edison’s light bulb patents infringed on these other inventors’ patents. Eventually Edison’s U.S. lighting company merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company – the company making incandescent bulbs under the Sawyer-Man patent – to form General Electric, and Edison’s English lighting company merged with Joseph Swan’s company to form Ediswan in England.” https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-light-bulb#:~:text=Incandescent%20Bulbs%20Light%20the%20Way,possible%20with%20the%20arc%20lamp
Inventors struggled for a time in developing lighting that was effective and affordable for the average household. Though many came close, “[Lewis] Latimer worked with the famous inventor Hiram Maxim at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. While working there in 1881, Latimer patented a carbon filament for the incandescent lightbulb” (http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/inventors/latimer.htm). Latimer would later go on to work for Maxim’s arch enemy – none other than Thomas Edison – and thanks to his specific and special gifts, he would prove to be invaluable to Edison: “his thorough knowledge of electric lighting and power guided Edison through the process of filing patent forms properly at the U.S. Patent Office, protecting the company from infringements of his inventions; Latimer was also in charge of the company library, collecting information from around the world, translating data in French and German to protect the company from European challenges” (https://invention.si.edu/innovative-lives-lewis-latimer-1848-1928-renaissance-man#:~:text=Lewis%20Latimer%20(1848%2D1928),several%20improvements%20for%20light%20bulbs.).
While all of this information is riveting, the rest of the tale is better told by the experts at the Department of Energy – keep reading along to discover the hidden truths about fluorescent lighting, compact fluorescent lighting, or CFLs, and finally Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs, here: https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-light-bulb#:~:text=Incandescent%20Bulbs%20Light%20the%20Way,possible%20with%20the%20arc%20lamp.