The Electric Light System

Replica of Thomas Edison's first lightbulb.
Replica of Thomas Edison's first lightbulb.

NPS Photo

Thomas Alva Edison did not invent the first light bulb. Surprised? Even before Edison was born, scientists had experimented with making light bulbs. These bulbs burned out after a few minutes.

What Edison invented was the first incandescent light that was practical, that would light for hours and hours. He and his "muckers" also had to invent hundreds of other parts to make the light bulbs in your home work. Light switches, electric meters, wiring--all these had to be invented too. This took several years of experiments. Ludwig Boehm of Germany carefully blew the glass to make light bulbs. Charles Batchelor of Great Britain tested one thing after another to make the filament, the tiny thread that glows inside a light bulb. Platinum, rubber, even the black soot from kerosene lamps--Batchelor tried thousands of materials. The lights still would not burn long enough.In the fall of 1879, the muckers tested a small cotton thread as a filament. (Some books give the date as October 21, but new research has proven this to be false.) First they carbonized it, burning it to make it hard. They placed it inside the glass, carefully forced the air out with a special vacuum pump and sealed the bulb. All the months of experiments paid off! The bulb burned at least 13 hours. (Some books say it burned even longer.)

Edison and his muckers had a long lasting light bulb. For the next several years the muckers built and tested the different parts of the electric power system. John Kruesi of Switzerland designed the dynamo that generated electric power, the "Long-Waisted Mary Ann." Batchelor found an even better filament than the cotton thread--bamboo from Japan.

In 1882 Edison helped form the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which brought electric light to parts of Manhattan. But progress was slow. Most Americans still lit their homes with gas light and candles for another fifty years. Only in 1925 did half of all homes in the U.S. have electric power.

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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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