Thomas Edison Lightbulb

Let there be Light!Thomas Edison on Time Magazine

Historians agree that Thomas Edison was not the inventor of the electric light bulb, but he did produce the first commercially viable one. Earlier light bulbs were experimented with as far back as 1802; and there were 23 others who had invented light bulbs, some of whom were still working on them at the time of Edison’s work.

Three factors in combination are generally recognized as contributing to Edison’s success:

  1. A durable incandescent material
  2. Elimination of air from the bulb-a better vacuum
  3. A filament material of high resistance

This is an early sketch from Thomas Edison of his light bulb.


Thomas Edison’s serious incandescent light bulb research began in 1878, filing his first patent later that year…”Improvement In Electric Lights” in October 1878. His experiments involved the fabrication and testing of many different metal filaments, including platinum. Platinum was very difficult to work with, and prone to being weakened by heating and oxygen attack.


In addition, platinum was expensive, and too low in resistance; which would require heavy copper conductors in Edison’s electric distribution system he was designing to supply commercial installations of his bulbs. This system would later become the model for our modern electric utility power distribution system of today.

Edison then resorted to a carbon-based, high-resistance, filament. One year later in October 1879 Edison successfully tested a filament that burned for 13.5 hours. Continuing to improve his design, by November 1879, he filed for a U.S. patent for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected … to platina contact wires”. The filament was made from a piece of carbonized thread.

From coneption to invention, this is one of Thomas Edison's early light bulbs.

By New Year’s he was demonstrating lamps using carbonized cardboard filaments to large crowds at the Menlo Park laboratory. It was not until several months after the patent was granted that Edison and his team discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could last over 1200 hours. A year later, Edison began manufacturing commercial lamps using carbonized Japanese bamboo as filaments.

Throughout his career, Edison worked on many improvements to his signature invention, an invention that literally changed the way we live after dark. Prior to the light bulb, folks burned lamp oils or used manufactured natural gas for illumination, a rather dangerous way to provide illumination. Electric lights became cheap, safe, and convenient to use and the public and commercial concerns installed them in rapidly increasing numbers. The rest is history.

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130 Comments

  1. TommyCord says:

    Other notable Edison inventions are the motion picture camera (movies) and the phonograph (voice recorder).

  2. TommyCord says:

    Edison’s 2nd grade teacher complained to his mother that your boy seems very dim; all he does is sit and look out the window. His mother immediately pulled him out of school and taught him the 3R’s at home.

    He never was very good at math. He famously said, “If I ever need a mathematician, I’ll hire one.”

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  5. KingofThings says:

    Hello! I’m an Edison ‘fan’. I’ve been to ‘Edison’ many times and Menlo Park as well. I was there in Edison for the rededication and lighting of the tower.
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    I have brought him things from the museums.
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  20. Krys says:

    This article is so typical of how people rewrite history…do more, and better research before you make claims that paint a picture of how the lightbulb was improved…Lewis Latimer is not mentioned anywhere in your article. So consistent; since the beginning all white people want to do is lie, cheat, steal, and kill. It’s too much like the right thing to do to give credit where credit is due.

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  22. Bleh says:

    To Krys: Whoa, that’s going a little far. I see your point and I get what you meant, but not all white people “lie, cheat, kill, and steal.” I would never do any of these things, and I am white. Yes, it was dishonest of Thomas Edison to not give more credit, but you might want to be a tad more careful how you word things.

  23. Someone..... says:

    Ummm….
    Wasn’t it Joseph Swan who first invented it, and then Edison made one later on….

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