• Question: who were the first 3 people to invent the light bulb

    Asked by charlsboswellx on 6 Jan 2015.
    • Photo: Fiona Dickinson

      Fiona Dickinson answered on 6 Jan 2015:

      I don’t know who the first three were exactly (I’m sure you could google that just as well as I can :D) but I know who key players were. Like everything it was not a lone inventor but scientists building on the knowledge of what had gone before.

      Many believe Eddison invented the bulb (which he did not) but what he did do was industrialise science. He filled rooms with people all testing different materials for the filament, different gases or inert atmospheres, even different shapes. This approach of lots of people all working on the same problem is now used in a lot of fields of research (most notably the pharmaceutical industry).

      Humphrey Davy (a massively important scientist) was really interested in what happened when you passed electricity through things (electricity was new and Davy loved it), he discovered quite a few elements (5 or 6) most by passing electricity through them. One of the things he found was that light was emitted from some things when you passed electricity through them, this wasn’t yet a light bulb because the strips quickly melted. He found the light could last longer if there was a gap in the circuit (this is a different type of very bright light called an arc lamp which I still use in my research).

      Thomas Swan is another person credited with inventing the light bulb he certatinly invented the ‘filament bulb’ but his bulbs weren’t perfect and often burned out (this is where Eddison tried to perfect his work) Swan was a Geordie and Mosley Street in Newcastle was the first street in the world lit by the electric light (there is a blue plaque).

      However like most things a lot of people followed Davy’s work and tried to make a light bulb, a number of patents were granted and some worked a lot better than others. All science (and engineering) is built on what has gone before, or trying to improve what we have.

      Lightbulbs have come a long way from the incadescent bulb (which will soon be a thing of the past), now we have ‘low energy’ lights (which use a low pressure gas) and molecules that can change the colour of light, we also have the traditional orange sodium street lights (another gas that we ‘excite’ using electricity), and now LEDs are becoming more popular. All of the lightbulbs in my house are LEDs (I was an early adopter because they are cool!) but LEDs are only so good as they are not easy to recycle and many of the elements needed to make them are quire rare so now we are looking to make a new generation of LEDs (LED stands for light emitting diode) which instead of using the rare elements on the right hand side of the periodic table (Ga, As, At) use the much more common elements of carbon oxygen hydrogen and nitrogen, these new LEDs are often called OLEDs because they use ‘organic’ atoms (anything containing carbon is normally referred to in chemistry as being organic chemistry). Soon OLEDs will be much more common and because OLEDs are flexible the light bulb will change once again.