The electric light bulb was invented much earlier than most people realize. That is, if you don't mind a light bulb that burns out in two or three hours. There's a reason most sources qualify Thomas Edison's achievement as the man who invented the first practical, long-lasting light bulb. The idea was more than a half-century old by the time Edison and Joseph Swan (the Briton who invented the carbon filament bulb nearly simultaneously to Edison) made commercially viable designs. As is often the case, the invention everyone remembers only made the leap from theoretical possibility to practical reality because of a much less glamorous invention (and inventor) nobody remembers. You can stop reading at this point if you've heard of Hermann Sprengel.

As early as 1800 scientists working with electricity demonstrated all of the principles necessary to create electric light. Humphry Davy used a platinum filament and a huge amount of current in 1802 to generate a feeble light – not much, but considering Edison and Swan didn't patent their bulbs until 1879 it demonstrates just how old the idea was. In fact, by the 1840s there were any number of patents for incandescent bulbs of varying designs and materials. Of particular interest is the mysterious American John Starr, who patented a bulb in 1845, died immediately of cholera, and disappeared from the historical record. Nothing is known about him and only the diligent archiving of the US Patent Office allows us any evidence that he existed. His design was never exploited commercially.

Part of the problem in developing electric light was obvious – the "electric" part was lacking. Any home that wished to make use of electric appliances prior to 1880 had to build its own electric generator on-site. This is where Edison succeeded, and really truly succeeded, in a way neither Swan nor anyone else did. He didn't just invent a bulb; he convinced Gilded Age New York industrialists to build a power grid across the city. Many people had designs for bulbs but only Edison had a design for how to get light bulbs from patent drawings and laboratories into houses and places of business.

The two major obstacles to the design of the bulb itself, independent of electricity, were the material of the filament and the ability to remove air from the bulb (to extend the life of said filament). Every manner of material on Earth was tried and rejected as a suitable filament once the basic principles and components of incandescent light were understood. Eventually a thin piece of carbon – charred wood shavings, bamboo, or even paper – through which current could flow in a vacuum was identified as the answer (metal filaments of tungsten and tantalum were invented just after 1900 and put the German giant Siemens on the industrial map). But that was all well and good except that nobody could achieve a suitable vacuum during bulb manufacture. Enter Hermann Sprengel.

The German engineer developed a device, universally called the Sprengel Pump, that enabled air pressure to be reduced to less than one-millionth of its atmospheric level. While not a perfect vacuum it was more than close enough to enable the light bulb to make the leap from idea to mass produced reality. Incidentally, the Sprengel Pump relied upon a process involving considerable amounts of mercury, so many early Edison researchers and workers lost teeth, sanity, or central nervous system functioning in service of achieving that elusive vacuum. It is not unfounded to wonder if Edison himself had a touch of the Mad Hatter syndrome, as he worked with the device intimately and was known to be, you know, a dick. But that is merely speculation.

So without Hermann Sprengel there is no light bulb, and without the light bulb there is no Thomas Edison as he is known and revered today. And don't mention Edison around the British. They're still a bit sensitive about Joseph Swan getting the historical shaft.

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19 Responses to “NPF: FIAT LUX”

  1. Misterben Says:

    Really terrific post. Thank you very much.

  2. oiojes Says:

    Most of the 19th century inventors were dicks. Yeah, Tesla was a nice guy who got small time screwed by Edision but that was nothing to what happened to him later from Westinghouse and Morgan.

    I'm more than a little irritated that there has appeared on the web this major Edison/Tesla thing. Their interaction is minor, short termed and didn't much affect Tesla's later inventions. Most of the conflict was between Edison and Westinghouse in the AC/DC wars. But eventually Edison was pushed out and it became the General Electric/Westinghouse Electric Wars over contracts rather than technology.

    The fact the Edison got a bunch of capitalists interested in electrification is a Very Big Deal but Edison gets little credit for it.

  3. sluggo Says:

    Inventor of the power grid seems like a bigger dealo than 'inventor of the light bulb'.

    LED bulbs and solar panels give us an opportunity to get Edison out of our lives. :)

    Great post Ed!

  4. Safety Man! Says:


    To be fair, lots of 21st century inventors/ scientists are still dicks. Interestingly, I have found this to transcend academia, government, and the private sector; Has anyone ever studied it? Correlation with the autism spectrum maybe?

  5. Icarus Says:

    It seems to me that you always hear about some inventor who got screwed by the company they work for. Makes me wonder what innovations aren't being made because some person smart enough to come up with it but not savvy enough to protect themselves simply says "ah why bother?"

