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A Short History of Electric Light

by Frank Andrews

The Incandescent Lamp, 1800 to 1900

This was the age of the gentleman inventor, some have remained famous but most are forgotten. There were many people experimenting with electricity around the world. Each part of the light bulb probably had a different discoverer and it is difficult to say that any one person invented any one part. As we have seen Swan and Edison made the lightbulb a practical reality but the contributions of the many others were also important.

Michael Faraday was born on the 22nd September 1791, at Newington Butts near London, England. He started his career as an apprentice bookbinder and devoted his spare time to experimenting with electricity and chemistry. After attending a series of lectures by Sir Humphrey Davy he succeeded in becoming the scientist’s assistant at the Royal Institution. In 1833 he was appointed to the Chair of Chemistry at the Royal Institution. It was in this position that he made most of his electrical developments. His discoveries in electro-magnetics have importance here. He was also instrumental in getting government support for methods of power generation using electro-magnetic induction. Experimenting with magnets he discovered that by moving a magnet past a closed circuit a current was induced into the circuit. Likewise if the circuit was moved across the magnetic field it had a current induced into it. By arranging a wire loop to turn past a magnet he was able to produce this current continuously. Not being a mathematician he was unable to deduce the precise nature of his discovery but was in a position to encourage others to take up the study. He died on the 25th August 1867.

The Compagnie De l’Alliance formed by French and English businessmen in 1853 employed M. Nollet (UK) and Joseph Van Malderen of Brussels, Belgium, to develop Faraday’s theories into the first magneto-electric generator of sufficient power to drive a practical electrical lamp. This machine was first built for the electrolysis of water, the gases thus produced being used to produce an intense white light from an incandescent block of lime. (This was known as the ‘Lime Light’ or ‘Drummond Light’and was invented by a Captain Drummond in 1839, the expression ‘being in the limelight’ is now part of the English language, meaning, to be in the public eye.) It was this dynamo with some improvements by Michael Faraday and Frederick H. Holmes that was used by the South Foreland and Dungeness lighthouses in 1858, although arc lamps were installed here by Frenchman Serrin later in the year. The dynamo was installed in a French lighthouse La H?ve near Le Havre in 1863, for construction works at Cherbourg docks and on the ships Lafayette and Jerome Napoleon. The machines were expensive, the one at Dungeness costing nearly ?5,000.

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan attended a demonstration of Electric Lighting by William Edward Staite in Durham in October 1847 at which a Platinum-Iridium filament lamp was demonstrated.

Dr. Werner von Siemens of Berlin devised a simpler and cheaper generator which he called the ‘dynamo’. In 1866 he and several other researchers in Europe added electromagnets in place of the permanent magnet and with the armature developed by the French inventor Th?ophile Gramme they arrived at an efficient dynamo that is the father of the modern machine.

Hiram Stephen Maxim born 1840 in Maine, USA. Before turning his attention to electricity he had invented a self setting mousetrap, gas machines and automatic fire sprinklers. By 1881 he was a wealthy man and moved to Europe where he developed his characteristic ‘M’ shaped filament bulb from carbonised paper. In 1884 at his workshop at 57a Hatton Garden, London, England, he developed the Maxim machine gun for which he probably remains best known. He died in 1916.

William Sawyer and Albon Man of the USA produced a carbonised paper arched filament lamp in 1878, they obtained a patent in the USA in January 1880. Although this lamp was very large and unwieldy it is recognisable as the inspiration for Edisons own lamp which is essentially a simplified and smaller version. They later developed a method of thickening the ends of Tamodine filaments to improve the connection to the in leads.

Sir William Crookes born in 1832, England, developed a filament from animal and vegetable fibres parchmentised in cuprammonic chloride. His bulbs were tall and narrow with straight sides and his filament was ‘M’ shaped like Maxims. He is most remembered for the Crookes Tube, a glass tube containing gas at a very low pressure, which when a high voltage is present on its cathode produced a fluorescent glow. His main contribution to the lightbulb was in the vacuum pumps that he helped Sprengel develop for removing the air from these tubes. Without this development the practical light bulb could not have been developed. In fact many of the tubes he made that contained coils of platinum wire were effectively light bulbs. The shape of his later tubes was that used by Thomas Alva Edison for his first lightbulb.

