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Who invented the lightbulb? (theness.com)
73 points by signor_bosco 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

If questions like this become political within a US-specific persepctive, they can have an element of nationalism when considered with a more global perspective.

Many people in the UK know the story of UK-based Joseph Swan developing his own bulb, patenting it, setting up a company and selling it, supplying homes and businesses such as The Savoy, and then a US marketer called Edison later coming along and taking credit for all of these achievements. There are similar stories too, e.g. UK based inventor (James Dewar) inventing the vacuum flask, a foreign company (Thermos) later claiming it as their own. And beyond the UK, most French people will say the Lumière brothers invented cinema, but UK people will point to the Roundhay Garden Scene shown in Leeds several years earler, and of course if you're from the US you'll probably think that was Edison too.

Not trying to take any particular sides, just trying to make a point that your country of origin can have an impact on what you learn (and perhaps also that this article is a little US-focussed).

Of course. For example, everyone knows that Alexander Nikolayevich Lodygin invented and applied for the patent on carbon-filament bulb in 1872, was granted it in 1874 and in that same year founded Electric Lighting Company. Then there were some Tzarist repressions, he emigrated in the US, patented tungsten filament in 1893 (US Patent No. 575,002), sold it to GE, returned to Russia in 1907, in 1917 emigrated to the US again, and died in 1923 in Brooklyn, New York.

Not to mention his other works on other things electrical: motors, welding, ovens and smelting.

Usually who invented something depends on fine distinctions of how you define that thing and just how many obscure things you know of during the time period it was invented.

It's generally "known" that the Altair was the first personal computer. However, from reading Wikipedia, I found that the first microprocessor based PC seems to have been a French system a couple years before the Altair:


On the other hand, relaxing the criteria might mean that wasn't the first either.

The Kenbak-1 didn't have a microprocessor, but was arguably a personal computer:


Perhaps this is a better choice for the first personal computer since it was a little earlier and more ancestral to modern x86, but it was also so expensive that it was not anything an ordinary person could have owned:


Information from:


Bill Bryson's book Made in America, although mainly about language (US v British English), also deals with many false and/or disputed claims about who invented what.

On the language side, it also points out that many "Americanisms", oft-derided by certain sorts of English people, are actually nothing of the sort, but rather original English retained in American usage.

An entertaining and informatie read, in my opinion.

"Soccer" is a good example of an Americanism that's not.

Here in Canada, we're fond of reminding ourselves how Alexander Graham Bell was "Canadian". He was actually a Scottish immigrant, and while he did a lot of his early research and work here, it was when he moved to Boston to become a professor that the bulk of the work was done. From a business point of view, the US was also a larger market. He did come back to Canada in his final years and is buried in Nova Scotia, though.

Same goes for heavier-than-air flight, where many countries have their own aviation pioneers (which they of course like to highlight) who contributed various features until airplanes were finally technologically viable around the time World War I started...

Something similar happened with the discovery of the AIDS virus.

It was entirely discovered by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier in France, when in the US, Robert Gallo of NIH was given all the credit.

well... like the telephone: everyone in italy know that the inventor is not Bell, but Meucci

and everyone in italy know that marconi stole the idea of the radio receiver from bose's coherer?

Who in turn got the idea from David Edward Hughes (and others)

Everything is nationalistic and/or political. Even the ownership of the Mont Blanc's summit is disputed. Frenchs think it is French, italians think it is Italian.

> Not trying to take any particular sides, just trying to make a point that your country of origin can have an impact on what you learn (and perhaps also that this article is a little US-focussed).

That not only applies to location ( nations ) but also time. An example being copernicus. When the catholic church was all powerful and copernicus was "heretical" with his heliocenstrism, the poles rejected him and painted him as a german. When catholic power waned and heliocentrism won over geocentrism, the poles embraced copernicus as their son. So for a time, germans could claim that they invented heliocentrism.

Of course copernicus didn't invent the idea of heliocentrism either.


And it's highly likely aristarchus didn't invent the idea first either.

> perhaps also that this article is a little US-focussed

Most reporting is, since the USA is the biggest cultural exporter out there. It's incredibly difficult to convince people that the prominent US figures aren't always the ones who achieved things because their work is documented better and got more spotlight.

Also, I've actually never heard of the Roundhay Garden Scene and was dead certain that Lumiere brothers originated cinema, so that's a lesson for me.

a more vivid example is when a single inventor is claimed by multiple national propagandas e.g. Sklodowska-Curie was a polish woman living in France who discovered radium and polonium.

The same is true of the game of basketball, which was invented by a Canadian (James Naismith) in Massachusetts in 1891.

Related: the Pleasanton fire department has the oldest still functioning lightbulb. Apparently it was manufactured in the late 1890's, and has been in service with the fire department since 1901.


Not the oldest still functioning light. But the oldest in normal use - there are older bulbs in museums that are turned on for special occasions (by experts doing their best to ensure it won't burn out). This bulb is installed and used as a bulb. (though mostly it is there as a historical element - modern bulbs produce more light and would have replaced it if there wasn't a historical reason to keep it around)

Many vacuum tubes from the 1920s are also still functioning. They end up being one of the most reliable parts of early radios. Transistors from the 50s - 70s meanwhile are having big problems..

