Who invented the lightbulb?

The Menlo Park lab of Thomas Edison, who invented the lightbulb, is shown here after its relocation to the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan. The arrow on the vacuum pump (center) marks the site of Edison's recreation of the lighting of the incandescent bulb on Oct. 21, 1929.
The Menlo Park lab of Thomas Edison, who invented the lightbulb, is shown here after its relocation to the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan. The arrow on the vacuum pump (center) marks the site of Edison's recreation of the lighting of the incandescent bulb on Oct. 21, 1929. (Image credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Though Thomas Edison is usually credited as the man who invented the lightbulb, the famous American inventor wasn't the only one who contributed to the development of this revolutionary technology. 

Alessandro Volta, Humphrey Davy and Joseph Swan played a critical role in the development of this technology. 

Early research & development

The story of the lightbulb begins long before Edison patented the first commercially successful bulb in 1879. In 1800, Italian inventor Alessandro Volta developed the first practical method of generating electricity, the voltaic pile. Made of alternating discs of zinc and copper — interspersed with layers of cardboard soaked in salt water — the pile conducted electricity when a copper wire was connected at either end. Volta's glowing copper wire is officially considered a precursor to the battery, but is also one of the earliest manifestations of incandescent lighting.

According to Harold H Schobert ("Energy and Society: An Introduction," CRC Press, 2014) the Voltaic Pile "made it possible for scientists to experiment with electric currents under controlled conditions" and furthered experiments with electricity. Not long after Volta presented his discovery of a continuous source of electricity to the Royal Society in London, Davy produced the world's first electric lamp by connecting voltaic piles to charcoal electrodes. 

Davy's 1802 invention was known as an electric arc lamp, named for the bright arc of light emitted between its two carbon rods, according to "The Life of Sir Humphrey Davy" (HardPress Publishing, 2016)

An engraving of Humphry working on an experiment with alkalis  (Image credit: Getty / Apic)

While Davy's arc lamp was certainly an improvement on Volta's stand-alone piles, it still wasn't a very practical source of lighting. This rudimentary lamp burned out quickly and was much too bright for use in a home or workspace. However in a 2012 lecture for the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, John Meurig Thomas wrote that Davy’s other experiments with lighting led to both the miners' safety lamp, and also street lighting in Paris "and many other European cities." The principles behind Davy's arc light were used throughout the 1800s in the development of many other electric lamps and bulbs.

In 1840, British scientist Warren de la Rue developed an efficiently designed lightbulb using a coiled platinum filament in place of copper, but the high cost of platinum kept the bulb from becoming a commercial success, according to Interesting Engineering. In 1848, Englishman William Staite improved the longevity of conventional arc lamps by developing a clockwork mechanism that regulated the movement of the lamps' quick-to-erode carbon rods, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology. But the cost of the batteries used to power Staite's lamps also limited their practical applications.

Related: 20 inventions that changed the world

Joseph Swan vs. Thomas Edison

In 1850, English chemist Joseph Swan began trying to make electrical light more economical, and by 1860 he had developed a lightbulb that used carbonized paper filaments in place of those made of platinum, according to the BBC. Swan received a patent in the U.K. in 1878, and in February 1879 he demonstrated a working lamp in a lecture in Newcastle, England, according to the Smithsonian Institution

Like earlier renditions of the lightbulb, Swan's filaments were placed in a vacuum tube to minimize their exposure to oxygen, extending their lifespan. Unfortunately for Swan, vacuum pumps weren't very efficient then, and the prototype didn't work well enough for everyday use.

Edison realized that the problem with Swan's design was the filament. A thin filament with high electrical resistance would make a lamp practical because it would require only a little current to make it glow. He demonstrated his lightbulb, with a platinum filament in a glass vacuum bulb, in December 1879 in Menlo Park, New Jersey, according to the Franklin Institute. Swan incorporated the improvement into his lightbulbs and founded an electrical lighting company in England. 

Edison sued for patent infringement, but Swan's patent was a strong claim, at least in the U.K., according to CIO. The two inventors eventually joined forces and formed Edison-Swan United, which became one of the world's largest manufacturers of lightbulbs, according to the Science Museum Group .

Illustration showing Thomas Edison with a lightbulb (Image credit: Getty: Ivan-96)

First practical incandescent lightbulb

Where Edison surpassed his competition was in developing a practical and inexpensive lightbulb, according to the DOE. Edison and his team of researchers tested more than 3,000 designs for bulbs between 1878 and 1880. 

In Nov. 1879, Edison filed a patent for an electric lamp with a carbon filament, according to the National Archives. The patent listed several materials that might be used for the filament, including cotton, linen and wood. Edison spent the next year finding the perfect filament for his new bulb, testing more than 6,000 plants to determine which material would burn the longest.

Several months after the 1879 patent was granted, Edison and his team discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could burn for more than 1,200 hours, according to the Edison Museum. Bamboo was used for the filaments in Edison's bulbs until it began to be replaced by longer-lasting materials in the 1880s to early 1900s.

Related: What's the longest burning lightbulb?

In 1882, Lewis Howard Latimer, one of Edison's researchers, patented a more efficient way of manufacturing carbon filaments, according to Rutgers University. And in 1903, Willis R. Whitney invented a treatment for these filaments that allowed them to burn bright without darkening the insides of their glass bulbs, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

A retro style 'Edison bulb'

A retro style Edison bulb (Image credit: Getty: Aleksandr Zubkov)

William David Coolidge, an American physicist with General Electric, improved the company's method of manufacturing tungsten filaments in 1910. Tungsten, which has the highest melting point of any chemical element, was known by Edison to be an excellent material for lightbulb filaments, but the machinery needed to produce super-fine tungsten wire was not available in the late 19th century. 

Tungsten is still the primary material used in incandescent bulb filaments today.

Rachel Ross and Callum McKelvie contributed to this article. This article was updated on Nov. 2, 2022.

Additional resources

Read more about Franklin's invention at the Franklin Institute. Learn more about Thomas Edison's life from MIT. Watch a video about how light bulbs work from minutephysics on YouTube.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.