Great Influencers in Energy: Thomas Edison may not have invented the light bulb; but where would it (or we) be without him.

February 12, 2018





Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. He did, however, patent the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb in 1880. Twenty-three different iterations of the light bulb existed prior to Edison’s, and even after filing his initial patent, Edison and his team were still working on improvements. His pre-occupation was with building a better filament, and after he and his team experimented on upwards of 6,000 plant varieties (obtained from botanist’s collections around the world), he settled on a carbonized bamboo filament that gave his bulbs up to 1,200 hours of use.

Edison didn’t stop there. He proceeded to develop a host of inventions that would make the use of light bulbs practical. He opened Pearl Street Station, the first commercial power station in the U.S., in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. On September 4th, 1882,  he threw the switch and brought light to 25 buildings, including the offices of one of his investors, J.P. Morgan. Pearl Street Station was his proving ground that his electrical system worked and effectively launched the beginnings of New York’s electrical grid. Ever the businessman, Edison needed a way to track his customer’s energy usage and so invented an electrochemical meter which could measure electricity flow over time. All this from one light bulb.

That first ‘flip of the switch’ started a passion for lighting, and we became masters of our environment. One needs only to look around to see its impact. The way we design buildings, the way we light outdoor spaces, and our ability to be productive longer can all be credited to the invention of the commercial light bulb. But so has our demand for electricity as we illuminate the dark.

Time and invention wait for no one, but sometimes they wait for technology and economy.

Fluorescent lighting got its start in Europe during the late 1920’s, and their development quickly sparked interest in the U.S. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, American lighting companies showed off their longer-lasting, energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs. By the mid-1970’s, researchers were trying to improve lighting again. Sylvania engineers started working on ways to miniaturize the fluorescent lamp ballast. While they successfully patented their bulb, they couldn’t feasibly produce it. General Electric figured out how to bend fluorescent tubing to create the first compact fluorescent light (CFL), but they too shelved their design because the investment needed to build equipment capable of mass-producing these lights were too expensive. CLFs made it to market in the 80’s with an average price tag of $25. It wasn’t until the 90’s that CFLs were able to gain a foothold in the marketplace thanks to improvements in performance, efficiency, lifetime, and their price. Today CFLs cost as little as $1.75 per bulb.

Never an industry to sit idle, lighting has recently embraced Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs). They are one of the fastest growing advancements in lighting technology and efficiency. They have also gone retro. Modern Edison bulbs were LED’s answer to vintage reproduction needs. Their unique light-emitting filaments are designed to replicate the same warmth and glow of antique bulbs, and their long, pear-shaped glass design harkens back to a time long past. This throwback look and feel has allowed many theaters to become energy efficient while maintaining a degree of authenticity in not only their architecture but also stage and prop designs. They have also been widely embraced by interior designers and retrophiles alike, proving everything old can be new again. From where he started to where we are now; lighting has come a long way so thank you Mr. Edison. And happy belated birthday.