Thursday, 6 October 2011

The history of electric lighting

you remember my previous rant about ‘Who invented the light bulb?'  The answer, according to google is usually Edison.

During the 19th century 2 types of electric lamps were developed; the incandescent lamp (light created by passing the current through a filament) and the arc lamp (where the light is created by electricity leaping the gap between electrodes). 

Humphry Davy first demonstrated an arc lamp in 1806 but the blinding light was impractical and could not be powered for more than a few minutes.  He was a dazzling speaker and he hosted lectures which became major social events in London.  However, it took quite some time for electricity to become a practical form of lighting.

It was Joseph Swan, an inventor from Sunderland, who developed the first practical lamp and led the way in early electrical lighting.  Swan supplied arc lamps to light the Picture Gallery at Cragside in Northumberland in 1878, the first house to be lit by electricity, and for Mosely Street in Newcastle, the first electrically lit street in 1879. (1879 was, incidentally the year Edison first demonstrated his own lamp in the USA). In 1881 Swan opened Benwell Lamps, the world's first light bulb factory.

So if Edison didn't invent the light bulb, why he is famous for doing so?  Well, true to his American roots, he took it to market!  He successfully registered patents and tried, but failed, to sue Swan, so then took him as a business partner instead.  In 1883 Edison and Swan was formed and created bulbs which were cheaper and lasted longer than anyone else's.  Edison was a highly successful spin doctor and his vision of centralised electricity supply stations was paramount to his success.

Throughout the Victorian era electricity remained extremely expensive leaving gas as the popular choice for most middle-class households.  Wider availability of electricity coincided with the arrival of the Arts and Crafts influence and, from the Edwardian period we begin to see a proliferation of new ‘electroliers' replacing gas fittings (gasoliers).

It is not until after the First World War that electricity found its way into homes on a large scale.  The metal filament lamps had been perfected in 1911 and the Electricity (Supply) Act passed in 1926, led to the establishment of the national grid. We finally had clean, safe lighting at the flick of a switch; no more fumes or bad smells.

So Edison may not have invented the light bulb; Davy can lay rights to that claim.  He didn't even design the first practical light bulb or register the first light bulb patent; that was down to Swan.  What Edison does deserve credit for is making electric lighting available. When he saw he was trailing Swan he cleverly joined forces with him (if you can't beat them, join them!) and developed the supply chain.  He owned a power company, later known as General Electric, and, let's face it, without a source of electricity to light it, a light bulb is just a bulb.

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