  6. Ten Bears Says:

    There is an ample body of evidence indicating the Egyptians, Persians and Sumarians had battery powered incandescent lighting perhaps ten thousand years ago.

  7. chris y Says:

    They're still a bit sensitive about Joseph Swan getting the historical shaft.

    Most British people have never heard of Swan, I promise you. Who they've heard of, apart from Edison, is Tesla.

  8. Robert Says:

    Edison looks to have had some similarities with Jobs – better at figuring out to make an advance into a commercially successful product than discovering the advance himself.

    I think the Edison/Tesla thing is because Edison was ballyhooed for generations as The American Inventor par excellence. Most Americans probably don't realize that Westinghouse was even a person. I'm old enough to remember when even knowing who Tesla was was prima facia nerd cred.

    Regarding the mercury poisoning – isn't it a shame that government regulations have prevented industry from poisoning their workers? Let's roll back the clock and make America great again. Maybe we can even have those cool radium dial watches back.

  9. Scepticus Says:

    Faskinatin'. Thanks Ed.

  10. Jestbill Says:

    @Sluggo: "LED bulbs and solar panels give us an opportunity to get Edison out of our lives. :) "

    LED bulbs and solar panels produce DC. Edison was the DC guy. We're going to get Tesla out of our living rooms and kitchens.
    Our phones and computers and cars will be charged wirelesly (Tesla) tho.

  11. robert e Says:

    I enjoy these enlightening "forgotten history" posts very much.

    @oiojes @Safety Man!:

    I assume you mean that 19th century inventor/entrepreneurs–with the emphasis on the latter–were dicks. Well, it was tough times for entrepreneurs–defending IP was expensive and arbitrary, and often ineffective; patented ideas and products were routinely stolen, and commercial competition was cutthroat and could get violent. I suppose I'm saying that the environment favored dicks, so dicks thrived, and dominate the historial record; the nice guys, we just know less about, mostly. It's a distorted picture, is what I'm saying.

    And maybe it's not so much about the 19th century as that this is always the case when new technologies meet capitalism and open markets.

    By the early 20th century, many of the more successful inventor/entrepreneurs in question decided that there was safety and profit in numbers, and formed cartels and conglomerates to formalize and coordinate their dickage–I mean protect their market dominance–though, naturally, not without some dickishness in the process.

  12. Mo Says:

    Apropos of nothing…unless, of course, "dicks"
    Malheur Patriots Ballad

  13. Skipper Says:

    I think Tesla is remembered most for inventing the electric car.

    And while we're on the subject of cars, the first hybrid automobile was patented in 1906. It took a while to catch on.

  14. Kaleberg Says:

    Mercury is still used in vacuum pumps, but now we realize how dangerous it is, so we take precautions. Even in the 1960s they sold children's toys, like little mazes, that contained mercury, and every so often we discover something new about this wonder element, like that diethyl-mercury can pass through latex gloves and kill you.

    When Edison was selling his company, he started the AC/DC war to maximize the sales price. By emphasizing how safe DC was compared to AC, he figured investors would pay top dollar to get the safer system. The whole campaign ended when the deal closed. Parts of New York City still had DC power into the 1940s which drove up appliance prices. You wanted your radio or whatnot to work even if you moved. San Francisco still had commercial DC users until maybe five years ago when the power company gave all their DC customers converters and pulled the DC system.

    Tesla had some very good ideas, but he was pretty weird-ass. He was brilliant, but flaky. He had some bizarre diet that he was sure would let him live to 100. He did have some interesting ideas about wireless power distribution, but its not clear how that would have interacted with the up and coming radio age, assuming he could get it to work.

  15. Montrealdude Says:

    @Ten Bears
    God I hope that was satire….

  16. Rich Webb Says:

    Yep, I had one (or several) of those mercury mazes. Often used on long family car trips to keep the kids (me + sibling) amused.

    And of course, eventually we got bored and had to break the plastic maze open to play with the mercury. I still remember that distinctive smell.

    Between that and playing with molten lead to make little castings, I am honestly amazed I'm as coherent as I am.

    Sometimes wonder "what if," if I hadn't been exposed to all that stuff. On the other hand, I'm not so far around the bend that I vote Republican, so there is that.

  17. schmitt trigger Says:

    Inventing a gadget or new technology is indeed a big thing.

    But an even larger thing is to move it away from the lab, and invent the necessary processes, materials and machines to mass produce it in the millions at a few pennies each.

  18. Sluggo Says:

    Good point. I just want a lower electric bill.

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