Relevant: https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/december/wineburg-histor...

> Wineburg, one of the world's top researchers in the field of history education, raises larger issues about how history should be taught. He says that Zinn's desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.

> Over time, however, a problem emerged as Zinn's book became the single authoritative source of history for so many Americans, Wineburg said. In substituting one buttoned-up interpretation of the past for another, Wineburg finds, A People's History and traditional textbooks are mirror images that relegate students to similar roles as absorbers – not analysts – of information. Wineburg writes that a heavily filtered and weighted interpretation becomes dangerous when "we are talking about how we educate the young, those who do not yet get the interpretive game."

Also, Biden falsely claiming Latimer invented the lightbulb detracts from what is a fascinating story in its own right: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Howard_Latimer.

According to the Wikipedia link, Latimer (together with a J. Nichols) got another patent related to lightbulbs a year before the one that's described in the article:


I really recommend "How Innovation Works" by Matt Ridley to better understand the history of different inventions and innovations. It also dispels the myth of the singular event of invention by a single person. Rather innovation is a process of compilation.

I would like to second - "How Innovation Works" by Matt Ridley is an excellent book. I see the kindle version is £1.99 on amazon.co.uk atm - what a bargain. Most innovations we all enjoy and cherish are a product of long chain of trial and error by different people at different times. Often the theory is understood poorly (if at all) at the time of the invention, and developed after. Luck plays a role in particular person X inventing Y at time Z. But given the number of other people (not-X) that come up with similar invention ~Y at similar time ~Z, looks like Y would have been invented by someone at about time Z.

Thanks. Now purchased.

In addition to Matt Ridley, Stephen Johnson has written several popular books on innovation and "The Wizard of Menlo Park" by Randall Stross is a wonderful book on Thomas Edison.

What I find missing in the original Steven Novella article is the role of the dynamo [1] as an enabling technology for the lightbulb, and indeed, the second industrial revolution:

> Commercial electricity production started in 1870 with the coupling of the dynamo to the hydraulic turbine. The mechanical production of electric power began the Second Industrial Revolution and made possible several inventions using electricity, with the major contributors being Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla. Previously the only way to produce electricity was by chemical reactions or using battery cells, and the only practical use of electricity was for the telegraph.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_generation#History

"Who invented <X>?" is an almost meaningless question. Edison and Swan bear the primary responsibility for producing practical and economical lightbulbs and the electricity distribution systems required for them. But both men were undeniably standing on the shoulders of giants.

The same is true for almost any invention. Most successful inventions aren't created by geniuses out of whole cloth. Rather, inventions are often re-combinations of a variety of pre-existing innovations in a novel way that are practical and efficient. We should give praise to the people who made the litany of small contributions and improvements before the invention, but also recognize that the credited inventor(s) usually made a contribution that was more than the sum of the components.

To use a different example less culturally connected to our time, the ideas of differentiation and integration (they weren't necessarily called this) were fairly well-known before Newton and Leibniz. Those two independently recombined the existing knowledge into a simpler formulation (the fundamental theorems or calculus) and thus get the credit. They made these two concepts highly useful. Yet neither of them could have done his work without thousands of mathematicians who made small mathematical discoveries or inventions in the millennia before them.

Or in another example, Jim Keller recently said that "Moore's Law" is not a result of one set of principles applied repeatedly over the decades, but a result of probably hundreds of individual innovations.[1]

I personally think we should credit teams of people, but perhaps list the inventor who was most successful at producing the technology economically at scale with primary credit.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb2tebYAaOA&t=1805s

Credit where credit is due. The great West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding correctly gave Latimer the credit for the carbon filament. Politicians on the other hand, distort the message.

This article downplays Latimer's contribution, presumably (and ironically) for the same political reasons it derides. Latimer's filament production patent made Edison's lightbulb viable as a mass-produced product. As with Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki, and Hiroshi Amano and their advancements with production of high-brightness blue LEDs, they did not "invent" blue LEDs, nor the numerous products enabled by the existence of blue LEDs. However, their contributions did indeed make the LED revolution possible in a fundamental manner, in the same way that Latimer's contributions (which did not end at the patent but included further research and consultation for fledgling electric lighting projects around the country) made the electric light revolution possible.

The three Japanese men above received many accolades for their work, including a Nobel prize. The crux of the controversy is white America's perennial reluctance to give just due to black innovators. Hyperbole becomes necessary to counteract their reticence. It would obviously be easier to simply be forthright about black contributions, but here we have yet another example of that not happening; characterizing Latimer's work as a "footnote" reeks of the aforementioned reticence.

I gave a talk once at the then brand new science museum at La Vilette in Paris. A slightly chauvinistic pal from England came along and as we walked to the lecture hall he observed, sneeringly, “this is where the French pretend to have invented everything”.

