History of the light bulb

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So who did invent the light bulb then?

Making light after the sun has set is an age-old problem.

Neanderthal man had his campfire, but it wasn’t terribly portable - tough if he had a sudden urge to go into the back of the cave.

During the Stone Age bowls were filled with animal fat and a crude wick made from twigs, they were portable and were probably thought of a pretty energy efficient form of light bulb.

Then for a few centuries blowing a candle out was the closest we got to a light switch - a lump of wax with a wick running through it was the best it got for a few hundred years.

Fast forward a few centuries and the Vicar of Wakefield, a Reverend Clayton, discovered that if you heated up coal in a closed container it gave off a gas, a century later a Scotsman William Murdoch realised that if you heated the coal in a closed container and piped the gas off it, that gas could be used to do other things.

Within a matter of years the giant Philips and Lee Cotton Mill was open all hours thanks to 1,000 gas lights. Gas lamps were sooty, smelly and gave only moderate amounts of illiumination. There had to be another way.

The first type of electric lighting was the carbon arc lamp demonstrated by the English chemist Humphrey Davy in the nineteenth century (1808). Arc lamps produced a very intense light, suitable for street lighting and other public lighting such as lighthouses but they were unsuitable for domestic use because the light was basically a continuous spark between two carbon rods and needed constant attention from skilled engineers to keep it working and could not be left unattended.

Another English chemist Joseph Wilson Swan carried out the first experiments that led to the development of the incandescent filament lamp or electric light bulb, as we now less formally tend to call them.

The basic principle of the incandescent filament lamp (lets call it a light bulb) is that when electric current is passed through a conductive filament (a fine thread) the filament becomes white hot and glows brightly. Swan began in the mid 1840s and created filaments by baking strips of paper at high temperatures to produce carbon fibre, getting the carbon to burn for a few hours involved glass bottles and cork stoppers and lots of trapped air!

Meanwhile and almost simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic – it is difficult to know who invented what first so eventually they formed a company called Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company in 1883 - a rather intense young man on a mission to make money was pacing up and down his office in Menlo Park in New Jersey experimenting with various types of filament, glass bottles and crude batteries.

He and his assistants tried about 6000 different organic materials including red hair and a tar mixture before finding one which lasted longer than a few hours, a far cry from the thousands ofhours of lighting which we routinely demand from our lightbulbs today.

Of course his name was Thomas Alva Edison and his Eureka! moment was when carbonised sewing cotton mounted on an electrode in a vacuum remained glowing for 45 hours without overheating.

Astute businessman that he was, Edison knew that it was all very well selling lightbulbs, he needed to sell electricity as well!

Many homes had gas pumped into them, very few had electricity as well. The trouble was, Edison was committed to DC – direct current electricity that could only be transmitted for up to half a mile from his power station, so if anybody wanted electric lighting they had to be careful where they lived or build their own power station!

Enter Nikola Tesla a young Croatian electrical engineer who had worked in Paris for the Continental Edison company and had been given an introductory letter to the man himself. Tesla was obsessed by AC currents, basically where the current alternated and he had long felt that Direct current ( DC) commonly used in electricity production, where the direction of the current stays the same was inefficient, as it could not transmit power over long distances. Unfortunately Tesca’s tutors poured scorn on his suggestions pointing out that no one had ever made AC work because of the violent vibrations caused.

Just as he arrived at the Edison headquarters in 65 Fifth Avenue, Edison was sweating about a lighting system which he had built for the SS Oregon, both the main and reserve dynamos had broken down and the ship was waiting to sail, but because the dynamos had been installed when the ship was built they would not go through the hatches and nobody could fix them in situ and the shipping line was losing money every minute she remained in dock. The bright young engineer from Europe quickly stripped down the dynamos, won himself favour with Edison the entrepreneur and won himself a full time job.

However they were to fall out as the AC/DC battle raged on. Another well known light bulb entrepreneur George Westinghouse was also pushing for AC power and there were grisly stories in the press of experiments involving electric chairs and electrocuting animals as both parties tried to show which was the most efficient source. In 1993, however, Tesla’s system was used to light the Chicago Exposition of 1893 which featured hundreds of thousands of these new-fangled light bulbs.

In a few short years Tesla had gone from being penniless off the boat from Paris to one of the greatest engineers in the world, and today there is still a transformer inside every television and radio called the Tesla Coil, which he invented.

The world was becoming a lighter place, and demand was growing.

Inventors were falling over themselves to create new devices for the home and giant electrical companies such as General Electric (GE), Edison, Bell and Westinghouse were releasing huge share issues and making vast profits as the new clean form of power was widely encouraged as an adjunct to gas.

Eight decades of growth later however in the 1970’s governments realised that far too much electricity was being consumed and so energy efficiency became the buzzword and energy efficient light bulbs the norm, with all the main companies (many of whom started off producing electricity) such as General Electric (GE), Crompton, Bell, Osram, Phillips, Sylvania now producing energy saving light bulbs as part of their main ranges.

The new energy efficient systems have slotted in to today’s lifestyle seamlessly. For instance, kitchen lights are usually left on for sustained periods, therefore a low energy light bulb type is required. A popular choice is the fluorescent strip, which is one of the most efficient forms of lighting. In bedrooms there is no need for a strong light but still very important to have energy efficient lighting systems and most people now are switching from incandescent bulbs or fixtures to compact fluorescents and halogens, they are also a good idea for lightbulbs in cupboards or under worktops.

And as if to prove that we have gone full circle from the days when gas lights heated up the house as well as lit up the occasional corner, we now have Full Spectrum Light Bulbs or SAD light bulbs as some call them.

It is acknowledged that most people do not get enough sunlight in the winter, they go to work in the dark and crawl home exhausted in the dark, which of course affects our physical and mental health, but Full Spectrum bulbs, or SAD lights duplicate almost perfectly the light spectrum of natural daylight and its benefits. Full Spectrum light bulbs are also used for heating reptiles or amphibian terrariums.

It seems whatever your penchant there is a light bulb to suit it: if you enjoy painting or close craft work then Craft Lights demonstrate colours as natural as possible (they provide white light like daylight); if you like displaying photographs or paintings there are lights called Crown Silver with a mirror on the top; there are Metal Halide lamps for shop display, aquariums and various other uses; Sunbed tubes; Blacklight blue lights; data projector lamps; painted light bulbs; specialist lamps for theatres; even rugged lamps for working in the garden late at night. Halogen lights for crisp white light; lights for swimming pools; quartz light bulbs; candle and golfball light bulbs; black light bulbs; blue bulbs; pink bulbs; bulbs; hundreds of them and www.jerseylightbulbs.com can supply them all.
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