Who Actually Invented The Incandescent Light Bulb?

Who created the light bulb? Was it Thomas Edison or someone else? Let's find out.

The electric light bulb, specifically the incandescent light bulb, has become synonymous with the term light bulb for many years. Whilst it is but one of various artificial lighting solutions available, it is the one that most think of when the term light bulb is used. 

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But who invented it, and when? Was it Thomas Edison, as most claim, or Joseph Swan, as others claim? Did Nikola Tesla have a hand in the process?

As you will soon find out, the answer to this conundrum is less than clear cut. It also depends on what you would consider a 'real' light bulb. But, like many inventions throughout time, the final product is the cumulative work of many inventors throughout history, the same is true for the light bulb.

In the following article, we'll take a quick tour through the history of the light bulb, and stop off at some of the key players. Hold on tight. 

light bulb inventor edison
Did Thomas Edison really invent the light bulb? Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Who invented the lightbulb and when?

The invention of the lightbulb (specifically the incandescent bulb) is a rather contentious issue, to say the least. Whilst Thomas Alva Edison often gets all the credit, is this actually true?

Like many inventions throughout history, the modern lightbulb is actually a combination of many tiny steps. Many historians claim that no less than 20 inventors had produced various designs of incandescent lightbulb long before Edison.

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Thomas Edison's contribution to the lightbulb's evolution was the production of the first commercially practical one. As his design was so successful it effectively dominated the market and outstripped all other versions.

In this sense, it might be more accurate to call him the "perfector of the light bulb." But let's delve a little deeper first.

One of the most important steps prior to Edison was the work of the great British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy. In 1802, he was able to produce the world's first true artificial electric light. 

light bulb inventor Davy
Davy's Arc Lamp and battery Source: Chetvorno/Wikimedia Commons

Using his recently invented electric battery, Davy connected a set of wires to a piece of carbon to it. Davy was amazed to find that the piece of carbon began to glow and gave off a lot of light. 

The world's first arc light had just been created. The only problem was that it didn't last very long and the light given off was too bright for practical use.

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Over the following 70 years or so, many other inventors created their own versions of light bulbs. Whilst they all showed promise, most, if not all, proved too expensive to produce or had other issues that prevented them from becoming commercially viable.

One of the most notable versions was created by another British Scientist Warren de la Rue in 1840. He enclosed a coil of platinum filament inside a vacuum tube and ran some current through it.

As platinum was such an expensive metal, this seriously limited the commercial viability of his design. 

Did Joseph Swan invent the light bulb before Edison?

In 1850, another British inventor, Joseph Wilson Swan, put his considerable talents to the challenge. To countenance the problems de la Rue experienced, Swan decided to experiment with less expensive filament materials.

light bulb inventor Swan
Swan's carbon filament lamps. Source: Ulfbastel/Wikimedia Commons

He finally settled on using carbonized paper to replace platinum which showed some promise.

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By 1860 he had a working prototype, but the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate supply of electricity resulted in a bulb whose longevity was much too short to be considered an effective producer of light. 

It also tended to blacken, or soot, the inside of the vacuum tube which was less than ideal (as you can see in the image above).

Despite these setbacks, Swan continued to work on his design.

As vacuum tube technology improved in the 1870s, Swan was able to make some further significant breakthroughs.

The culmination of all his work was his 1878 development of a long-lasting light bulb. Like its predecessors, it used a filament contained within an evacuated tube except he replaced carbonized paper with cotton thread.

He patented his design in 1879 and would later come into direct conflict with Thomas Edison. 

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Another interesting attempt was made in 1874 by a pair of Canadian inventors. Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, both Toronto-based, designed and built their own light bulbs.

The pair created a range of bulbs of different sizes and shapes that used carbon rods held between electrodes in glass cylinders filled with nitrogen. Woodward and Evans attempted to commercialize their lamp but were unsuccessful.

They eventually sold their patent to Thomas Edison in 1879.

How Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb?

In 1879, the same year Swan filed and was awarded his patent in England, Thomas Edison decided to turn his attention to the development of electric light bulbs. Edison, ever the keen businessman, wanted to develop a commercially viable and practical version to bring to market.

He hoped to muscle in on the lucrative gas and oil lighting market in the United States. If he could break the hegemony of these two systems, he might just be able to make a fortune.

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In October of 1879, he finally patented his first application for an "Improvement In Electric Lights" with the patent office. But he didn't stop there.

Edison continued to work on and refine his designs. He experimented with different metals for filaments to improve the performance of his original patent.

light bulb inventor edison
Edison's first successful light bulb design. Source: Alkivar/Wikimedia Commons

In 1879, Edison filed another patent for an electric lamp that used "a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected ... to platina contact wires." This solution sounds very similar to that of Joseph Swan almost 20 years prior.

This patent also described the possible means of created said carbon filament. These included the use of "cotton or linen thread, wood splints, and papers coiled in various ways."

Just a few months after his later patent, Edison and his team were able to discover that carbonized bamboo did the trick. This material appeared to be able to last for well over 1200 hours

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This discovery marked the beginning of commercially manufactured light bulbs and in 1880, Thomas Edison’s company, Edison Electric Light Company began marketing its new product.

Impressive, but all was not plain sailing.

So similar was Edison's own invention that Swan decided to sue Edison for copyright infringement. British courts ruled against Edison and as punishment Edison had to makeSwan a partner in his electric company.

inventor of the light bulb edison and swan
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Later, even the U.S. Patent Office decided in 1883 that Edison’s patent was invalid, as it also duplicated the work of another American inventor. But, despite all this, Edison would forever be remembered as the inventor of the light bulb. 

Thomas Edison would go on to become one of the most prolific inventors and businessman of the 19th and 20th Century. By the time of his death, he had acquired a mind-boggling 2,332 patents with 389 alone for electric lighting and power. 

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Who invented the light bulb Tesla or Edison?

Whilst Thomas Edison does, rightfully so, get some 'heat' for 'stealing' many of Nikola Tesla's inventions and developments, the light bulb is not one of them. In fact, Tesla spent little, if any, of his time, developing incandescent electrical lighting of any kind.

Tesla did, however, make contributions to the development of arc lighting. He also conducted some interesting experiments into the possibility of wireless lighting.

But claims regarding Edison's own invention of the light bulb, as we have seen, is arguable. But what cannot be denied is the fact that Edison, unlike all inventors of the light bulb before him, was able to create a commercially viable and reliable design.

For this reason, and his business acumen in general, it would be Edison's design (and Joseph Swan's) that would become ubiquitous around the world. 

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