Thursday, 8 September 2011

Farewell incandescent light bulb, we shall miss you

As the 60 watt bulb follows its 100 watt cousin into European illegality it's time to say a fond farewell to a light bulb that has kept our houses lit for over120 years. Admittedly the filament went from being carbon to tungsten, but this was a matter of tweaking and subtlety, not a huge change in the design.

If you ask the famous man in the street (that one, standing on the corner) who invented the electric light bulb, he would probably say Thomas Edison, as would many pub quizmasters. But they would be wrong. It's certainly true that in 1879 Edison produced an electric light bulb after much fiddling around with different filaments. And he did claim to be first on the scene, but English scientist Sir Joseph William Swan had demonstrated a bulb, like Edison’s based on a carbon filament, nearly eight months earlier.

Swan, much less of a businessman, hadn’t bothered with the level of patent applications that Edison had. Nor had he the same cutthroat commercial sense. Edison’s reaction to the news of Swan’s invention was to launch a patent infringement prosecution.

Patent law often seems to favor the commercially strong rather than the most original thinker, but in this case Swan’s earlier invention was recognized by the court and Edison failed. As part of the court settlement, Edison was obliged to recognize Swan’s independent and earlier invention and to set up a joint company, the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company, to exploit the incandescent bulb.

Rumbunctious beginnings, then for the humble incandescent light bulb. But still an invention who passing we can mark with a certain sadness.

Picture from Wikipedia

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