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Moment of Science: Light Bulb

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” -Thomas Alva Edison
Milan, Ohio's own Thomas Edison is given a lot of credit for inventing the light bulb, but how did it all really happen? Dan Smith has the details.
Published: May. 17, 2022 at 5:42 PM EDT
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Necessity is the mother of invention... and you’ll find perhaps no greater tribute to that notion than at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. Today, we’re stepping inside Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab, flipping the switch on the original bright idea.

*In truth, Edison invented the most practical light source of his day, but he built on the works of those before him. A British chemist, Sir Humphry Davy -- who had already discovered sodium and potassium -- was the first to make an electric battery, connect wires to it, and run the current through two charcoal sticks to create an electric arc. Arc lights would later become popular for streetlamps, but at first, they were much too bright and short-lived for practical indoor use.

*In the decades that followed, nearly 20 inventors made incandescent lamps before Edison did. Some clued in that making those bulbs vacuum-sealed would improve longevity. Others made a coiled filament out of platinum since it has a high melting point. Thomas Edison knew both steps were crucial, and through the late 1870s, he and his associates performed over 1200 experiments in Menlo Park, New Jersey, with thousands of chemical combinations to find that perfect filament.

*1879 was Edison’s banner year. It started with a platinum filament that burned for a few hours. He considered using tungsten, which is the main element used for filaments for the last century or so, but it was a little hard to come by in the 19th century. Later that year, he switched to plant materials like hickory and bamboo... but it was carbonized cotton that glowed for 15 hours on the first try, and much longer in later tries.

*The next year, Edison received his patent for the first commercially-viable lightbulb. In fact, by the time he passed in 1931, he had over 1000 patents to his name, including nearly 200 for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, and 34 for the telephone... but we all know what he’s been really known for, for nearly a century and a half.

*Vacuum sealing, the proper filament, and a sufficient power source: Edison was the first to have all three, but that last one was a source of great debate among his peers. We’ll take a dive into the War of the Currents next week.

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