This Day in History: Edison Demonstrates the Light Bulb

By Dennis Behreandt

The now notorious ban of incandescent light bulbs, mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, is about to make 100-watt traditional incandescent bulbs a thing of the past with the ban taking effect beginning January 1, 2012.

Ironically, it was on December 31, 1879 that inventor Thomas Edison gave the first public demonstration of his revolutionary incandescent bulb.

Importantly, Edison wasn’t the first inventor to work on such a lamp. British chemist and inventor Humphrey Davy demonstrated the principle of incandescent lamps as early as 1802 by passing a current through a strip of platinum. But while this set the stage for future development, the Davy lamp was expensive, produced only weak light for a short time, and was not practical.

Following Davy others attempted to tackle the problem with varying success. The first American to have begun work on the incandescent light was John Wellington Starr of Cincinnati, Ohio. Starr filed a patent for his invention but did not live to perfect it and carry it through to commercial applications. He is said to have died as a result of “excitement and overwork of the brain.”

And while Edison may have perfected the incandescent bulb and was awarded patents for it, particularly US Patent 223,898 issued on January 27, 1880, his work was not without controversy.

The day before, on January 26, a letter appeared in the technical literature in the United States from Albon Man, then vice president of the Electro-Dynamic Light Co., complaining that the patent office had ignored prior art in favor of Edison, including some of that held by his company and inventor William Edward Sawyer.

In his letter, Man contended: “Very much … of what Mr. Edison claims … to be his invention was patented … long before Mr. Edison commenced working on electric lighting, and much also has been since patented by us.”

light bulb patents

Man and Sawyer had formed the Electro-Dynamic Light Co. before Edison formed his Electric Light Company, but Edison, according to Charles D. Wrege of Rutgers University and Ronald G. Greenwood of GMI Engineering Institute, had the financial backing of big business.

In their paper [PDF] recounting the history of Sawyer’s work on the incandescent bulb, they recalled:

A special meeting of Electro-Dynamic was held on 15 October 1878 at 3 Nassau Street. At this meeting Man was authorized to exhibit the electric light at any location he might believe proper to procure patents in foreign countries on inventions owned by the company if the expense could be paid from the sale of company stock.

Two days after this meeting, on 17 October 1878, New York lawyers began talking about the formation of the Edison Electric Light Company by Grosvenor P. Lowery, a leading New York lawyer and friend of Edison. In the formation of the company Lowery had secured the financial backing of a number of capitalists including J.P. Morgan. The capital of this new company was $3,000,000 in marked contrast to the little more than $1,000 in cash held by Electro-Dynamic.

Perhaps matters still may have turned out differently, as investors and supporters continued to work with Sawyer even after the prospects for Electro-Dynamic had dimmed. But his behavior, always unstable and mercurial, deteriorated to such a degree that he killed a man in a fit of drunken rage on a public street. He was convicted of the crime the following year. He died suddenly in 1883, shortly before being sentenced to prison for his crime.

Summing up Sawyer’s work, Wrege and Greenwood note: “It is possible that the companies [associated with Sawyer’s work] might have become successful except for the personal behavior of William Edward Sawyer. Sawyer’s drinking and uncontrolled personal behavior continually offered problems….”

Is it any wonder that today we remember Edison and his invention instead of William Edward Sawyer?

Regardless, it was without question Edison’s success, combined with his marketing savvy and his connections that turned the incandescent light bulb on for good in the United States.

Commenting on his ultimate success, he reportedly quipped: “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.”

And in 2012, we also know it only takes one misguided act of Congress to outlaw them.

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Self-Educated American associate editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald. Mr. Behreandt has written hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. His research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.