St. George Lane-Fox of England. Produced a carbon loop filament bulb with the pip near the cap at the base. This was one of the first to have a cap, although he also produced bulbs with top tips, his filament was made from a variety of grass known as French Whisk or Bass Boom. He used a complicated method of connection, the filament was connected to spiralled platinum wires which were fused into glass tubes. The tubes were then filled with mercury and connecting wires inserted, a seal of marine glue followed by Plaster of Paris completed the assembly, which was then fused into the glass bulb. A later version used carbon ferrules with holes drilled for the platinum in leads and filament to replace the spiral of platinum. In 1878 he applied for patents for Platinum-Iridium wire filament lamps. Some of these were filled with inert Nitrogen which was not used in commercial lamps until 1913. The platinum lamps were made in tall straight sided jars and had one or several loops of the wire. Also in 1878 he made a nitrogen filled lamp with a carbon impregnated asbestos wick. Clearly others were very close to Edison and Swan in developing lamps but failed to achieve sufficient success commercially. Very little is known about Lane-Fox although he may be more significant than is realised. He sold the rights to his patents to the Anglo-American Brush Electric Light Corporation and the American parent company. The US Brush Electric Company developed his cap into the modern bayonet cap that became the standard English fitting. Most other countries preferring the Edison screw base.

Walther Hermann Nernst born in Germany in 1864 was a Chemist who formulated the third law of thermodynamics. He was awarded the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1920. His work was mainly concerned with the effect of heat on matter and in this he found various minerals that became incandescent when heated. These materials were first used for gas lamps but he quickly saw the possibility of heating them by electricity. He formed the Nernst Electric Light Co. and produced an iron wire - evacuated bulb lamp in 1897 that heated up an incandescent material, a later version used magnesia rods. The most successful type had a Platinum coil heating element burning in air. The production models were given alphabetic labels, the ‘A’ type has a vertical filament and is made for ½amp and for 1 amp at from 100 to 250 volts. The ‘B’ type was smaller and fitted into an ordinary lampholder, it had a horizontal filament and gave 25 - 32 cp with  amp at 230 volts. The ‘C’ type, also called the ‘Luna’, had a horizontal filament fitted to a white porcelain backplate and finally the ‘D’ type which was an improved and enlarged ‘B’ type giving 75cp. from 110 Watts. In tests the average life was between 1,000 and 1,500 hours per lamp depending on the voltage although practical use suggested a life span closer to 600 hours. These are discussed further in the next chapter. Nernst died in 1941.

Alessandro Cruto was born in Italy on 18th March 1847. He studied chemistry in Turin and became interested in the idea of making diamonds in the laboratory by the crystallisation of carbon. In September 1873 he produced a layer of dense carbon hard enough to scratch glass. But it was not his expected result and he studied the new material for many years. At a conference on electric lighting in May 1879 he realised that his material was suitable for use as a filament in an incandescent lamp. His first lamp had a filament measuring 12 x 3 x 0.52 mm and gave a bright light. But the efficiency of this lamp was low. By September 1881 he had achieved a successful version of this the first synthetic filament. He formed A. Cruto & Company in February 1882 with very limited backing and had to develop all his own manufacturing methods. After seeing a Swan lamp he realised that he had to reduce the surface area of his filament but due to the impurities present found this to be unsuccessful. He then applied his process to platinum wire changing the process to create a chemical bond between the carbon lamination and the platinum. The platinum wire was then evaporated by passing a high current through it. This bulb was successful and fell outside the scope of the Edison-Swan patents. Unfortunately the limited finance he had obtained prevented him competing against the rich Italian Edison Company. Edison had installed a thermo-electric power station in Milan in 1883 and supplied all the bulbs used on the system. The Cruto bulb was exhibited at the Munich exhibition in 1883. Cruto managed to stay in business but only in a limited way and due to management problems he left the company in 1893. At some stage it appears that the Cruto company may have switched to a standard type of filament. Cruto bulbs were sold in France under the name SYSTEME CRUTO. These were fitted with a bayonet cap and had a single horseshoe shaped filament. He died in 1908.

