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.
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.
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.
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.