Today, let's turn on the first electric lights. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
If I say "light bulb," you'll
probably think, "Edison." Yet the idea of electric
lighting was around for hundreds of years before Edison,
and it really got rolling just after 1800 -- almost 80
years before Edison.
I should explain that two different kinds of electric
lamps competed with each other through the 19th century.
One was the incandescent lamp -- where light was created
by passing an electric current through a filament. The
other was the arc light.
The brilliant electro-chemist Sir Humphry Davy was
probably the first to give us lights of both kinds. The
22-year-old Davy was made a lecturer at the new Royal
Institution in London in 1801. He was a dazzling speaker,
and his lecture-demonstrations soon became major social
events in London.
In an 1802 lecture, he showed that he could cast light by
passing an electric current through a platinum strip. In
an 1809 lecture, he imposed a large voltage across an air
gap between two carbon electrodes and created the first
Commercial arc-lighting systems followed three decades
later in England. For a long time, arc-lighting was more
showy than practical. These systems were just getting
good when Edison came along.
Meanwhile, in 1820, the French inventor de La Rue made a
successful incandescent lamp using a platinum coil in an
evacuated glass tube. And in 1840 the Englishman Grove
used similar lamps to illuminate a whole theater. But
we're told that the theater lighting was dim, and its
cost ran to several hundred pounds per kilowatt-hour.
Many, many more incandescent lamps followed, and in 1878
an inventor named Joseph Swan made an evacuated
carbon-filament lamp three years before Edison did, and
he managed to get some patent protection in place before
Edison duplicated his feat.
When Edison finally installed a complete incandescent
lighting system on the steamship Columbia in
1880, he provided cheaper, longer-lasting bulbs than
anyone else had, in a commercially viable lighting system
-- complete with an effective electrical supply. To get
around Swan, Edison simply took the fellow in as a
business partner. Edison's real strength lay in his
tenacity in fully developing an idea -- all the way to
But we owe a large debt of gratitude to those marvelous,
inventive, too-often-forgotten people who came up with
the first electric lights.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.