Myths and facts about Thomas Edison and the incandescent lamp

It is generally accepted that Thomas Edison was a poorly educated person, a talented self-taught person, poorly versed in theory and preferring to use intuition and trial and error in his work. However, published in the United States in the early 90s, the 1st volume of the collected works of "The Papers of Thomas Alva Edison" refutes the established opinion. The published documents convincingly demonstrate the inventor's deep knowledge of the scientific literature of the time. By the way, Edison himself published several articles in technical journals.

It was his acquaintance with technical literature that helped him improve (and not invent, as many people think) the electric incandescent lamp. But first things first.

Even at the very beginning of the 19th century, the Russian scientist Vasily Petrov, who was the first to describe in his diary an amazing phenomenon – an electric discharge, suggested that in the future it could be used in some way. In 1813, the "voltaic arc" was discovered. And in 1876, the famous Russian physicist Yablochkov demonstrated a powerful electric light source, equal in radiation strength to 6000 candles. In the world, the invention became known as the invention of a Russian scientist called "Yablochkov's candles." "Russian Light" was successfully used to illuminate the evening streets and squares in front of theaters. At that time, one could read in the French newspapers: "The Russian physicist left all Parisian lamplighters without work."

But the "Yablochkov candles" had one significant drawback – due to too much power and bulky design, they could not be used to illuminate the house.

Around the same time, the physicist-inventor Alexander Ladygin announced his invention. In 1873, he invented a device where, under a glass vacuum cap, when the current was turned on between two electrodes, a piece of coal shone. Before the creation of a modern light bulb, there was only one step left.

And he was done. In 1880, the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison received a patent for an electric incandescent lamp.

Myths and facts about Thomas Edison and the incandescent lamp

Thomas Edison at 35 (1882) |

However, he was not the first to patent the modern version of the incandescent lamp. 10 months before him, the English inventor Joseph Swan demonstrated the same lamp in Newcastle. And Swan received a patent for the invention a year earlier than Edison.

There is no doubt now that Thomas read an article in Scientific American about Swan's work with incandescent lamps. And since Swann's invention was imperfect, he was able to improve its design.

A little time passed, and this invention began to bring a lot of money to Edison, which quite naturally outraged Swann, and he sued the American inventor.

Thomas Edison was found guilty of copyright infringement by the UK courts. By court order, he was ordered to make Swan a partner, which was done, and Edison's company in Britain became known as the Edison and Swan United Electric Company (Edison later bought Swann's share in the company).

But the troubles didn't end there. His predecessor was also found in the USA. On October 8, 1883, the US Patent Office ruled that Thomas Edison's designs were based on the inventions of a certain William Sauer, and Edison's patents were invalidated.

Why is he considered the inventor of the incandescent lamp? This is explained by the fact that he owned an energy company (which would later become General Electric) and created the New York power system. In addition, he continued to improve the invention, and if at the beginning the light bulbs burned out after 150 hours of operation, then later Edison came up with a lamp that worked for 1200 hours.

Myths and facts about Thomas Edison and the incandescent lamp

Thus, it is erroneous to consider only Edison as the creator of the incandescent lamp, since his electric incandescent lamp was only a refinement of the incandescent lamp variants of other scientists.

The honor of the invention also belongs to the German inventor Heinrich Goebel – he was the first who guessed to pump air out of a glass lamp bulb. And the Russian inventor Alexander Nikolaevich Lodygin was the first to propose making an incandescent filament not from coal or charred fibers, but from refractory tungsten.

But it was Edison who came up with the modern shape of the lamp, a screw base with a cartridge, a plug, a socket, and fuses. He did a lot for the mass application of electric lighting.

Interesting fact

The American inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison, who received 1093 patents in the United States and about 3000 in other countries of the world, is the creator of the phonograph, he improved the telegraph, telephone, film equipment, and developed one of the first commercially successful versions of the electric incandescent lamp.

Edison was remarkable for his amazing determination and hard work. When he was looking for a suitable material for the filament of an electric lamp, he went through about 6000 material samples until he settled on carbonized bamboo. Testing the characteristics of the carbon circuit of the lamp, he spent about 45 hours in the laboratory without rest. Right up to his very old age, he worked 16-19 hours a day.

"Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration" – Thomas Edison

Myths and facts about Thomas Edison and the incandescent lamp

Thomas Edison at 75 (1922) |

Nikola Tesla spoke of his colleague as follows:

“If Edison needed to find a needle in a haystack, he would not waste time trying to determine the most likely location of it. He would immediately, with the feverish diligence of a bee, examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. His methods are extremely inefficient: he can expend an enormous amount of time and energy and achieve nothing unless a fluke helps him. At first, I watched his activities with sadness, realizing that a little theoretical knowledge and calculations would save him 30% of his work. But he had a genuine contempt for book education and mathematical knowledge, trusting entirely his instinct as an inventor and the common sense of an American.”


