Dan Fletcher: A brief history of the Lightbulb

Roundup: Talking About History

Across Europe, it's just about lights out for the humble incandescent bulb. The European Union began phasing out incandescents on Sept. 1, banning stores from buying new stock. (See the best inventions of all-time.)

It's all part of an effort to drive consumers toward a better bulb: Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) that burn as much as 10 times longer while consuming less than a third of the electricity as incandescents.

At as much as $10 each, CFL bulbs are more expensive, but experts say they pay for themselves in energy savings in just a few months. The European Union is even touting the switch as an economic stimulus, as
experts estimate the swap to CFL will save customers 5 billion Euros annually. Bucks-for-bulbs, anyone?

Though Thomas Edison is usually cited as the father of the light bulb, it's more accurate to give Edison credit as the creator of the first commercially viable light bulb. As early as 1820, inventors were honing in on the principles that would lead to the first electric illumination. An English inventor, Joseph Swan, took their early work and developed the basis of the modern electric light bulb in 1879 — a thin paper or metal filament surrounded by a glass-enclosed vacuum. When electricity runs through the filament, the light bulb glows. Edison refined the design, trying filaments made out of platinum and cotton before eventually settling on carbonized bamboo, capable of burning for more than 1200 hours. With Edison's design — and settlement of a lawsuit with Swan that resulted in the two inventors joining forces in 1883 — electric lighting became viable for the first time.

The development of the light bulb sparked the spread of electric power in America. Edison himself was behind the creation of the first commercial power plant in 1882, and New York City had electricity by 1892. By the late 1930's the Rural Electrification Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, had brought electric lighting into nearly every corner of the country. Development didn't stop on the bulb, either: Researchers have honed Edison and
Swan's design further, refining the filament by using tungsten metal and filling the vacuum with gas, both of which increased the lifespan of a bulb even further. Still, even modern bulbs are inefficient — less than 6% of the energy used by a bulb goes into producing light.
The rest is given off as heat...

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