The History of Light Bulbs

Light bulbs, since they began to spread commercially in 18801, have found their way into every office, home, highway, store, and hospital. They are built into stoves, cars, and televisions — the items that provide sustenance, transportation, and entertainment to millions daily. Thomas Edison, an inventor and businessman, is the most popular name associated with the light bulb and the conglomerate of General Electric1, though it has taken many more secluded scientists, educated engineers, and prosperous patrons to bring this technology into every industry of the 21st century; where this historical invention has more purpose today than when it became popular in the 1920s3.

Lighting went from burning animal fats to flammable gases, leaving homes covered in soot or sometimes burnt. These combustible gases could be a deadly combo for miners when mixed with new or unknown elements on the job site2; as if their jobs weren’t hazardous enough. The bulb itself was a bit of a slow industry, but not from lack of trying. Inventors experimented with different glass, chemical elements, and filaments and tested them against different temperatures and exposed them to their daily hazards of heat (sun, insulation, stove, etc) and height (light distance and breakage)2. 

Light bulbs have been around as long as steam engines and telegraphs and their evolution has had an influence in the home and office during times of war and peace. They have made changes in the economy, the landscape, and bills in Congress; they have led the way for electricity to be built into the walls of homes, the appliances used inside, and the machines to deliver the current needed to keep items lit and working properly. The light bulb might have a relatively short history, but it has made large, sometimes slow, strides forward to keep up with modernization.4

Technology either improves its usefulness or loses its purpose, like a phonograph or VHS tape. The light bulb’s ancestors were born in 1802 when Humphry Davy, a chemist and inventor, discovered potassium, sodium, and chlorine, and created the Davy Lamp — a safe light source for miners near flammable gases.1 The next generation would be the electric light, introduced by Joseph Swan, a British physicist and chemist, in 1860, but by 1878 the incandescent lamp still burned too quickly to be efficient.4

It would take two more years before Thomas Edison began to leave his mark on the electrical industry. He started with the incandescent light bulb, getting it to burn from 14 hours up to 1200, and the ‘Edison screw’ to attach the bulb to the electrical source. By 1882, he was distributing electricity through conduits with a direct current and made the first commercial power utility and first electric meter in Manhattan, New York to measure the consumers’ use via companies and the government for usage patterns, personal payments1, and sometimes rolling blackouts to ensure everyone got a bit of hot water in their well-lit morning shower. 

In 1890, Edison invented the fuse1, and another decade would go by with only failed experiments to pass the time. The need for electricity inspired the first two-phase alternating current generator to be built using a Serbian engineer, Nikola Tesla’s ideas with the American entrepreneur, George Westinghouse’s money, a robber baron of the time, among other great monetary contributors to a five-year project at Niagara Falls. It was George’s love of trains that would take him from inventing the air brake, and standardizing them to a great fortune, to creating a constant-voltage AC generator.

This generator would start the grid towards high-voltage AC transmission lines that were transformed to low-volt AC/DC distribution lines that would bring entertainment and light into the homes of New Yorkers4. Edison helped found and merge the conglomerate that is General Electric, a company that took more power than it gave and has been involved with every piece of the electricity industry, from trains to televisions, since its beginning in 18925.

Lightbulbs were so popular that they were seen as Christmas lights to be hung inside and outside of the home, bragging rights of the 1880s3. Isaac Singer, the founder of the popular sewing machine, made good use of the electricity available in 1889, but wouldn’t make use of the light bulb until 1921 when Frederick Diehl introduced an attachable bulb that ran hot but led the way for improvement4. Although this new technology was safer, inadequate wiring and improper use could lead to fires which led to the development of the Underwriters Laboratories in 1894 and the first National Electric Code in 1897, both of which have only continued to expand their standards and increase their guidelines2. 

Flashlights made their debut in 1898, two years before toy trains were able to light their own little tracks. As trains went from coal to electric, first direct and then alternating current, and then adding diesel4, it became less obvious who had been riding on the track for days with their face out the window as it was no longer polluted with soot. The more popular use of alternating current wasn’t a quick decision, but a battle between Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse to test situations in which each worked best — even using a human sacrifice. William Kemmler was sentenced to death in 1890 and the first person to experience the electric chair. More lively uses of the current war would be carried out at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and when setting up the generator in Niagara Falls in 1895 that would be the beginnings of a national power grid1. 

The next two centuries would bring changes to the length of the workday, the entertainment at home, and the amount of land needed to supply the cities with light. In order to bring about these advancements, many scientists and engineers with the help of their benefactors, such as George Vanderbilt’s $150,000 investment from family wealth1 (also used to create the Biltmore Estate), would put in long hours in labs and patent offices getting credit, and hopefully payment, for their struggle to increase the wellbeing of the consuming public. 

