The history of the light bulb

27th May 2014
The history of the light bulb

We take it for granted that, when it's dark outside, all we need to do is switch on a light and we can continue life as normal, whether it's watching TV, reading a book or simply chatting to a friend.

However, it has not always been this simple and we're fortunate to live in an age where the light situation outside doesn't dictate what we're able to do. 

Inventors have come a long way over the centuries to provide us with the LED bulbs we are currently using. Here is a brief look at what has happened to enable us to have these energy-efficient lights. 

The first sources of light

Our journey begins a very long time ago in approximately 70,000 BC. It is believed the first lamp was invented around this time, in the form of a hollow rock or shell. These were stuffed with moss that had been drenched with animal fat, and were then set on fire. 

Around 40,000 BC, the concept of oil lamps came into being, while in 30,000 BC, candles began to emerge and helped to light up dark interiors. 

Key advances

In the 1780s, Swiss chemist Aime Argand is generally believed to have come up with the concept of using an oil lamp with a hollow, circular wick, which was enveloped by a glass chimney. 

This meant the draft was directed over the flame, causing the light to be brighter and the lamp safer to transport or carry.

While this was a notable improvement, certain forward-thinking inventors such as William Murdoch began experimenting with the idea of gas lamps in the late 18th century. 

Mr Murdoch worked with different flammable gases to see which would be most suited for the purpose of lighting and discovered coal gas best fit this criteria, as it produced the brightest flame.

He decided to see if it would work by using his own house in Redruth, Cornwall as a testing ground. Thankfully it did, and 1792 is regarded as the year in which gas was first commercially used for the means of lighting. 

This use of coal became more widespread and Mr Murdoch famously enabled the exterior of the Soho Foundry to be illuminated in 1802, thanks to his discovery. Streets were able to be lit up thanks to this creation, which helped to reduce crime rates. However, gas lamps did have their disadvantages. 

As there were no laws in existence to control how infrastructure was made and regulated, leaking pipes, fires, explosions and suffocations were an issue, which wasn't resolved until electricity came on the scene. 

The electric light bulb

British inventor Sir Humphrey Davis was instrumental in the creation of electric light bulbs.

At the turn of the 19th century, he made an early edition of what is now known as an incandescent lamp. To do this, he connected a filament made from platinum strip and connected it to a battery. 

An electric current ran through this filament and it started giving off light. This then paved the way for many inventors to continue with this method of working. 

The most notable people to make contributions were Thomas Edison and Sir Joseph Swann. While one or both of them are generally credited with inventing the electric light bulb, in fact they made contributions based on other inventors' discoveries. 

Both individuals worked on improving the filament inside and decided on a carbon one, as opposed to the platinum that Sir Humphrey had used. 

However, it was the discovery that using bamboo in this carbon filament that really boosted Edison's profile, as the light was able to boast a 1,200 hour lifespan.  

A focus on efficiency

While the carbon filament bulb was certainly a major breakthrough, scientists were keen to continue exploring and see whether or not they could create something even more efficient.

Tungsten began to be used as the filament in the early 1900s and this soon became the industry standard, as it boasted higher rates of efficiency than a carbon one, while they were also brighter.

A key breakthrough in efficient light bulbs was the discovery of light emitting diodes (LEDs). This is an electric component that emits light, whenever it's connected to a direct current. 

Nick Holonyak Jr is often credited with being a major force in this revolution. In 1962, he developed the first LED that gave off red light in the visible part of the frequency. 

From that moment on, additional discoveries started to emerge and, as of today, we now have a vast range of such light bulbs at our disposal.

The reason they are at the cutting edge of technology is because not only do they provide a bright light, they are by far the most energy-efficient form of lighting available at the moment.

LEDs can offer energy savings of up to 85 per cent, while they last for considerably longer than their counterparts. While they are sometimes a little more expensive initially, it is a worthwhile investment as they do not need to be replaced as frequently as others.

While we are enjoying the benefits of such energy-efficient lighting currently, only time will tell what advances will be made in this area of science to enable even greater inventions in the future. 

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