Thomas Edison's work with Nikola Tesla

In 1884, Edison hired a young Serbian engineer, Nikola Tesla, to repair electric motors and DC generators. Tesla proposed to use alternating current for generators and power plants. Edison rather coldly perceived Tesla's new ideas, disputes constantly arose.

Tesla claims that in the spring of 1885, Edison promised him $50,000 (at that time, an amount roughly equivalent to $1 million today) if he could constructively improve Edison's DC electric machines. Nicola set to work actively and soon introduced 24 variations of the Edison AC machine, a new commutator and regulator that greatly improved performance.

Having approved all the improvements, in response to a question about remuneration, Edison refused Tesla, saying that the emigrant still does not understand American humor well. Insulted, Tesla immediately resigned. A couple of years later, Tesla opened his own "Tesla Electric Light Company" next door to Edison. After that, Edison launched a widespread information campaign against alternating current, arguing that the high voltage used in alternating current systems is dangerous.

Nikola Tesla in a laboratory in Colorado Springs

Nikola Tesla in a laboratory in Colorado Springs (USA). Early 1900s |


War of currents | Which current is better: direct or alternating?

Unlike Edison, who proved to be a tireless experimenter and a skilled businessman, AC fans relied on mathematics and the laws of physics. After reviewing Edison's patent, American entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse discovered the weak link in his system – large power losses in conductors when transmitting electrical energy over long distances.

As a result, George Westinghouse in 1886 introduced a competing electrical distribution network based on alternating current.

The rejection of direct current led to the financial defeat of Edison, who earned a large part of the funds from patent royalties. Anticipating his defeat, Edison sued for infringement of more than 10 patents, but the court decisions were not in his favor.

The confrontation between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse and his partner Nikola Tesla in the struggle for the use of direct or alternating currents was called the “war of the currents” or the “battle of the currents” (Battle of the currents).

About this large-scale confrontation between the greatest inventors of their generation, the film "War of the Currents" was made. The film was released on September 9, 2017 with the slogan "Who controls the energy controls the future".

As mentioned above, Nikola Tesla, who came to work in Thomas' laboratory, tried to prove that alternating current was transmitted more efficiently for hundreds of kilometers. The future legendary inventor suggested using it for power plants and generators, but did not find support.

This "war" between rival firms Edison Electric Light and Westinghouse Electric Corporation lasted for over 100 years and ended in late November 2007 with the final transition of New York customers from DC to AC.

War of the currents or battle of the currents (Battle of the currents)


Interesting facts about Thomas Edison

  • Edison is credited with inventing the simplest tattoo machine. The reason was the five points on Thomas's left forearm, and then the Stencil-Pens engraving device, patented in 1876. However, Samuel O'Reil is considered the father of the tattoo machine.
  • On the conscience of the inventor is the death of the elephant Topsy. Through the fault of the animal, three people died, so they decided to kill him. Hoping to win the "current war", Edison proposed to execute the elephant with 6000 volt alternating current, and recorded the "performance" on film.
  • In the biography of the American genius, there is a failed project, for the implementation of which they even built an entire plant to extract iron from low-grade ore. Compatriots laughed at the inventor, arguing that it was easier and cheaper to invest in ore deposits. And they were right.
  • In 1911, Edison built an uninhabitable house made of concrete, including window sills and electric pipes. Then he tried himself as a furniture designer, presenting concrete interior items to potential buyers. And failed again.
  • One of the wild ideas was the creation of a helicopter powered by gunpowder. A series of explosions that destroyed part of Edison's factory forced him to stop experimenting.
  • With the invention of a lamp with a long life, Edison did a disservice to mankind – people's sleep was reduced by 2 hours. By the way, with the improvement of the light bulb, the calculations took 40,000 pages of notebooks.
  • The word "hello" that starts a telephone conversation is also Edison's idea. It was this word that Edison proposed to use as a greeting on August 15, 1877, when he wrote a letter to the president of the Pittsburgh Telegraph Company. In this "battle" he was opposed by Alexander Bell, the founder of American telephony, who offered a greeting when talking on the phone with the word "ahoy" (used when meeting ships). But the word "Hullo" (derived from the word "Hello") took root better than we are witnesses.


15 facts about Thomas Edison

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Edison vs Tesla

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Tesla free energy

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