Friday, January 9, 2015

Edison's Light Bulb Turns 139!

By Tiffany Amber Stockton

If time-travel were possible and I could pick a moment, I'd choose Menlo Park, New Jersey, for my destination on New Year's Eve in 1879.

I have always been fascinated when an inventor takes a simple, widely understood principle and, through ingenuity and persistence, creates a practical device. The knowledge that hot materials can produce useful light is as old as the discovery of fire.

In the 19th century, several people considered how this might be done electrically in the home. But it was Thomas Edison who, after more than a year of experimentation, came up with a commercially viable solution. Being a promoter as well as an inventor, he announced this achievement by lighting up his Menlo Park laboratory and adjacent buildings 135 years ago just 9 days past on New Year's Eve. Talk about lighting up the world and finding cause for a party as he rang in the new year!

The world came to see—by carriage, by horseback, and by special trains from New York some 20 miles away. It was a fitting demonstration for the beginning of a new era.

This image is titled "When the World came to Menlo Park" and was published in Menlo Park Reminiscences by Francis Jehl

Edison's light bulb was not a simple invention. The glowing element had to be strong and to glow without burning or breaking. It had to conduct electricity, yet it also had to have a high electrical resistance; this last condition was a critical factor that only Edison, among the early inventors, understood. With a high resistance, heat would build up in the element instead of in the feed wires coming from the distant electric generator. After testing hundreds of materials, he settled on a thin strip—or filament—of carbon.

Image illustrating the patented innovations involved with Edison's lamp and socket. The image is from the National Park Service.

Because carbon would burn if exposed to air, it had to be enclosed in a glass bulb. This meant special procedures for blowing the bulb around the mounted filament and evacuating the air. Small platinum clamps attached the filament to wires coming through the glass. When the glass bulb was mounted in a socket, these wires were connected through a switch to the main electrical supply.
Thomas Edison used this carbon-filament bulb in the first public demonstration of his most famous invention, the first practical electric incandescent lamp, which took place at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory on New Year's Eve, 1879

All of this is apparent when you look carefully at the early light bulbs—including the glass "tip" at the top of the bulb, a remnant of a glass tube that led to a vacuum pump. One from that December 31st event is displayed in the museum's Lighting a Revolution exhibition.

In the exhibition, a sequence of several bulbs show how Edison and his assistants continued to tinker with the invention. By 1881, he had a light bulb you could screw into a socket today—and turn on. All starting from a simple principle that was not so simple in execution.

As Edison is quoted for saying, "I didn't fail. I simply found 1,001 ways that didn't work." Amazing inspiration to anyone wanting to achieve something they've never done before.

No wonder the light bulb has become the symbol of invention.

I had a lot of fun including Mr. Edison as a "cameo" appearance in my novel, Patterns and Progress as well as the book prior to that, Hearts and Harvest, both of them set in Detroit. By that time, Edison and Henry Ford were working together, so I had my main characters cross paths with them briefly. One of the best parts of historical fiction if you ask me. *grins*

Now it's YOUR turn:
  • Have you ever accomplished something you set out to do, only it took a lot longer than you thought, and you'd considered giving up many times, but you didn't? What was it? Can be something you might consider small, but an accomplishment after trying is still an accomplishment to be celebrated! Please share.
  • If you could time travel to one moment in history, not a time period or a year, but a *moment*, what would it be and why?

Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood, when she was accused of having a very active imagination and cited with talking entirely too much. Today, she has honed those childhood skills to become an award-winning author and speaker who has partnered with Nerium International in the anti-aging skin care industry, helping others look younger and live better.

She lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Vaughn Stockton, in Colorado. They have one girl and one boy, an Flat-coated retriever named Roxie and and Australian cattle dog named Timber. She has sold seventeen (17) books so far and is represented by agent Sandra Bishop of the TransAtlantic Agency. You can also find her on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.


  1. Interesting post, Tiffany! My mother tells me that my grandfather knew Thomas Edison, that he sometimes did odd jobs for him. I really need to find out more about that.

    1. Definitely, Rebecca! You might be amazed at the stories you could write about your grandfather and Mr. Edison! Real life converted to historical fiction. :)

  2. Edison's success is a great testimony of perseverance. I'm so glad he continued experimenting until he was successful.

    1. I agree, Vickie. Just think where we might be if he hadn't persevered. Of course, we wouldn't have his amazing quote either to inspire us, but who knows who might have been the inventor of the light bulb if it hadn't been Edison.

  3. What an interesting post, Tiffany!

    This Christmas our pastor of creative arts and his talented wife decorated our trees with white lights. They carried this theme of light to the stage, where they set up several vintage lamps--without shades. I went up to examine the bright lights after the service and was intrigued by the unusual bulbs. They were incandescent, not florescent as we've gone to these days, and had the most interesting filaments. I asked about them and learned that they're called Edison light bulbs and are all the rage these days among interior designers. I love it when an old thing becomes new again. If you haven't seen them, you might want to check them out.

    1. Wow, Keli! That is awesome. I had no idea the incandescent lights were all the rage with interior designers these days, but I agree. It's great to see what's "old" become "new" again. What a fun experience. Would've been great if you had taken a picture. :)