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In school, I was taught that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. However, the incandescent light bulb story is not as simple as a single page in a grade school textbook. The extended story is filled with much more drama. How did these bulbs rise to prominence and fall from popularity?
Sir Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison, and arguably many others, developed what we now know as incandescent bulbs. Swan lived in England while Edison worked in parallel on similar technology in New York.
According to Science Source, Swan manufactured the first commercial incandescent light bulb in his factory in South Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne in 1881 (https://bit.ly/3frqhnY). An image of the bulb posted on the site details Swan’s success.
“Swan first demonstrated the light bulb at a lecture in 1878, but did not receive a patent until 1880 after improvement to the original lamp,” the site notes. “His house (in Gateshead) was the first in the world to be lit by light bulb, and the world's first electric-light illumination in a public building was for a lecture Swan gave in 1880. In 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London was lit by Swan incandescent light bulbs, the first theatre and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.”
Overlapping Swan’s timeline, Edison developed his own incandescent technology, eventually proving more consistent. His earliest installations were in J. P. Morgan's home and on steamships. While Edison was unquestionably an incredible inventor, a deeper look at his history reveals rivalries with contemporaries such as Hiram S. Maxim and Nikola Tesla.
In simple terms, Edison was very dramatic and often jealous about the science around him. In some ways, he was more talented as a carnival barker for his inventions than the unequivocal lighting genius in this era. Eventually, Edison threatened to sue Swan for patent infringement in the United Kingdom.
In a true reality TV moment, British courts forced Swan and Edison to essentially share the naming rights for the Electric Light Co. that began in London (https://bit.ly/3twJPzB). They became unlikely business partners to bring electricity to the UK. Edison prevailed in the battle of continents in this case but was forced to call the venture Ediswan.
Later in Edison’s career, he rapidly lost ground to the Tesla/Westinghouse strategy to take alternating current (AC) to a wider radius of buildings. Edison’s direct current (DC) technology did not scale as well.
If you are squeamish about violence, skip to the next paragraph. Edison combatted AC expansion the best way he knew how (https://bit.ly/34KD3Md). In theatrical displays, “he organized public electrocutions of stray dogs (purchased for 25 cents each), a circus elephant (Topsy), and a convicted murderer to show how dangerous the alternating current could be.”
Over the decades to follow, the incandescent bulb had an incredible run. Edison’s DC electricity eventually lost the electric grid war, but AC electricity would continue to use incandescent bulbs in homes everywhere. The EPA has a great timeline to show parallel tracks of bulb technologies (https://bit.ly/3nqyyND).
Fluorescent light bulb technology gained traction in the early 1900s and overtook incandescents in the 1950s. While incandescent technology did not die, it began to fade away. In 1962, Nick Holonyak invented the first light-emitting diode (LED) at General Electric. The LED technology ran past the other bulbs in the decades to come.
As the price of LEDs dropped and their increased efficiency was documented, some early adopters shifted their bulb purchases. After more data emerged, the argument shifted to “a lumen is a lumen.” Consumers questioned why they should continue to use incandescent bulbs if they are wasteful compared to LEDs, which light the same space.
As nations took action to reduce the effects of climate change, inefficient bulbs were low-hanging fruit. On Sept. 1, 2012, incandescent light bulbs were banned in Europe to prevent consumer waste of energy resources. While it was met with initial resistance, the policies held and Europe moved forward. However, there was additional drama at this stage.
The lizard people
I wrote this column because I could not get this piece of information out of my mind. When the prospect of banning incandescent bulbs first came up in the UK, there was an unexpected opponent to the switch: lizard people. Not actual lizard/human hybrids; rather, the owners of lizards and other reptiles. Reptiles are cold-blooded, so an incandescent bulb can act as a heat lamp, providing warmth and keeping them happy indoors without sunlight.
There are other ways to keep reptiles warm, but incandescent bulbs were a very cheap way to do it. Classic compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs are not warm enough to meet the needs of reptiles.
With the pending incandescent ban in the UK, actual reptile owners needed a way to acquire different heating sources. Some wanted to avoid paying more for LEDs, claiming they needed to be able to buy incandescents “for their lizards.” I think about this every time I see light bulbs at home improvement stores. If you want to see 138 posts about the UK lizard discussion from 2009, check out this link: https://bit.ly/3A0wLE3
These “lizard people” should pay more for the LEDs to save money. The actual lizard owners should switch their home bulbs, too. They would likely save enough to buy a $14 heat rock to keep the reptiles warm.
The EPA breaks down the ROI (https://bit.ly/3quisVa): “LED bulbs that have earned the Energy Star label use 90 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last up to 25 times longer. This means that families can save [more than] $55 in electricity costs over the life of one of these bulbs, and they can expect it to last [more than] 12 years with typical use, making LED lighting a practical option for all families.”
What has changed in the last few years on the policy side of light bulbs in the United States? In 2007, the Energy Independence Security Act set a higher bar for bulb efficiencies, which excluded the worst-performing incandescents. In 2011, the effort was defunded in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. In 2019, the 2007 energy-efficiency standards were rolled back.
In 2021, the rollercoaster continued; incandescents are on the chopping block again with a new Department of Energy standard to improve efficiencies (https://bit.ly/3K9sSRD).
The life of the incandescent bulb has been turbulent. However, the end of the road may be in sight: The LED bulb is here to stay. There is no need to pretend to be an iguana enthusiast or lava lamp collector to save money by holding onto incandescents.
The ACEEE found (https://bit.ly/3GtrTcF) that “each additional month that light bulb standards are delayed costs consumers nearly $300 million in needless energy bills and causes 800,000 tons of preventable carbon dioxide emissions over the lifetime of the inefficient bulbs sold in that month.”