January 27 – Bright Idea

Today’s Factismal: Thomas Edison patented an electric incandescent lamp 133 years ago.

Odds are, you’ve heard someone tell you that Edison invented the light bulb. It turns out that they were only partly right. What Edison (and his 100 lab assistants) did was invent a long-lasting light bulb that gave off a lot of light. And that was a task so difficult that it took nearly a century to accomplish.

It took that long because of how an electric lightbulb works. And how they work is described by the other name for an electric lightbulb: incandescent light. Incandescent means “glowing hot”. And that’s how old-style electric lightbulbs worked; you would heat something up until it was so hot that it glowed. Incandescence is also how fires and the Sun glow. Hot stuff emits light; really hot stuff just happens to emit light that we can see.

But really hot stuff also oxidizes very quickly. And that was the problem with most early electric lightbulbs, be they Humphrey Davy’s platinum strip in 1802 or Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s carbon filament in a glass tube in 1851; there was always just enough air left in the glass tube to allow the strip to oxidize and burn away after only a few hours.

But Edison and his team of assistants had a couple of advantages that the other inventors lacked. First, Edison had access to a much better vacuum system, which allowed him to get more air out of the bulb. Less air meant less oxygen which meant that the bulb lasted longer. And second, Edison’s team had the resources of Menlo park behind them. Menlo Park was the world’s first industrial research park, built by Edison in order to allow him to invent things more easily. It included some of just about everything from goose feathers to aluminum strips to rubber shoes. It was, to borrow a phrase, “nerdvannah”.

But the greatest resource that Edison and his team had at their disposal was Edison’s willingness to try and fail a thousand times if it meant that they would succeed on the thousand and first. Indeed, Edison’s most famous aphorism puts their work ethic perfectly: “Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” So Edison and his team worked day and night, trying different things for filaments and keeping careful records of how long each lasted, until they finally hit upon the perfect solution. A carbonized (lightly burned) bamboo splinter that was coiled gave off the right amount of light and was able to burn for 1200 hours before it burned out. Even better, the new lightbulb didn’t need the extraordinary levels of power that the metal strips did and was relatively inexpensive to manufacture.

So Edison started up a new company to make lightbulbs and sold them to the customers of his electric company. Within ten years, every city in America used Edison lightbulbs to light up the night, and Edison had gone from very rich to amazingly wealthy.
If you’d like to try your hand at being an inventor, consider going to a Maker Faire:

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