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A Short History of Electric Light

by Frank Andrews


The term ‘electrical’ was first applied to the effect of rubbing amber and picking up pieces of paper with it in 1600 by Dr William Gilbert. It was Dr Gilbert’s paper that gave birth to the study of electricity as a science. It took two hundred years for light to be included in this study. Italian Luigi Galvani was the first to record the phenomena of a primitive battery or pile and in 1796 Count Alessandro Volta developed the Voltaic cell. One of its first demonstrations was the arc produced when holding two carbon rods close together while connected to a battery of some forty or fifty of these cells.

The electric light bulb is something that is taken very much for granted in modern life. While I was researching the history of electricity and its use in the home, most of those to whom I mentioned it assumed that the light bulb had appeared just before the First World War. In fact electric light was first seen publicly in 1808 at a demonstration of the arc lamp by Sir Humphrey Davy. In his research between 1802 and 1808 he also discovered that an electric current could be used to bring a strip of metal to incandescence but with inefficient power supplies he concentrated his efforts on the carbon arc lamp. It could not produce a form of lighting that would be economical or practical in the home, as the banks of batteries needed were very expensive and the light extremely bright. The discovery of Electro-magnetic induction in 1831 by Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry, independently in America, led to the development of cheaper methods of producing electricity. This was first put to use in the South Foreland lighthouse on the 8th December 1858 using a French, Compagnie de l’Alliance dynamo to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen which was used to produce light by heating a block of limestone to incandescence. A storage battery was invented by Sinsteden in 1854. Developments of the dynamo were made by Gramme, Siemens, Wilde, Varley, Wheatstone and Farmer in various countries around 1866. These made cheaper electricity generation possible. The main lighting use of electricity was still for Arc lamps and these were used for street lighting and in some large buildings. The incandescent lamp, heating a conductor to near its melting point, was recognised as being the way forward for a practical domestic lamp. This being what we buy with our groceries, we curse when it goes out and ignore it the rest of the time.

The commercial potential of electricity and lighting was first recognised by French businessmen who took the lead in marketing it but the development of arc and incandescent lighting was a truly international effort. The first filaments were of Platinum and Iridium, both of these metals having very high melting points. Frenchman Louis Jacques de Thenard, in 1801, is unreliably reputed to have discovered that a strip of metal could be brought to incandescence by passing a current through it. Sir Humphrey Davy showed that platinum was the most suitable material then available in about 1805. In Switzerland, during 1820, August de la Rive used a platinum wire coil in a partly evacuated glass tube. In Belgium in 1838 Jobard showed that a carbon rod burnt longer in an air free environment. In 1840 Warren De La Rue showed that any air present in a platinum lamp would prevent its practical use. William Grove made a lamp with a coiled platinum filament to show the efficiency of his battery. In America a patent by Englishman W. E. Staite in 1848 was granted for horseshoe shaped Iridium filaments. Another American, Dr J. W. Draper, produced a platinum wire lamp in 1846 which was virtually copied for Edison’s first platinum lamp and by Hiram Maxim, of machine gun fame, who beat both of them to the patent in 1879. However Moses G. Farmer of Salem, Mass. USA, who produced an important dynamo design, had lit a room in his house with similar lamps as early as 1858 for a period of several months. This is probably the first case of domestic electric incandescent lighting. A German clock maker Heinrich Göebel emigrated to America in 1848 and was probably the first person to make and use incandescent carbon filament electric light bulbs in 1854. He earned his living by travelling around in a wagon selling looks through his astronomic telescope. To attract the customers he illuminated his wagon and later his Newark jewellery shop window with battery powered bulbs which he had made from eau-de-cologne bottles with bamboo strip filaments in a partial vacuum. His precedence over Edison was recognised by the courts in 1893. An open filament lamp by de Changy was used in some mines in France during 1856. In Russia the harbour at St. Petersburg was lit, in 1872, by Lodyguine with about 200 incandescent bulbs. These were made using a carbon block in a glass bulb filled with Nitrogen. But the light bulb was still not a practical or marketable proposition until two men working independently in England and America evolved reliable bulbs that could be mass produced. These were Thomas Edison in America and Joseph Swan in England.

By 1890 the all electric house was a reality, with clocks, sewing machines, phonographs, fans, Electric heating rings, Electric heating controls, burglar alarms, annunciators and doorbells. The last two having been available with battery power for a long time before.

The whole history of the development of electrical power is fascinating. It parallels that of many other areas of technological discovery in the 19th Century. Eccentric and rich inventors, spectacular accidents, battles over patents, the rapid growth and decline of companies, many now household names.

But this book limits itself to the history of the light bulb, the arc lamp and some of the individuals who developed them. It is a brief history and I hope it will encourage others to expand on the areas it skims.

Where prices have been quoted they are in old UK Pounds sterling (£), shillings (s) and pence (d), unless stated otherwise and do not relate to modern values. There were 20 shillings to the pound and 12 pence to the shilling. Where available average wage rates are given for relative comparison.

Ratings given for lamps are given as they were originally quoted, it has not been possible to bring them to a standard. In the 1890’s lamps were usually rated in candle-power (cp.) but this value was derived differently in different countries. For example GEC in 1893 stated that a 16cp 100v (Volt) lamp required a current of from 0.4 to 0.7 ampere at 100 volts and that it used 56 Watts or 3 Watts per candle-power. A life of at least 1,000 hours was given. They state that nearly all European lamps are measured against the Amyl-Acetate Standard candle-power, 14% lower than the English standard Candle-power. Power efficiency was constantly being improved at this time and varied from below 3 Watts per cp. to over 4 Watts per cp. The American company General Electric quote the first bulbs sold as having an output of 1.4 lumens per watt and a 1980 bulb having an output of up to 140 lumens per Watt.

The earliest light bulbs are not very easy to find today. It is quite easy to find bulbs from about 1890 onwards. Many of these old bulbs can still be used but it is recommended that they are only connected to a low voltage. Plugging into a mains light socket will destroy many filaments immediately.

Next Chapter - Sir Joseph Wilson Swan

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