light bulb was perhaps the most significant invention since fire; although fire was never truly invented. Nevertheless, the light bulb has impacted our lives on a scale similar to that of when our ancestors first harnessed the flame: it has altered the way people live their lives so drastically that it is difficult to even imagine life in its absence. Thanks to its invention, the night is open to far more activities than the candle or even the lantern could ever have provided. Its likelihood as a fire starter is much less than its predecessors, thus increasing the safety of people and their property. The light bulb has changed the face of travel. It has also greatly increased productivity worldwide. Additionally, the invention of the light bulb proved the value of electricity and suggested that many and far more varied devices could be produced which continue to change the way people work, play, relax, and live to this very day. The light bulb has done far more than just provide the world with a better way to read the evening paper.
Before the light bulb, one of the most viable options for lighting a home was the candle: “Candles, of course, were a big success. They achieved their current form in the seventh century and did the job so well that they were still in widespread use for lighting a century ago.”
One obvious drawback to the candle, however, was that it could not light an entire room. The answer to this came with the lantern; yet this could be expensive and even more dangerous. But the widespread distribution of the light bulb simultaneously solved both of these problems and permitted many more nighttime activities. Reading and writing from electric light proved to be much easier; so accordingly, important work that could previously have only been completed during daylight hours spilled over into the night. Cooking, cleaning, schoolwork, and nighttime recreation all became vastly easier with the advent of the light bulb. Naturally, this is not to say that these activities were impossible without the light bulb, but it did make them simpler, and therefore, they were done more often.
As aforementioned, another change ushered in by the light bulb had to do with its safety. Clearly, the candle — which had an open flame — was a great risk for starting fires. But the lantern had the capacity to do even more damage; it housed fuel in the form of kerosene or whale oil. If spilled, this fuel produced the same result as throwing gasoline on a lighted match: it was a Molotov cocktail disguised as a lamp. This was a major problem, particularly in the United States where a significant portion of the buildings were constructed exclusively out of wood. The light bulb made horrible events like the Great Chicago Fire — which claimed the lives of 300 and left 90 thousand homeless — a greatly reduced threat.
Safety from massive fires was one change that the light bulb helped to bring about.
Additionally, the light bulb is perhaps the sole reason why people are able to travel in cars, boats, and planes at night. In fact, the demand for electric lighting did not come as strongly from the domestic market as it did from steamship travel, where both ships and lighthouses were eager to implement the new technology. “The first test of a lighting system using the light bulb didn’t take place in buildings, but on the steamship Columbia, which carried four generators and 150 lights — and drew crowds wherever it docked in 1880.”
Also, the application of the light bulb to the automobile was almost immediately recognized; some of the first cars designed used variations of Edison’s design for headlights. Presently, the light bulb makes all forms of nighttime travel safer and more commonly used: “We find our way in the dark with flashlights, and we use streetlights, traffic lights, and automobile headlights to get around our neighborhoods.”
Whether traveling by foot, car, sea, or air, the light bulb has become the trusted mode for guiding our paths in the darkness.
By making daytime activities feasible at night, the light bulb can be accredited with helping to bring the industrial age to full keel. Obviously, most factory and office jobs required a substantial amount of light for the workers. By making efficient lighting readily available, work could go on all day and all night. Although not a particularly attractive prospect for workers, this had this effect of nearly doubling productivity in some industries. Naturally, this did not happen immediately; the first light bulbs were not significantly cheaper or superior to traditional lighting from an economic standpoint. “The problem with Edison’s light was that the filament lasted only a short time — a few days at the most. It was very difficult and expensive to keep replacing light bulbs.”
This problem relegated the light bulb to more of a novelty than a necessity for many businesses early in the industrial age. However, by 1910 this had changed, “William Coolidge, working at a research laboratory owned by GE, perfected a revolutionary process for making tungsten ductile, or capable of being drawn into a fine wire. The Coolidge process greatly improved the durability and efficiency of incandescent light bulbs.”
This advance made electric lighting a requirement for businesses and corporations wanting to keep pace with ever-increasing competition. Worldwide productivity soared thanks, in large part, to the development of cost-effective light bulbs that were at once brighter, safer, and cheaper than their traditional counterparts.
Finally, the success of the light bulb proved that electricity was a viable source of energy, and demanded that it be supplied to homes across the planet where it ushered in a great range of further advances. Edison foresaw this and “invented the entire electric power system. Homes in his time did not have power. Without power, the light bulb would have been useless. Edison designed power plants that would generate electricity and send it through wires into homes. He also invented special electrical switches, meters and circuits.”
From this, numerous and diverse electrical devices suddenly became feasible from an inventors standpoint and available for the consumer. “In 1907, for example, the Brooklyn Edison Company built and showed off the ‘house of the future.’ It contained an oven, dishwasher, refrigerator (with built-in icemaker), iron, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and other devices — all powered by electricity.”
Today, these devices are in nearly every home — the future has arrived. Edison was not dreaming; by making electricity the best source for lighting, he also helped bring to fruition many of the other significant inventions of the twentieth century. Perhaps, without the success of the light bulb, we may have never seen the radio, the television, or the computer.
Presently, the light bulb continues to evolve from its original form. Although the incandescent light is still the most common source of lighting in the average household, florescent lights are quickly passing them in efficiency. Furthermore, light-emitting diodes — or LEDs — are emerging as a cheap and impressive form of lighting:
‘LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are small semiconductor devices that convert electrical energy directly into visible light. Claims from solid state lamp manufacturers include: compact size; long life (up to 100,000 hours); energy savings (can save up to 80% of the energy used by conventional lighting sources); environment friendly (no waste, no mercury); intelligent lighting (electronically micro-controllable); and durable (no glass or filaments).”
Doubtlessly, the invention of the light bulb changed the world in ways that are almost imperceptible to us today, since the invention itself is so widespread and its consequences have reached so far.
1. Bailey, Joseph H. Small Inventions that made a Big Difference. Washington D.C.: the National Geographic Society, 1984.
2. Barr, Vilma. “A Bright Future: Advancements in LED Technology Could Pave the Way for the Next Evolution in Lighting.” Display and Design Ideas 1 March 2004.
3. Chicago Public Library. http://www.chipublib.org/004chicago/timeline/greatfire.html, 2004.
4. Langone, John. How Things Work. Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 1999.
5. Norman, Winifred Latimer and Lily Paterson. Lewis Latimer. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
6. Travers, Bridget. World of Invention. Detroit: 1994.
7. Wallace, Joseph. The Lightbulb. New Canaan: Commonplace Publishing, 1999.
Wallace, Joseph. The Lightbulb. New Canaan: Commonplace Publishing, 1999. Page 9.
Chicago Public Library. http://www.chipublib.org/004chicago/timeline/greatfire.html, 2004.
See above, no. 1. Page 59.
Langone, John. How Things Work. Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 1999. Page 32.
Norman, Winifred Latimer and Lily Paterson. Lewis Latimer. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994. Page 51.
Travers, Bridget. World of Invention. Detroit: 1994. Page 331.
Bailey, Joseph H. Small Inventions that made a Big Difference. Washington D.C.: the National Geographic Society, 1984. Page 74.
See above, no. 1. Page 64.
Barr, Vilma. “A Bright Future: Advancements in LED Technology Could Pave the Way for the Next Evolution in Lighting.” Display and Design Ideas 1 March 2004.
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