100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Electric Lightbulb
Year of Invention: 1879

What Is It? A device to create light by passing an electric current through a fil-
ament that glows when heated.

Who Invented It? There are two competing claims: Thomas Edison (in Menlo
Park, New Jersey) and Joseph Swan (in London)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Electric light has illuminated the world—literally. Night pictures from space shuttle flights show spider webs of white dots connecting every populated area. The dots are electric lights. We build our buildings, design our communities, and plan our lives around electric light.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

For centuries, humans lived by sunlight and fire light. They adjusted the pattern of their lives to the rhythm of the sun.

Gas lamps were invented in the 1830s. But they were smoky, their light wavered, and gas supplies were irregular at best in most of the United States.

English scientist Humphrey Davy first demonstrated in 1801 that a strip of platinum would glow brightly when an electric current passed through it. But the strips burned out in a few seconds.

Many scientists tried to create a practical lightbulb. Three problems stopped them all. First, no one found a filament that would withstand being heated white hot without disintegrating. Second, their glass bulbs tended to crack from the heat stress. Third, no one could create a vacuum inside the bulb to keep the filament from burning up.


How Was the Electric Lightbulb Invented?

Two men, one working in America, the other in England, independently created electric lightbulbs. Their finished lightbulbs were almost identical. They finished their creations in the same month (October 1879). However, they were unaware of each other’s work.

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