October 21, 1879: Thomas Edison Invents the Incandescent Light Bulb



“We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”

        Thomas Edison, 1879



Ah, Thomas Edison, that paragon of hard work and genius.  Electric lights had been experimented with since 1802.  Making a commercially viable light bulb however, eluded the numerous scientists working on the problem until Edison succeeded.  This was the type of problem that Edison excelled at:  one that required a bit of inspiration and a large amount of perspiration.
Beginning in 1878 Edison began work on a commercially viable incandescent electric lamp.  He decided that for indoor home use the light source had to operate on low voltage.  The idea of running current through a vacuum tube to produce light had been around for decades.  With improved pumping equipment Edison was able to make a better vacuum tube, and then his research centered on a long lasting filament.  Edison spoke about the process in 1890:
I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty was in constructing the carbon filament. . . . Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials used, until finally the shred of bamboo, now utilized by us, was settled upon.
Carbonized bamboo filaments would burn for 1200 hours.  A new age of light commenced.
Patent battles were inevitable with so many other inventors working on the light bulb.  Edison, ever the shrewd businessman, prevailed with a mixture of legal fights, purchasing patents, going into joint ventures with competitors, and buying other competitors out.  Edison’s business skills were as brilliant as his light bulb.

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  1. Who really was the engineering genius who tipped the scales on electric power?
    A (not too well known) engineer briefly worked for Thomas Edison, but did not like Edison’s methods of discovery by brute force, trying “10,000 things to find..” Instead this engineer engaged in thought experiments; working out all the details in his mind(!) to build the three-phase squirrel-cage AC motor, still in use today-. He almost told Edison about his invention (only thought at the time), but decided not to.

    This engineer then began to work for George Westinghouse. In the AC/DC war that was to follow, one plus for AC was his motor: AC motors are simple, DC motors were difficult to manufacture (more winding’s) and maintain (brushes). When the banks were ready to shut down Westinghouse, the engineer sold his AC motor patent to Westinghouse for next to nothing in comparison to it’s worth. Westinghouse prevailed to win the AC/DC war.
    The engineering genius was Nickola Tesla, and ironically it was Edison’s brute force experiments that soured his relationship with Tesla. If not for that, the AC/DC wars might have turned out differently, because it was Tesla’s genius that tipped the scales.

  2. The History Channels’ The Men Who Made America went into this. If not for J.P. Morgan basically threatening Westinghouse with nuisance litigation on the order to bankrupt Westinghouse, there might not be a General Electric today, but there still might be a Westinghouse Manufacturing Company.

    Westinghouse’s AC electric lights blew away Edison’s DC at the 1898 World’s Fair in Chicago. Westinghouse won the hydroelectric power contract for the Niagara River.

    Today, General Electric still exists, and Westinghouse exists mainly as a nuclear power construction subsidiary of Toshiba, but the impact of Westinghouse on the Pittsburgh area was enormous.

  3. Cholera drove Nicola Tesla out of the seminary. Before he came to find Edison in America from Serbia, Tesla imagined A/C current. Edison had advertised one million dollars for anyone to solve the D/C problem of burning down houses. Tesla brought his idea to Edison. Edison laughed Tesla out of his office. Tesla dug ditches for two years. When the Noble peace prize was given both to Tesla and Edison, Tesla refused to be in the same room with Edison and was out on a park bench feeding the pigeons. His work was all lost in a fire and he was penniless and homeless. His friends bought him an apartment for life at the Wyndham Hotel.
    Tesla is credited with inventing the radio because Marconi used Tesla’s diagrams. While in Colorado, Tesla recorded sounds from outer space. With George Westinghouse, Tesla designed the hydroelectric power plants at Niagara Falls. I have little respect for Edison who went back on his word.

  4. “When the Noble peace prize was given both to Tesla and Edison, Tesla refused to be in the same room with Edison and was out on a park bench feeding the pigeons.”

    Neither Telsa nor Edison ever won a Nobel Peace prize. They were both nominated for a Nobel prize but in different years: Edison in 1915 and Telsa in 1937. A huge amount of what is said about Telsa on the internet is complete fabrication.

  5. It was a book I read some time ago. I never thought to check it out on the internet. Hook, line and sinker…
    Thank you for upgrading my information. Now to check everything… against whom? Probably have to wait for heaven to really know. Hope I get there.

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