After WWI, Roosevelt, under the New Deal, created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 to distribute electricity to the rural farms to compete with Germany and France. The United States only supplied 10% of their farms, while the other countries were already distributing up to 90% of theirs. It would take almost 20 years for the US to catch up3. 

The idea of light, not just white, and what it could do would continue to grow. Blackout lights in World War II were opaque black bulbs with a small orange bottom and low-wattage filament so the light would shine down and less brightly into the home and not out the window to protect the residents from air-raid bombings common at night4. Similar in name and in purpose, the black light was invented by William Byler the year before the lawsuit that would change the safety of the radium handling process in 1938 at US Radium, and where he would go on to make several more patents6. 

The black light would replace the radium on the instrument panels of warplanes in WWII to keep them from being detected at night. The black light would go on to be used to test for weak spots in metal structures, skin infections and other conditions, and to detect counterfeit art and currency notes. It’s also popular for its use in spotting bodily fluids, reflecting off bare skin and white posters in bedrooms and discos in the 1970s, attracting bugs to death, and actors to the theater to perform7. 

The light bulb was able to encourage the race for industries around it to build new generating plants to power new in-home appliances and to keep factories lit through the night as employers no longer relied on the sun or candles to maintain a well-lit workspace to supply the needs of its consumers, and wealthy owners. Light bulbs weren’t cheap, costing about a dollar each in 1940 (equal to about $17 today), and overtime pay had yet to be introduced, but the idea of debt was well ingrained and the employers got their monies worth from the working class (with the minimum wage law of 1938 starting out at 25 cents) who could now “work around the clock” in the “city that never sleeps.”3

Building designs began to change to make room for electrical wiring and light placement — to disperse heat, to be installed the proper distance from the floor for efficient light distribution, and to keep maintenance costs low over the life of the bulb and lamp. Buildings could now have fewer windows and more floors helping to increase production space and capabilities. Lights were installed in offices, stairwells, and on elevators. These profits went towards more generators and conduits to grow the distribution system. The grounding pin would be introduced in 1928 and would mean no more electrical shock via outlets and less of a fire hazard4. 

Light bulbs brought about the night shift which would lead to even more unfair working hours then and to extra pay today. Factories were able to double their output and lit docks and airports made it easier for nighttime delivery; as did having well-lit streets to encourage pedestrians and vehicles to safely patronize stores with signs in their windows saying, “OPEN.” World War I increased night invasions, ship signaling, and the use of spotlights. WWII would help spur the development of the fluorescent bulb, 40 years in the making, due to GE’s holds on the patents. The demand for economical lighting would bring light to ships, planes, and the battlefield — no longer just a daytime opportunity. It would take another 30 years to make these bulbs compact2. 

Lightbulbs were put into vacuum cleaners in 1932, refrigerators in 1940, car visors as vanity lights in 1946, and the Brownie Hawkeye camera in 19494. Women were able to maintain cleaner households, on their own, due to the ease and speed of the technology. The first lightbulbs cost around $23 (considering inflation) and were seen as a status symbol for those who had more than one. Families went from reading around the hearth, which could be warm in the summer, to collecting around a dining table and reading by lamplight. Bulbs would make their way into televisions in 1930, which would one day become monitors for computers, a technology that society relies on heavily today as engineers continue to make improvements as consumers drive innovation3.

The LED (light emitting diode) was invented in 1962 and only being available in red was put into $400 watches and $2100 calculators that consumed a lot of battery2. It wasn’t until 1993 that LEDs were available in white, but still too expensive for the average consumer until the Energy Department made a push in 2000 to help drop the cost. This didn’t stop companies from selling light-up shoes for $50, computer mice for $75, and introducing the LED TV in 2004 for $10,0008. The price would finally drop to $25 per bulb in 2012 and sales would increase to save energy and money in the long-term. LED bulbs are now used more in flashlights, stadiums, and traffic lights to replace the carbon of 1880, the tungsten of 1904, the nitrogen of 1913, the mercury vapor of 1948, and the high-pressure sodium of 19708.

The 1973 oil crisis caused a reduction in oil imports and a quadrupling of the price leading electric utilities to give away fluorescent lamps to slow the growth of demand for incandescent, but they were still the preferred bulb9. This was a good thing for the companies’ wallets as it was still $30 per bulb in 19852. The price would drop to $1.74 in 2005 and yet customers were buying incandescent in bulk for the varied options — silver-bottomed, antique Edison, and soft pink — not concerned with the more energy-efficient option because they prefer the warmth these bulbs have offered for generations and the style it represents for their businesses4. 

Light bulbs have changed to support the future of the planet, the economy, and the consumers who still want: Christmas lights, that can now be powered via solar anywhere; highway lights that cause sleep deprivation in people and cause birds to lose their migratory path, that are being exchanged for dimmer ones in San Diego to help with light pollution; and lights with mercury, while ensuring the Chinese workers making these lights are in safe working conditions via policy changes at GE4. 

