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A Short History of Electric Light

by Frank Andrews

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio in the United States in 1847. He was an inventor of prodigious output who refined his ideas by meticulous and factory-like experimentation and was an important contributor to the development of electric lighting.

He started his career as a newspaper seller on the Grand Trunk Railway and also worked with his family’s vegetable trading company. Not content with selling other’s newspapers he began to produce his own, the Grand Trunk Herald, printing it in a freight car where he also carried out chemistry experiments. After causing an explosion on one journey and setting fire to the freight car he became persona non grata with the railroad company. He taught himself telegraphy and became an operator, where his active mind led him to invent telegraph repeater in 1863. Bitten by the inventor’s bug he began to produce a whole series of inventions and improvements of existing machinery for telegraphy and printing and was eventually able to open his own factory in Newark. This produced various items for the electrical, telegraphic and printing trades.

By 1876 his health had deteriorated from overwork and he reduced his manufacturing involvement so that he could continue devoting his energies to invention. In addition to his work with the light bulb he is credited with inventing the quadruplex and sextuplex telegraph, the Fire Alarm, Electric. electric fire alarm, the phonograph, the megaphone, the carbon telephone transmitter and the ‘Edison Electric Railway’. His improvements to the primitive cinematograph made it a practical proposition. The list of his patents would easily fill this book, by the time of his death he had been granted over 25,000 patents half of which were American.

While visiting the electrical workshops of Mr William Wallace at Ansonia, Connecticut USA, in 1878 he became aware of the desirability of developing a practical incandescent lamp. Following the lead of others he began working with platinum conductors. He designed a platinum wire lamp that overcame the breaking problem of the hot wire by short circuiting itself when it began to stretch. His announcement of this lamp, in October 1878, caused a world-wide slump in the value of gas company shares. The design was not practical as with each use the wire would be stretched by a small amount requiring frequent adjustment of the contact. When details of the design leaked out it was recognised as being similar to that of a Dr J. W. Draper in 1847 and to the one being developed by Hiram Stephen Maxim. In the legal battle for the Patent that followed Edison finally lost to Maxim. A Mr Moses G. Farmer had illuminated his house in Salem, Mass., with self regulating platinum lamps in 1858. Not to be perturbed Edison continued with platinum and had produced several different versions by December 1879 while at the same time he began experimenting with carbonised fibres. One of his first successful carbonised paper lamps was quite tall, with a round top on a long column, the whole being fixed to a wooden base with screw terminals. The in leads were platinum with small platinum clips to attach the horseshoe shaped element, the bulb was evacuated and sealed at the base. He realised that carbonised paper was not the best material for the elements and began experimenting with many different materials. A carbonised cotton filament made on the 19th of October 1879 broke after two days running. The lamp that he demonstrated publicly on the 31st December 1879 had its filament made from a carbonised high quality paper, and it was this lamp which he began to manufacture in 1880 with a company called the Edison Lamp Company. Continuing his experiments with different materials he found bamboo suitable. He obtained 16,000 samples of various species and set them glowing in bulbs until he had found the most suitable one. Edison continued to use these bamboo fibres up until 1894 when he switched to Swan’s Filament;Tamodine. Tamodine.

In May 1880 the first commercial installation of Edison’s ‘Glow Lamps’ was carried out on the ship S.S. Columbia. In New York where he was based, power stations began to be installed, the first of which started generating electricity in 1882. The first of his bulbs were fitted on to a wooden platform and were used on table tops. The first bulbs without a base were connected by hooking the power leads to the platinum loops where they left the bulb. He introduced the screw thread base in 1880, now still bearing his name as the ES (Edison Screw) cap bulb, although his first ES cap was not as deep as the present standard. This type of base is more common in Europe than in England where it was felt that the bayonet was a more secure fitting.

He died on the 17th October 1931. General Electric produced a reproduction bulb to commemorate the centenary of his first lamp. The packaging is undated but refers to 1878 dollars implying a slightly early date. The bulb is fitted into a plastic stand and has the appearance of typical carbon lamps of about 1890. The box printed in blue and brown in antique style has the title ‘ EDISON MAZDA LAMPS’.

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