Who invented the lightbulb?

Lets get one thing straight. Thomas Alva Edison did not invent the lightbulb.

This story requires context:

  • In 600AD the greek writer Thales of Miletus started writing about Electricity. Mostly this was all about rubbing Amber together and noticing static charge
  • In 1760 French physicist Charles-Augustin Coulomb starts actually making sense of electricity.
  • In 1779 Alessandro Volta builds the first true battery.
  • In the late 1700s and early 1800s every scientist, tinkerer and hacker is playing with electricity.
  • 30 years later, in 1809, Humphry Davy builds the first true electric lamp. This is 38 years before Edison is even born.
  • 50 years later, in 1860, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan builds an electric light bulb and starts tinkering with carbon-filament incandescent electric bulbs (The same stuff Edison eventually used).
  • Ten years later in 1877, the American Charles Francis Brush manufactured carbon arcs and was lighting public parks and office blocks.
  • In 1879, three years after Brush already had electric light in office blocks, Thomas Alva Edison discovers that a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb was able to stay glowing for up to 40 hours.
  • Two years later some dude named Lewis Howard Latimer makes a better filament.
  • 20 years later another guy called Willis R. Whitney invents a process to stop the globe getting dimmer as it got older
  • Seven years later, in 1910, a guy called William David Coolidge invents a tungsten filament that lasts a lot longer than the carbon ones.
Thomas Alva Edison - Douchebag Extraordinaire

So all that Edison ever “invented” was that a vacuum increased the lifespan of the filament.

So, the next obvious question is, why does everyone think that Edison invented the light bulb? The answer to that question is an interesting one because it has more to do with propaganda than it does to do with invention.

A lightbulb is useless without electricity, Edison knew that… and, like any clever businessman, Edison knew that real inventors are generally very bad at making money out of their inventions because they’re always too busy working on version 2.

Edison realised that the only way to make real money was to get electricity into people’s houses so that you could sell them lightbulbs, and electricity… This was brilliant because it’s the “Give away the razor, sell the razorblades” plan except both lightbulbs and electricity are consumables… so its more like “Give away the connection and sell the lightbulbs and the electricity”. Edison also wasn’t the first person to figure this out, he was just really really good at marketing… Or really really bad at marketing, depending on how you feel about Elephants.

Topsy the Elephant

Another person who realised that Electricity was going to make a lot of money was a rich businessman called Westinghouse. Westinghouse had become friends with an eccentric Yugoslav scientist called Nikola Tesla who had been experimenting with electricity his whole life. When Tesla wasn’t busy building Tesla Coils or trying to harness the power of lightning (or trying to harness energy from outer space, I shit you not) he worked with Westinghouse to build electricity generators and plan electricity distribution systems. Tesla knew more about electricity than pretty much anyone else alive at that point and early on had realised that Alternating Current (AC) was far better at distributing electricity than Direct Current (DC). So Westinghouse and Tesla started generating and distributing power to the rich and famous.

Edison didn’t like this. Not only were Tesla and Westinghouse competitors, but they were also proposing a different, better, system (AC) that Edison knew would eventually win the battle. Edison had managed to market himself as the father of electricity — a magician and folk hero — and he was getting incredibly rich.

Nikola Tesla - True Genius

So Edison did what any self respecting douche-bag marketer would do… he started publicly torturing animals… and filming it. Thomas Alva Edison, the “inventor of the lightbulb” went out into the streets and publicly electrocuted, to death, animals in a bid to show the public that Alternating Current was far too dangerous to be in their homes. And yes, in case you’re wondering, that reference to elephants earlier is because Edison even electrocuted, to death, an adult elephant.

Of course AC isn’t really any more dangerous than DC and Edison knew that… While there are some issues with AC’s 50-60 Hertz frequency being closer to that of your heart, both AC and DC are equally able to kill elephants and small children.

