Whose Electric Bulb Is It Anyway?


Historically, many share with Thomas Alva Edison the glory of having invented the incandescent bulb; however, it is Edison who is mainly credited with the achievement possibly because he was way ahead of his time in patenting his discoveries and related inventions...

- Dr Anindya Sircar

On May 26, 1896, General Electric was one of the original 12 companies listed on the newly formed Dow Jones Industrial Average. Today, after 120 years, it is the only one of the 12 which continues to be listed on the Dow index.

In 1889, Thomas Alva Edison’s business interests in many electricity-related companies included:

  1. Edison Lamp Company, a lamp manufacturer in East Newark, New Jersey;
  2. Edison Machine Works, a manufacturer of dynamos and large electric motors in Schenectady, New York;
  3. Bergmann & Company, a manufacturer of electric lighting fixtures, sockets, and other electric lighting devices; and
  4. Edison Electric Light Company, a patentholding company and financial arm backed by J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family for Edison’s lighting experiments.


In 1889, Drexel, Morgan & Co., a company founded by J.P. Morgan and Anthony J. Drexel, financed Edison’s research and helped in the merger of those companies into one corporation to form Edison General Electric Company, which was incorporated in New York on April 24, 1889. The new company also acquired Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company in the same year. In 1911, General Electric absorbed the National Electric Lamp Association (NELA) into its lighting business. General Electric established its lighting division headquarters at Nela Park in East Cleveland, Ohio, United States.

Business success was primarily the success story of the incandescent electric bulb, and this story had not been as simple as it appears. It is important to understand Edison’s role in the incandescent light bulb as the technology had existed well before he turned his attention to lighting in 1878. It is however believed that in 1747, Giuseppe Ponzelli, an Italian monk, was the first to theorize incandescence. Ebenezer Kinnersley, an American scientist, in 1747 demonstrated heating a wire to incandescence. However, it took well over a century to figure out how to make it safe and commercially feasible by testing numerous combinations of shapes, wires, materials, and enclosures.

Historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel have listed 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison (Edison’s electric light: biography of an invention. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. Pages 115–117, 1986). They concluded that Edison’s version was commercially successful because of a combination of three factors:

  1. an effective incandescent material,
  2. higher vacuum compared to that achieved by others, and
  3. high resistance that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.


In 1801, English chemist Sir Humphry Davy had demonstrated the incandescence of platinum strips heated in open air by electricity, but the strips did not last long. Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp in 1841; he used powdered charcoal heated between two platinum wires. Four years later, John W. Starr, an American, was granted a patent for his incandescent light bulb using carbon filaments, but his invention was never produced commercially.

In 1878, William E. Sawyer and Albion Man received the U.S. patent for “Improvement of Electric Lights.” The lamp consisted of a nitrogen-filled globe with a carbon conductor, supported by large zigzagging radiators. At the same time, a satisfactory carbonfilament bulb was developed independently by English physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan in 1878 and by American inventor Thomas Alva Edison in the following year. By 1880, both had applied for patents for their incandescent lamps, and the ensuing litigation between the two men was resolved by the formation of a joint company in 1883. However, Edison has always received major credit for inventing the light bulb because of his development of power lines and other equipment needed to establish the incandescent lamp in a practical lighting system.

By late 1878, Swan reported success to the Newcastle Chemical Society, and in February 1879, he demonstrated a working lamp during a lecture at Newcastle. Swan had recognized the potential in carbon filaments and protected his method of treating cotton to produce “parchmentized thread” with British Patent 4,933 in November 1880. It was strong enough to win an infringement case against Edison and force a merger of their companies into Edison & Swan United. Strangely enough, Edison is generally credited with inventing the light bulb, outside Britain. Swan did not lose out entirely; however, his patents were strong enough to win in British courts. After another lamp maker lost a patent suit to Swan, the Edison interests decided to negotiate rather than risk losing a suit of their own. In 1883, the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company was established. Known commonly as “Ediswan,” the company sold lamps made with a cellulose filament that Swan had invented in 1881. Edison eventually bought out Swan’s interest.
The year 1878 also saw the creation of the Electro-Dynamic Light Company to exploit patents of inventor William E Sawyer. Sawyer had made important advances in filament testing and found a financial partner to back him. Between 1880 and 1885, both the Electro-Dynamic Light Company and the Edison Electric Light Company were rivals in the marketplace and courtroom. In October 1883, the United States Patent and Trademark Office invalidated Edison patents, ruling that they were based on Sawyer’s prior art. Appeals followed. Finally, an October 1889 judgment validated Edison’s electric light improvement claim for “a filament of carbon of high resistance.” Sawyer’s inventions, patented before and after his death in 1883, ended up as the property of The Westinghouse Electric Company.

George Westinghouse understood the future too, which is how he and Edison ended up as rivals. The rivalry finally ended in the 1890s with the adoption of alternating current to distribute electricity.

What distinguished Edison from other litigants was his foresight that electricity would require an integrated system. Between power generation and street cars, the factory floor and home lighting were complex distribution networks. Edison’s huge R&D program and patenting activities reflected the many opportunities he identified. In 1881, he filed 23 applications on electric lighting inventions. The following year, he filed 87 more covering electric lighting, electric railways, and secondary batteries.

Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans filed a patent in 1874 to protect a design for a lamp consisting of carbon rods mounted in a nitrogen-filled glass cylinder. They had patented it but did not have sufficient money to develop their invention; so, they sold their US Patent 181,613 to Thomas Edison in 1879. They also granted Edison an exclusive license to their equivalent Canadian patent. On November 4, 1879, Edison filed a US patent application for “Electric Lamp.” U.S. Patent No. 223,898 was issued on January 27, 1880.

Historically, there are many others who share, with Swan and Edison, the glory of having invented the incandescent lamp. Materials and scientific knowledge at that time were limited and so was the dissemination of scientific information and accomplishments. There were probably very few inventors as prolific as Edison. By the time he died in 1931, he had been issued more than 1,080 patents, earning fame and fortune as the inventor of the phonograph, motion picture camera, and electric light bulb.

However, it would be appropriate to say that Thomas Alva Edison perfected the electric light bulb and enjoyed its major commercial success, but Humphry Davy invented the light bulb and Joseph Wilson Swan came out with the first commercially usable form.


Disclaimer – The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and are purely informative in nature.

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