The cartoon image of a light bulb, signifying a sudden moment of inspiration, is familiar to many. Yet over the years, light bulb invention and reinvention has been far from the original cartoon bulb appeared in Felix the Cat in the 1920s. The character is a lovable feline, whose name means luck, but it was more than luck that brought about the first commercially available lights, and light bulb invention is key to the story.
The battle between Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan to produce a bulb is well known, but they were actually in pursuit of the commercial lamp. Prior to them, scientists had been working on light bulbs since at least 1802. This race was a drive for commercial bulbs–bright, long lasting sources of light. After many years and a mounting series of patents, Edison filed for his commercial bulb. With a bamboo filament, it was bright, and would last 1200 hours.
Having put such effort into creating the first viable lamps, you might imagine that innovation stopped there–you’d be wrong. As well as constantly adjusting the style of filament bulbs to improve them, scientists were also working on fluorescent lighting. The first is credited to German glassblower Heinrich Geissler, whose bulb only gave off a strong green glow.
Inventors were taken with fluorescents though, and began experimenting. Even Thomas Edison had a look, but it was to be one of his former employees, Daniel McFarlan Moore, who was able to demonstrate usable bulbs in 1895. Moore worked for years improving his design, and ultimately fluorescent lighting was possible by the end of the 1920s. However it was the Second World War, with its demand for 24 hour factory lighting that drove demand for fluorescents.
The most recent stage of development, notable for its energy efficiency, is the production of light emitting diodes (LEDs). These appeared in the 1960s, but their faint red glow was far from saleable. The major breakthrough occurred in 1994–a high brightness blue LED developed by Shuji Nakamura, and for which he received a share of the Nobel Prize in 2014.
Today’s commercially available LED bulbs are the descendants of this high brightness bulb. They have been available since around 2008, and their use has grown rapidly. This most recent stage of light bulb invention has not just yielded low energy consumption–LEDs can have a life of over 100,000 hours. That’s over 80 times longer than Edison’s bamboo filament bulb, so the future is bright!