Sadly the public was gullible and Tesla was devastated… He went from being an eccentric socialite magician to being that guy who wants to murder small children and animals. Westinghouse had thicker skin and managed to keep his chin up, but Tesla became a recluse and started working in isolation on increasingly crazier ideas like harnessing power from the stratosphere. Tesla believed that it would be possible to get this power so cheaply that it would become free. Whether Tesla was onto something or whether his eccentric genius mind had finally snapped will never be known… In 1943 he died, alone, drowning in debt, in a hotel room.

Thomas Edison was no doubt a very clever man, but he was also ethically a disgusting person who thought nothing of destroying others to elevate his own fame.


14 thoughts on “Who invented the lightbulb?

  1. Two thoughts:

    1) Maybe his investors and PR people came up with the elephant plan? (-;

    2) The most successful innovators are the creative imitators, the Number Two.

    “That’s a very broad statement, but is it really true? No innovators, without exceptions? How about Edison and the lightbulb and General Electric?

    Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb. That’s an American myth.

    The man who invented the lightbulb was an English physicist. Actually, there were about five or six people working on the lightbulb at the same time.

    Edison invented the electric industry. Edison had foresight – that was Edison’s great strength. While he worked on the lightbulb, he also organized the electric industry. He could string the cables because J. P. Morgan financed him. So that the moment Edison had something that stayed burning for 20 minutes, he could deliver power.”


  2. HI Joe

    Whether it was Edison or his PR people that came up with the elephant plan, Edison was still the ~CEO of the company and still knew all too well that the “show” was a complete sham designed to destroy one man’s reputation.

    There is no doubt that focusing on infrastructure instead of the technology was a genius move. Other scientists continued improving the light bulb and better, more practical, light bulbs meant the value-prop for getting electricity in your house increased. Edison was always more than happy to get you “online”. Edison had his own people also working on improving light bulbs and figuring out new uses for electricity, but it was Coolidge, an independent scientist, who “perfected” the light bulb with his Tungsten filament.

    Interestingly, Edison’s distribution technology was inferior, but his aggressive (douche-bag) marketing techniques and first mover advantage meant that he was able to continue expanding. Westinghouse still made a tidy profit from his portion of the market and got many contracts to do much bigger government jobs. One can only assume that the government scientists had finely tuned douchebag-o-meters.

  3. Tesla also worked on radio technology, and following a patent dispute with Marconi, he was credited for the invention of radio shortly after his death. He was clearly a visionary.

    I agree, Edison was a complete tool.

  4. Hear hear! Lets all agree to fight for truth in history by going up to the first small child we see today and say to them “repeat after me; Thomas Edison was a raging douchebag.”

  5. @Daniel, what exactly are you questioning? You’re welcome to point me at a reliable source that disputes any of the factual statements I’ve made.

  6. I was referring to the 11 (or so) bullet points and subsequent exposition about Edison without mention of any references. I’m not interested in disputing one side or the other, I just want to get all sides of the story from reliable sources. I had previously been told, like many little boys growing up, that Edison was a genius. This article sparked my curiosity and I just want to know what sources form the basis of your argument.

  7. Daniel,

    The BBC, inconjunction with National Geographic, even did a program about the competitive relationship between Edison and Tesla. Edison supporting DC and Tesla supporting AC. Edison’s patended lightbulb was the screw-in type and he stopped Tesla from using it when Tesla won a bid to do the lighting for a fair. Can’t remember the date and place. So Tesla made the byonet type lightbulb.

    You should be able to find this if you just google. BBC and National Geographic has a good track record for their research.

    Here is a good reference for you.


    Hope this helps.


  8. Edison once told my great-grandfather that his gas-regulating valve idea would never work. He since went on to MAKE it work and founded the AGA company, winning the Nobel prize for physics in 1912 in the process.

    I vote for douche-bag.

  9. I’m currently writing about Edison being quite the shady person for an advanced nonfiction writing class. The ultimate goal of the class is publication.

    Oobly, if you wouldn’t mind getting in contact with me so we can talk about your great-grandfather, that would be much appreciated. You (or anyone else with info) can get a hold of me at PotterScott[at]gmail[dot]com. Thanks a lot.

  10. You can argue about whether he contributed to science all you want….he killed innocent and defenseless animals to further his own fame and fortune. Total douche bag.

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