The Ode: Incandescent Light Bulbs (1879-2014)

A symbol of innovation goes dark

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burnt-out incandescent lightbulb

The incandescent light bulb was a vacuum-filled glass globe in which an electric current heated a resistive thin strip of material (called a filament) until it glowed, producing light. British chemist Humphrey Davy created the first prototype in 1802 by running electricity through a thin strip of platinum, producing a dull glow. Decades of inquiry followed, by dozens of luminaries, among them Canada’s Henry Woodward. Although this work produced many patents and working lights, these either burned out too quickly, consumed too much energy or cost too much to produce.

It wasn’t until the 1870s that U.S. inventor Thomas Edison devised a commercially viable bulb, which included a bamboo filament and the clever screw-in mount still used today. Crucially, he simultaneously developed mutually supportive inventions such as power generation plants and electric meters, creating a commercial ecosystem that made him fantastically wealthy. “Where this thing is going to stop, Lord only knows,” Edison said in 1879.

Edison’s bulb saw first commercial use in 1880 aboard the steamship Columbia, and lamps were installed at New York City’s Mercantile Safe Deposit Co. later the same year. Cleaner, safer and more convenient than candles, torches, oil lamps and gaslights, the bulb’s widespread adoption was inevitable. Manufacturers like General Electric learned to produce bulbs ever more cheaply, and adopted superior filament materials (notably tantalum and tungsten). Within a quarter century electric lighting had become ubiquitous in modern homes, workplaces and public spaces.

Few aspects of the human experience proved impervious. No longer constrained by a reliance on daylight, industrial plants began operating round-the-clock. Stores remained open after dusk. The bulb proved so stunningly transformative that it remains symbolic of innovation even today.

But 135 years later, we know what Edison could not. New technologies like compact fluorescent lights and light-emitting diodes bested the incandescent’s longevity and efficiency. The price and performance of such alternatives improved during the 2000s, prompting Australia, the EU, the U.S. and Canada to introduce regulations effectively prohibiting incandescent bulbs. New Canadian standards crushed 100- and 75-watt incandescents on Jan. 1, and 60- and 40-watt counterparts will suffer the same fate by the end of the year. This regulatory attack hastened a demise already in progress: GE claimed U.S. demand for incandescents halved in the years leading up to regulatory oblivion. Their last flickers are nonetheless lamented: they were dirt cheap, and their colour reproduction and reassuring glow remains unmatched.

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