The Light Bulb invention spans almost 200 years. It all began in 1809 when Humphrey Davy connected two wires to a battery and used charcoal strips as electrodes in producing light. However, it even started prior to it with the demonstration of heating a wire to incandescence—emitting light due to being heated by Ebenezer Kinnersley in 1761. Subsequent work led to the perfection of the incandescent light bulb by Thomas Alva Edison in 1880. Further to the incandescent light bulb, the invention of fluorescent bulbs is due to the contributions of Heinrich Geissler and others. In pursuit of finding better means, Japanese professors Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura invented LED light bulbs in the 1990s, followed by Nobel Prize-winning in 2014.
Getting light in the darkness is one of the essential jobs that we need to get done. As far as history is concerned, the journey of getting light began by burning fire, followed by oil. For sure, our ancestors got intrigued by the flash of light produced through lightning. Perhaps, it took centuries to get to know the underlying science of the production of light through discharging of clouds. Fortunately, that curiosity led to the invention of means for producing light from electricity more than 200 years ago. It started with an arc lamp. However, due to human beings’ inherent urge to find better means of lighting, the evolution of the light bulb continued. From arc to incandescent lamp—leading to the fluorescent and light-emitting diode (LED)—light bulb invention and its evolution have been an endless journey.
The journey began with Arc lamp:
It is a lamp that produces light by an electric arc. An electric arc (or arc discharge) is an electrical breakdown of a gas. In an arc lamp, such electrical discharge of a gas takes place for a prolonged period, forming light-producing plasma.
The credit for the invention of arc lam went to British chemist Humphrey Davy. In 1809, he connected two wires to a battery and used charcoal strips as electrodes in producing light. This created a sufficiently intense light for illumination. However, this invention was not immediately usable, as it needed a large battery or generator. In addition to the fluctuation of intensity and constant humming noise, the intense heat of the arc also ate away the electrodes until the gap became too great for a spark to jump across. Russian inventor Paul Jablochkoff‘s idea of using two parallel carbon rods lengthened the service life among many other incremental improvements. Subsequently, arc lamps became popular for street lighting despite the need for an army of technicians.
The emergence of light bulb invention as incandescent Lamp:
As arc lamps weren’t practical for indoor use, there was desperation for reinventing alternate light bulbs. As early as 1761, Ebenezer Kinnersley demonstrated heating a wire to incandescence—emitting light due to being heated. Eventually, a long journey culminated into the invention of the incandescence light bulb, using carbon filament. The credit went to Thomas Edison by issuing a patent on January 27, 1880. However, Edison’s carbon filament lamp had a very short working life.
Subsequent development of a tungsten filament lamp, first marketed by the Hungarian company Tungsram in 1904, lasted longer and gave brighter light than the carbon filament. However, a typical incandescent light bulb converts more than 95 percent of the power consumed into heat rather than visible light. In addition to creating discomfort, the use of such an energy-wasting lighting device also causes loading to air conditioners. Nevertheless, Edison’s bulb is the culmination of a long journey of light bulb invention.
For increasing both light output and rated life, the halogen light bulb, a type of incandescent lamp, uses a halogen gas. After a long history, in 1959, General Electric patented a commercially viable halogen lamp. The blackening of the lamp is avoided by halogen gas as it reacts chemically with the evaporated tungsten to prevent it from affixing to the glass. Besides, halogen gas also returns part of evaporated tungsten to the filament, extending the lamp’s rated life.
Light bulb invention evolves to fluorescent lamps:
The urge of reducing energy wastage led to the invention of the fluorescent lamp. It has roots in the invention of gas-discharge lamps. In 1857, a German physicist and glassblower, Heinrich Geissler, demonstrated the principles of electrical glow discharge. The application of a high voltage between the electrodes flows electrical current through the tube. As a result, the dissociation of electrons from the gas molecules, creating ions, and the recombination of the ions with electrons emits light by fluorescence.
Subsequently, by the late 1920s and early 1930s, European researchers were doing experiments with neon tubes coated with phosphors. This material absorbs ultraviolet light and converts the invisible light into useful white light—due to secondary emission. This development led to the fine-tuning and commercialization effort by American firms. By the mid and late 1930s, American lighting companies were demonstrating fluorescent lights. Particularly, the US navy showed strong interest in energy-efficient lighting.
The 1973 oil crisis inspired lighting engineers to develop a fluorescent bulb for residential applications. The development of GE’s technique of bending the fluorescent tube into a spiral shape resulted in the first compact fluorescent light (CFL). However, the need for a highly expensive machine delayed its commercialization. Subsequent development in the 1990s led to affordable, energy-efficient CFL lamps. CFL became a viable alternative option for both renters and homeowners, requiring about 75 percent less energy than incandescents and having a lifetime about 10 times longer.
Light bulb invention reaches to LED the light bulb:
LEDs use a semiconductor junction to convert electricity into light. A surface area of less than 1 square millimeter emits light in a specific direction. As a result, it reduces the need for reflectors and diffusers that can trap light. It’s far more energy-efficient than CFL. Furthermore, LED bulbs last longer than CFL bulbs.
It began the journey due to the work of Nick Holonyak. While working at GE’s lab in 1962, he invented the first visible-spectrum LED in the form of red diodes. Subsequently, Pale yellow and green diodes emerged next. However, despite further advancement, the necessity of producing perfect white light was prevented. This is due to the failure of developing LED in producing perfect blue light. Hence, among others, a Japanese company Nichia sponsored basic research to figure out the root cause and develop an efficient means to overcome it.
Subsequently, by developing an effective means of removing hydrogen from the diode junction, professors Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura made the first blue LEDs in the early 1990s. This development led to the LED light bulb’s highly energy-efficient, long-lasting lighting device. For their remarkable contribution to humanity, those three Japanese professors won Nobel Prize in 2014.
As disruptive innovation example:
This long journey of invention and evolution of the light bulb resulted in disruptive innovation, leading to the migration of businesses between the boundaries of firms and industries. It’s more than a spark in the creative minds. For example, although GE came into existence for the commercialization of Edison’s invention, this company lost the edge of the lighting business to Nichia due to its reinvention as LED. Furthermore, it gives the lesson that a great idea demands a systematic scientific investigation for creating a flow of ideas ferreting out value from the market through progressive diffusion.