Akesters made a bulb of a complicated shape with a top pip and two pips exiting near the base carrying the conductors. His filament was of carbonised vegetable fibre.

J. W. Starr of the USA and Englishman Augustus King patented an incandescent platinum wire lamp in 1845. This was constructed in a barometer tube and the actual element was a strip or thin plate of carbon held by platinum wire in a partial vacuum. The mercury at the base formed one contact and the base seal. This lamp produced a good intensity of light but was not really satisfactory and eventually abandoned.

In St Petersburg (now Leningrad), Russia, S. W. Konn in 1875, developed incandescent carbon rod lamps with a fair degree of success but could not overcome the brittleness and irregularity problems of the rods.

Werner von Siemens was born on the Lenthe Estate near Hanover in Germany in 1816. In 1834 he joined the army as an officer cadet. For three years he studied Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Ballistics at the Berlin Artillery and Engineering College. He was introduced to the science of Electricity there by Georg Simon Ohm. In 1838 Werner was promoted to Lieutenant. While in prison, for having acted as a second to a duelling friend in 1842, he developed a new electroplating process which he sold to a Jeweller. With this money he was able to continue his studies. After developing an improved form of gun-cotton for his military masters, he became involved with the electric telegraphs in Berlin. In 1847 he formed a partnership with the engineer Johann Georg Halske. The firm Siemens & Halske became internationally known for its telegraphic equipment. In 1849 Werner Siemens resigned his commission in the army. Werner’s brother Carl (1829 - 1906) set up a branch in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) in 1853 and in 1886 the Petersburg Company for Electric Light. Another brother Wilhelm (1823 - 1883), set up the English branch where he invented the open hearth process for steelmaking. Wilhelm was knighted in the UK and changed his name to Sir William Siemens. By now Siemens & Halske were world leaders in telegraphy and electrical cable supplies. They became involved in dynamo development and manufacture of arc lamps. In March 1882 Siemens & Halske of Berlin started to manufacture incandescent lamps under licenses from Sir Joseph Wilson Swan in England. In 1896 Dr. Werner Bolton (1868-1912) joined Siemens as a researcher, he was given the task of finding a rare metal for use as a wire filament in the lightbulb. Austrian, Carl Auer von Welsbach who had been working independently perfected an Osmium filament in 1899 so Bolton diverted to Tantalum. This is discussed in the next chapter. He died in 1892.

Emil Rathenau was born in Germany in 1838. He was a semi-retired businessman but after seeing Edisons lamp at the Paris First World Exhibition of Electrical Engineering in 1881 he realised its potential and set up a power station at Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin to make use of the imported Edison lamps. This dynamo was connected to a steam engine and had a 1,000 Horsepower output. In May 1882 he issued his first complete price list for complete lighting installations. An experimental installation at the Landau Bank in Berlin was a success and the next installation was in Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin. He organised an impressive display with a waterfall made from 10,000 lightbulbs at the Munich Glass Palace in September 1882 and a special train was fitted with bulbs for journeys to Starnberger. King Ludwig was impressed and had Edison lamps installed at the Royal Residence’s theatre. In 1883 he set up the German Edison Company for Applied Electricity (Deutsche Edison Gesellschaft - DEG) in a consortium with German banks and the American and French Edison companies. A contract was made between DEG and Siemens & Halske giving DEG the rights to manufacture and supply all incandescent lamps, fittings, switches, fuses and steam powered power stations in Germany. Siemens & Halske retaining rights on arc lamps, cables and dynamos. In 1884 Rathenau won a court battle to gain the right to centralised power stations and by the end of 1885 had 60 customers in Berlin. DEG was renamed in 1887 to AEG and soon able to rival Siemens & Halske. By 1890 the price of the bulbs was down to 2s each. They had cost ?2 each when first introduced. By this time their growth was rapid and companies were formed abroad, Keys Electric Company, England, and Compagnie Internationale d’Electricit? (CIE) in L?ttich. During 1890/1 AEG produced more than one million bulbs per year. As the Edison patents started to expire they concentrated there efforts more on electric motors and household appliances. They built the first electric boats in 1891. In 1894 they issued a handbook on lighting and power transmission. They took on the production of the Nernst lamp in 1898 and with a Peter Behrens (Industrial Designer) made a major improvement in arc lamp design, the Flamenco Lamp, in 1905. By 1900 AEG had installed 248 power stations in Germany. Rathenau died in 1915.

