The modern world is an electrified world. The light bulb, in particular, profoundly changed human existence by illuminating the night and making it hospitable to a wide range of human activity. The electric light, one of the everyday conveniences that most affects our lives, was invented in 1879 by Thomas A Edison. He was neither the first nor the only person trying to invent an “Electric Bulb”.

Milestones:

  • 1850: Joseph W. Swan began working on a light bulb using carbonized paper filaments
  • 1860: Swan obtained a UK patent covering a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp
  • 1877: Edward Weston forms Weston Dynamo Machine Company, in Newark, New Jersey.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company
  • 1878: Hiram Maxim founded the United States Electric Lighting Company
  • 1878: 205,144 William Sawyer and Albon Man 6/18 for Improvements in Electric Lamps
  • 1878: Swan receives a UK patent for an improved incandescent lamp in a vacuum tube
  • 1879: Swan began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks in England.
  • 1880: 223,898 Thomas Edison 1/27 for Electric Lamp and Manufacturing Process
  • 1880: 230,309 Hiram Maxim 7/20 for Process of Manufacturing Carbon Conductors
  • 1880: 230,310 Hiram Maxim 7/20 for Electrical Lamp
  • 1880: 230,953 Hiram Maxim 7/20 for Electrical Lamp
  • 1880: 233,445 Joseph Swan 10/19 for Electric Lamp
  • 1880: 234,345 Joseph Swan 11/9 for Electric Lamp
  • 1880: Weston Dynamo Machine Company renamed Weston Electric Lighting Company
  • 1880: Elihu Thomson and Edwin Houston form American Electric Company
  • 1880: Charles F. Brush forms the Brush Electric Company
  • 1881: Joseph W. Swan founded the Swan Electric Light Company
  • 1881: 237,198 Hiram Maxim 2/1 for Electrical Lamp assigned to U.S. Electric Lighting Company
  • 1881: 238,868 Thomas Edison 3/15 for Manufacture of Carbons for Incandescent Lamps
  • 1881: 247,097 Joseph Nichols and Lewis Latimer 9/13 for Electric Lamp
  • 1881: 251, 540 Thomas Edison 12/27 for Bamboo Carbons Filament for Incandescent Lamps
  • 1882: 252,386 Lewis Latimer 1/17 for Process of Manufacturing Carbons assigned to U.S. E. L. Co.
  • 1882: Edison’s UK operation merged with Swan to form the Edison & Swan United Co. or “Edi-swan”
  • 1882: Joesph Swan sold his United States patent rights to the Brush Electric Company
  • 1883: American Electric Company renamed Thomson-Houston Electric Company
  • 1884: Sawyer & Man Electric Co formed by Albon Man a year after William Edward Sawyer death
  • 1886: George Westinghouse formed the Westinghouse Electric Company
  • 1886: The National Carbon Co. was founded by the then Brush Electric Co. executive W. H. Lawrence
  • 1888: United States Electric Lighting Co. was purchased by Westinghouse Electric Company
  • 1886: Sawyer & Man Electric Co. was purchased by Thomson-Houston Electric Company
  • 1889: Brush Electric Company merged into the Thomson-Houston Electric Company
  • 1889: Edison Electric Light Company consolidated and renamed Edison General Electric Company.
  • 1890: Edison, Thomson-Houston, and Westinghouse, the “Big 3″ of the American lighting industry.
  • 1892: Edison Electric Light Co. and Thomson-Houston Electric Co. created General Electric Co.

By the time of Edison’s 1879 lamp invention, gas lighting was a mature, well-established industry. The gas infrastructure was in place, franchises had been granted, and manufacturing facilities for both gas and equipment were in profitable operation. Perhaps as important, people had grown accustomed to the idea of lighting with gas.
Incandescent lamps make light by using electricity to heat a thin strip of material (called a filament) until it gets hot enough to glow. Many inventors had tried to perfect incandescent lamps to “sub-divide” electric light or make it smaller and weaker than it was in the existing electric arc lamps, which were too bright to be used for small spaces such as the rooms of a house.
Edison was neither the first nor the only person trying to invent an incandescent electric lamp. Many inventors had tried and failed some were discouraged and went on to invent other devices. Among those inventors who made a step forward in understanding the eclectic light were Sir Humphrey Davy,Heinrich Gobel, Warren De la Rue, Frederick de Moleyns, James Bowman Lindsay and James Prescott Joule .
Between the years 1878 and 1892 the electric light industry was growing in terms of installed lights but shrinking in terms of company competition as both Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse determined to control the industry and its advancement. They even formed the Board of Patent Control, a joint arrangement between General Electric and the Westinghouse Company to defend the patents of the two companies in litigation. This proved to be a wise decision as over 600 lawsuits for patent infringement were filed.
The easiest way to understand those turbulent times in the early lighting industry is to follow the company’s involved. Of the hundreds of companies in the business, we only cover the major players. We show the flow of inventor’s patents and inventor’s companies and how the industry ended up monopolized by GE and Westinghouse. Company names listed in GREEN ultimately became part of General Electric. Company names listed in RED ultimately became part of Westinghouse.

In the period from 1878 to 1880 Edison and his associates worked on at least three thousand different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp.

Edison’s lamp would consist of a filament housed in a glass vacuum bulb. He had his own glass blowing shed where the fragile bulbs were carefully crafted for his experiments. Edison was trying to come up with a high resistance system that would require far less electrical power than was used for the arc lamps. This could eventually mean small electric lights suitable for home use.

By January 1879, at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison had built his first high resistance, incandescent electric light. It worked by passing electricity through a thin platinum filament in the glass vacuum bulb, which delayed the filament from melting. Still, the lamp only burned for a few short hours. In order to improve the bulb, Edison needed all the persistence he had learned years before in his basement laboratory. He tested thousands and thousands of other materials to use for the filament. He even thought about using tungsten, which is the metal used for light bulb filaments now, but he couldn’t work with it given the tools available at that time.

He tested the carbonized filaments of every plant imaginable, including bay wood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo. He even contacted biologists who sent him plant fibers from places in the tropics. Edison acknowledged that the work was tedious and very demanding, especially on his workers helping with the experiments. He always recognized the importance of hard work and determination. “Before I got through,” he recalled, “I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.”
Edison decided to try a carbonized cotton thread filament. When voltage was applied to the completed bulb, it began to radiate a soft orange glow. Just about fifteen hours later, the filament finally burned out. Further experimentation produced filaments that could burn longer and longer with each test. By the end of 1880, he had produced a 16-watt bulb that could last for 1500 hours and he began to market his new invention.
In Britain, Swan took Edison to court for patent infringement. Edison lost and as part of the settlement, Edison was forced to take Swan in as a partner in his British electric works. The company was called the Edison and Swan United Electric Company (later known as Ediswan which was then incorporated into Thorn Lighting Ltd). Eventually, Edison acquired all of Swan’s interest in the company. Swan sold his United States patent rights to the Brush Electric Company in June 1882.
In 1889 the Edison Electric Light Company merged with several other Edison companies to become the Edison General Electric Company. When the Edison General Electric Company merged with Thomson-Houston in 1892, a bitter struggle developed, Edison’s name was dropped, and Edison himself had no more involvement with the newly formed General Eclectic Company beyond defending his patents.
In 1903 Willis Whitnew invented a filament that would not blacken the inside of a light bulb. It was a metal-coated carbon filament. In 1906, the General Electric Company was the first to patent a method of making tungsten filaments for use in incandescent light bulbs. The filaments were costly, but by 1910 William David Coolidge had invented an improved method of making tungsten filaments. The tungsten filament outlasted all other types of filaments and Coolidge made the costs practical.