I thought he was being ironic but it turned out he really assumed pretty much everything in the last 500 years or so had been invented in England.

I assume the equivalent belief is probably pretty widespread.

"It was invented by Russian scientist and engineer Aleksandr Lodygin. In 1872 Lodygin submitted application of the patent for his lamp"


Politicians before: "Vote for me, we will do xyz, create a great future and change history!"

Politicians today: "Vote for me, we will do xyz and change history ...books"

"History is more or less bunk." — Our Ford.


(that was 1916. Later, Ford would become more outspoken, leading to current debate as to what degree he sympathised with certain european politicians known for claiming to create a great future and change history.)

The heroes of yore were the ones who wrote history. I'm just an editor.

No one 'writes' history, that's why you need historians, they are the ones that can bring a matter into the right context and research why something was 'written' like it is, like it was a battle of 10000 Horsemen when in fact historians know that a that time in hole Europe maximal 3000 Battle-horses existed.

Well, history surely have a lot of good tools to cross information by now, meanwhile historians are still human beings happening in some specific socio-cultural frame. If you rely on someone else analysis – which is reasonable – being aware of the person profile is as important as the impact of the work on shaping society representations.

I’m pretty sure that GP’s use of “write” was meant as doing things not the literal writing them down.

... History is if anything far less politically influenced today than at any prior point in, er, history. The whole idea that a historian might be appropriately critical of the country in which they live is rather new, as is the idea that a historian shouldn't be in the business of censoring history for a public audience.

A good man knows his limitations...

Invented by Czech inventor Jára Cimrman. Undisputed fact.

Undisputed? I question that.

>While Edison’s contribution to the lightbulb was significant, he did not “invent” the lightbulb. At most he put the last piece into place.....

So he did invent it. Being the first that puts stuff together to get a working result is exactly what everyone means if they say someone invented something. That it builds on existing inventions is the norm.

No, the article makes it clear that he "invented" the first commercially viable light bulb, not the first light bulb, period.

That's what an inventor does. He puts together something functional and usable. If someone tried before with limited success hes not considered the inventor. The plane wasn't invented by the people who died jumping off of things.

No, you're conflating two different things.

The Wright brothers are credited for inventing the airplane based on their first powered flight, even though this plane was in no way commercially viable or even useful. It was only a proof of concept.

Applying the same principle to light bulbs, you'd have to credit someone earlier than Edison. They had working, functional light bulbs, they were just niche.

On that basis, Apple invented the smartphone, and Zoom probably invented video conferencing.

Being the one to make a version of an existing thing that's good enough to actually use regularly, and developing a supporting infrastructure, is important, but isn't really invention.

Obviously not, smartphones existed before Apple made one and video conferencing existed before zoom.

And lightbulbs existed before Edison; that was my point. It's just that for various reasons they weren't that useful for normal people and were mostly only used in niche applications.

Edison (and others; it was pretty regional) convinced consumers they wanted lightbulbs, much as Apple convinced consumers they wanted smartphones and Zoom convinced consumers they wanted VC.

Exactly! General Electric was very much the Apple of the 19th century. Edison's genius was recognizing that he had to create demand for his product. It was not the case of "build it and they will come" - not even with the light bulb! Not only that, but Edison made the light bulb economically viable for everyday use. That's not a small feat! In a similar vein we all know Ford didn't invent the automobile, he was able to mass produce the automobile and make it affordable for everyone. We really need to distinguish between invention and mass production and scaling. Every country likes to claim the former, it was the United States that was really good at the latter - especially from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries.

You could not go an buy a light bulb to put it somewhere where you wanted light. That doesn't mean it didn't exist. It was just not available and the ones that existed probably didn't serve well as a light source. Smartphones however where in stores you could buy them long before Apple made one and they had all the functionality of apples first smartphone.

Eh? Of course you could. It would be inconvenient and expensive and not very good, but they were commercially available.

Seems Edison invented the light bulb in much the same way Steve Jobs invented the modern smartphone.

Both took existing technology, added the missing pieces to make it a wide scale, must have product, created an ecosystem around it, and popularized it to the market, and reaped massive monetary rewards.

As far as the regular person is concerned, calling the person most responsible for the widespread adoption of a technology the “inventor” is probably more right than wrong.

That is entirely counter to the existing meaning of 'invention'.

The person to bring the first mature product to market is if anything, the antithesis of an inventor. Edison and Jobs were astute businessmen, and that is high praise enough. The CEO of Boeing did not invent flight, just because Boeing introduced the first modern airliners as people know it.

We do not need to add more superlatives to people who have already been deified in popular culture. Overloading terms like these, only serves dilutes their meaning, at the detriment of language at large.

> As far as the regular person is concerned, calling the person most responsible for the widespread adoption of a technology the “inventor” is probably more right than wrong.

I really don't see how it would be so. They would be the marketer. Case in point from your example: nobody considers Jobs to invent smartphone, touchscreen, or really any other technological piece. He's credited for the iPhone as a concept that for the first time combined the separate, already existing pieces plus marketing.

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