In America, Yugoslavian born Nikola Tesla (1857-1943) developed a generator using water power in 1881 and began the construction of a major power station at the Niagara Falls. This was converted to AC in 1896. He also made important developments in transformers.

Various styles of bulbs were produced in this period, the most common was capless and had two wire loops extending from the base of the bulb. The bulbs were simply hooked or tied onto the bare conductors. In 1884 a Vitrilite bayonet cap was introduced. In 1890 an earthenware cap was added to give the loops more support. A familiar form of bayonet cap was introduced by Thompson Houston Limited at about the same time. Edison introduced his screw fitting with his bulb but it was not developed into the modern form until 1891. Siemens and Halske’s base had flat metal wings at right angles to the base. By 1890 bulbs were being made in candlepowers of from 3cp to 2,000cp. Life expectancy was erratic but at an average minimum of 400 hours, comparable with modern bulbs, it was not unusual by the end of the century for bulbs to last in excess of 1,000 hours. In mines where bulbs were run slightly low to reduce heat output lifespans of 7,000 hours were common and in some instances up to 26,000 hours. Some of the private companies, notorious for supplying odd voltages, included lightbulbs as part of the electricity supply contract, they would replace the bulbs after approximately 400 hours use. On return to the power station the bulbs would be tested for reduction in light output and if found to be good put back in circulation for another 400 hours.

The Ediswan bulbs of about 1890 came in several shapes and were marked on the sides either EDISWAN or EDISON-SWAN. They were Pear shaped with short lead in wires and a two loop filament connected at each end and by a central loop. Base connections varied, capless with wire loop connections, a brass bayonet collar hollow and having an insulators with terminal pads, the screw thread cap with the thread forming one contact and a central contact. Lamps over 100cp produced too much heat for a collar so large copper lugs were fitted to connect to screw terminals, these lamps were large and the lower part was blown to enable it to fit between support springs on a holder. A focussing bulb was made which had a very small coil element and long fly leads attached for connection. Another type had two filaments attached to ‘Y’ shaped lead-ins this was designed for ship’s masthead lights and intended to give a longer life. The Ediswan DIOPTRIC bulb had a wide band moulded into lots of small prisms for a decorative effect. At this time shades were uncommon and people liked their friends to know if they had electric lighting. A high voltage (160 volts) lamp was produced with two elements connected in series, the element bearing wires were connected to the two in leads via a ceramic cross, which was pear shaped and had a brass bayonet cap.

The earliest lamp holder was for the looped lamps, it had a large spiral spring and two hooks in the centre, to keep the connection in tension and was invented by a C. H. Gimingham. Fires caused by loop lamps just hanging on cable ends were not unknown. Some of the earliest bases for these lamps were wooden and another cause of fires. The Lane-Fox/Brush bayonet fitting was developed to reduce these risks. The fitting for the Edison’s screw thread was bulbous and was originally known as the Acorn Cap and holder on account of the shape. This holder was made from Vulcanite, a hardened form of rubber, but this deteriorated rapidly with the heat so porcelain was adopted. Brass versions of the acorn holder were made incorporating a ‘tap’ switch which looked and operated like the tap on a gas fitting. This type of switch was used until the 1930’s. Early shades were usually clear glass and mainly made as complete bulkhead fittings, their purpose was more to protect the bulb than cosmetic. Table lamps were made from gas and candle lamps but with silk shades to distinguish them from the gas lamps.

British Thomson Houston Ltd. (B.T.H) established in 1884 were an agency for the distribution of the American parents bulbs including MAZDA and other electrical items. They were later absorbed into A.E.I. whose lamp making business was eventually sold to Thorn.