As great as light bulbs are, as the population increases along with their need for light, this technology has some drawbacks of its own. Historically, the equipment needed to mass produce them was too expensive and the right materials hard to find. The bulbs had short lifespans and through faulty wiring could cause fires. The lights helped to deter crime in parking lots and lessen injuries around the home3, but their current brightness can cause retinal damage to drivers and disturb the nesting patterns of aquatic shore animals. Light pollution is another issue for birds as it interferes with their circadian rhythm usually dictated by the sun7. 

Sunlamps were used in WWI to heal wounds, treat Vitamin D deficiency, cure sleep disorders, and prevent rickets. The first solar cell was created in Bell Labs in 1954 and was quickly used with phones, radios, cameras, boats, and calculators4. The cells would go on to power telescopes in space, traffic lights, and apartment buildings. The sun may soon play a larger part, when prices drop, in supplying homes and offices with energy throughout the day, via solar panels on roofs and quantum dots on transparent materials over windows, and helping people to sleep through the night via light filtering apps on phones7. Currently, companies are studying sleep patterns and lighting effects from phones and computers as the blue light emitted can simulate the sun to your retina and disrupt melatonin production in the brain8.

The government has been behind this industry from the beginning, to support it personally, but also to make sure that laws are enacted to look out for the land space needed for generators at power plants and in dams (Federal Water Power Act of 1920 for regulation and affordability), the grid lines going around farms and through cities (OSHA maintaining ten feet of safety space and NERC assuring reduced risks to reliability), and the wiring processes in homes and businesses to reduce fire hazards (NECA — National Electrical Contractor Assc. — Chapters to ensure proper licensing for public safety).

As with all high-want commodities in the economy, light comes with a price tag. General Electric currently makes over $150 billion annually and is constantly in the spotlight for being the sixth largest firm in the US but being able to legally dodge 30% taxes using loopholes to lower their percentage rates and keep money overseas and in their shareholders’ pockets. This conglomerate was also able to pollute the Hudson River for 30 years with toxic PCBs and claims it spent $1.7 billion over six years to dredge up 40 miles of river, but have fought longer than that in court to delay the process and decrease the cost of cleaning up their mess.

The government is also behind the push for better lights — more efficient and economic, less of a biohazard, and longer working life. It’s this responsibility to people and the planet that has made San Diego replace 35,000 lights in 2011 to induction lamps that last 100,000 hours and have a color temperature similar to an incandescent bulb at a cost of $16 million over a period of 18 months. This switch should save the city at least $2 million annually, and luckily for San Diego, its temperatures don’t get over 95 degrees, one of the caveats about these long-lasting bulbs10. 

There’s only one direction for light bulbs to move, and that’s forward — from the National Electric Code of 1897 to the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 the government has been forcing businesses to use better programs, which means buying better products, and lots of hours in a lab for the engineers to create these designs. Mazda and Tesla used to be names associated with lights, and to a tiny fraction they still are as headlights, dome lights, cup holder lights, and visor lights play a big part on the beauty and functionality of the vehicles now manufactured under those names. 

Every advancement in history comes with pros and cons, and it’s the founder’s job to weigh those positive and negative aspects before releasing something to the public. History shows that just because guns are used massively to kill people, and rarely to still kill animals to survive, their production hasn’t stopped. Though there is a downside to light, it definitely has way more good things to show for it, like doubling the possibilities that society is able to accomplish by “burning the candle at both ends”. 


1. Friedel, Robert, Paul Israel, and Bernard S. Finn. Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987. 24-93. Print.

2. Cox, James A. A Century of Light. New York, NY: Benjamin, 1979. Print.

3. Green, Harvey. The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. Pantheon Books: n.p., 1983. 59-92. Print.

4. Chaline, Eric. Fifty Machines That Changed the Course of History. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2013. Print.

5. “Light.” GE Transformation Timeline. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2017. < transformation/#light>. 

6. Santucci, Karen, David Nelson, and Kemedy McQuillen. “Wood’s Lamp Utility in the Identification of Semen.” Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, 01 Dec. 1999. Web. 02 May 2017.

7. Kitsinelis, Spiros. The Right Light: Matching Technologies to Needs and Applications. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis, 2012. Print.

8. Zheludev, Nikolay. “The Life and times of the LED — a 100-year History.” Nature Photonics 1.4 (2007): 189-92. Nature Publishing Group, 17 Apr. 2007. Web. 02 May 2017.

9. Frum, David. How We Got Here: The 70’s. New York: Basic, 2000. Print.

10. Union-Tribune, San Diego. “San Diego Switches to ‘green’ Street Lights.” San Diego Union-Tribune, 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 02 May 2017.

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