The General Electrical Apparatus Company had an electrical warehouse in the City of London during the 1880’s. It changed its name to the General Electric Company Ltd. in 1899. G.E.C. manufactured and distributed lightbulbs and electrical accessories under several trade names in England after the Ediswan monopoly was broken. Some of the trade names are ROBERTSON, OSRAM, MAGNET & KINGSWAY, the latter being for fittings and wiring systems. G.E.C. also imported bulbs made at a factory in Europe by a Mr C. J. Robertson in 1893 and with the expiration of Edison’s patent erected a purpose built factory at the Brook Green Works, London. This was run by Mr Robertson as The Incandescent Electric Light Company Limited and the bulbs were marked ROBERTSON. In their 1893 catalogue they list Edison Swan lamps at from 3s 9d to 5s each and Miniature lamps of 2 to 8 cp at 8 volts. After the patent expired the Robertson lamps were advertised at from 1s 6d to 2s 6d each. These bulbs were offered on any well known socket and illustrated with three different sockets, B.L. Bottom Loop, E.S. Edison Screw and B.S. Brass Collar (Bayonet). Also mentioned were, S.C. Side Contact and C.C. Central Contact. Extras available were frosting for 3d, staining any colour for 4d, Colouring any tint but Ruby 8d, Ruby 1s 3d and Silvering one side 1s. There are references in some German literature for carbon bulbs to be exported to the UK in several other base types: Berstein, SawyerMan, Techno-Masio and Thomson-Houston.

Ferranti Hammond Electric Light Company owned the Wright & Mackie patent for an incandescent lamp and set up a factory in Bermondsey Street, London, to manufacture them. These bulbs were sold in London for 3s 6d each but the venture was unsuccessful and ceased trading in June 1885 with a heavy financial loss.

Between 1882 and 1899 the British Government passed various acts to control the supply and use of electric power and lighting. The Local Authorities formed an association in 1895, The Incorporated Municipal Supply Association, to help each other develop their local electrical systems. They were successful in affecting the scope of the lighting and power acts for many years to come. From the formation of this association most of their efforts were aimed at encouraging more people to install electric lighting. In 1895 very few power stations in the Britain supplied more than 50,000 lamps, voltages varied greatly mostly in the 100 - 110v range and there was a great mixture of DC and AC of various frequencies. The association recognised the advantages of AC and also of a higher voltage than 100v. To the power distributors it made for a greater range of transmission and cost benefits in using standard power generating equipment. Its disadvantage was that arc lamps worked less efficiently and that single phase electric motors, the simplest design, were not useable. By 1900 the majority of the municipal power companies supplying electricity were using 200 - 250 volts AC but it took more than twenty years before full national standardisation was in effect. The private companies were more resistant to change and parts of London still had DC supplies until the 1950’s.

The earliest power stations opened at Godalming in Surrey, England in 1881, and in Brighton in 1882. The electricity was sold for a staggering 2s. a unit. Needless to say customers were in short supply. In Brighton most of the supply was used in local factories with arc lighting. Swan lightbulbs were installed at the House of Commons in June 1881 and in the same year on the Inman Line ship ‘City of Richmond’ and on HMS Inflexible. An experimental train ran from London to Brighton in 1881 with Swan bulbs powered by batteries. The Savoy Theatre, London, had its stage illuminated by 824 Swan bulbs in 1882. The British Museum, The Royal Academy and the Mansion House all installed Swan lamps in 1882.

Towards the end of the century the consumer had to pay the cost of the wiring to have electric lighting installed. The electricity was charged on a unit basis usually with a discount if used in excess of two hours a day. The cost varied between 2d a unit for street lighting supplies and as much as 7d a unit for private use. Not everyone could afford the installation or wanted to pay if renting on a short lease so free wiring companies, principally The National Electric Wiring Company, provided the wiring. These companies would recoup their cost by charging the power companies 1d per unit passing through these cables. The customers with free wiring did not qualify for any discounts for quantity of electricity used and were a good source of revenue for the power companies. The standard bulb had a power of 8cp but the power companies, aware that the poorer members of the community tended to use their lighting for longer periods of time, promoted lower power 5cp bulbs to increase the numbers of installations. By 1900 many municipal supply companies, who measured their growth in lightbulbs installed were installing 1,000 or more lamps per month. Large towns had many companies supplying electricity and towns of about 40,000 people would be supplied by one company. The Local Authorities would compete with the power companies. Smaller towns could generally only get supplies if the Local Authority decided to take up the powers they had been granted.

Next Chapter - The Incandescent Lamp, 1900-1920

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