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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. Many other notable inventors, engineers and scientists from around the world are also credited for their work with electric batteries, lamps and the creation of the first incandescent bulbs.

While the names Alessandro Volta, Humphrey Davy or Joseph Swan may not be the first to spring to mind when wondering who invented the lightbulb, their part in history of the technology is no less significant. So, keep reading below as we shed a little light on the real history.   

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 (opens in new tab), the voltaic pile. Made of alternating discs of zinc and copper (opens in new tab) — interspersed with layers of cardboards soaked in salt water — the pile conducted electricity when a copper wire was connected at either end. While actually a predecessor of the modern battery, Volta's glowing copper wire is also considered to be one of the earliest manifestations of incandescent lighting.

According to Harold H Schobert ("Energy and Society: An Introduction (opens in new tab)," CRC Press, 2014) the Voltaic Pile "made it possible for scientists to experiment with electric currents under controlled conditions" and furthered experiments with electricity (opens in new tab). 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. 

In his book "The Life of Sir Humphrey Davy (opens in new tab)" (HardPress Publishing, 2016) Aryton Paris describes Davy as "a hugely influential chemist, inventor and public lecturer who is recognized as one of the first professional scientists." Davy's 1802 invention was known as an electric arc lamp, named for the bright arc of light emitted between its two carbon rods.

An engraving of Humphry working on an experiment with alkalis  (Image credit: Getty / Apic )
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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 (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab). But the cost of the batteries used to power Staite's lamps put a damper on the inventor's commercial ventures.

Joseph Swan vs. Thomas Edison

In 1850, English chemist Joseph Swan tackled the cost-effectiveness problem of previous inventors and by 1860 he had developed a lightbulb that used carbonized paper filaments in place of those made of platinum, according to the BBC (opens in new tab). Swan received a patent (opens in new tab) in the UK in 1878, and in February 1879 he demonstrated a working lamp in a lecture in Newcastle, England, according to the Smithsonian Institution (opens in new tab)

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, the vacuum pumps of his day were not efficient as they are now, and while his prototype worked well for a demonstration, it was impractical in actual 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 in December 1879. 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 UK, according to CIO (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab).

Illustration showing Thomas Edison with a lightbulb (Image credit: Getty: Ivan-96)
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Swan wasn't the only competitor Edison faced. In 1874, Canadian inventors Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans filed a patent for an electric lamp with different-sized carbon rods held between electrodes in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen. The pair tried, unsuccessfully, to commercialize their lamps but eventually sold their patent to Edison in 1879, according to the World History Project.

The success of Edison's lightbulb was followed by the founding of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York in 1880, according to EDN News. The company was started with financial contributions from J.P. Morgan and other wealthy investors of the time. The company constructed the first electrical generating stations that would power electrical system and newly patented bulbs. The first generating station was opened in September 1882 on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, according to the Edison Tech Center.

Other inventors, such as William Sawyer and Albon Man, threw in the towel, merging their company with Edison's to form General Electric, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) (opens in new tab).

First practical incandescent lightbulb

Where Edison succeeded and surpassed his competition was in developing a practical and inexpensive lightbulb, according to the DOE. Edison and his team of researchers in Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., 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. (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab). Bamboo was used for the filaments in Edison's bulbs until it began to be replaced by longer-lasting materials in the 1880s and 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 (opens in new tab). 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 Institute (opens in new tab).

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.

LED lights

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are now considered the future of lighting due to a lower energy requirement to run, a lower monthly price tag and a longer life than traditional incandescent lightbulbs.

Nick Holonyak, an American scientist, accidentally invented the red LED light while trying to create a laser in the early 1960s, according to General Electric, (opens in new tab) the company he worked for. As with other inventors, the principle that some semiconductors glowed when an electric current was applied had been known since the early 1900s, but Holonyak was the first to patent it for use as a light fixture, according to Justia (opens in new tab)

Within a few years, yellow and green LEDs were added to the mix and used in several applications including indicator lights, calculator displays and traffic lights (opens in new tab), according to the DOE. The blue LED was created in the early 1990s by Japanese and American scientists Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, a , for which they won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics (opens in new tab). The blue LED enabled scientists to create white LED lightbulbs by coating the diodes with phosphor.

Related: Lightbulbs: Incandescent, Fluorescent, LED (Infographic)

Today, lighting choices have expanded and people can choose different types of lightbulbs, including compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs that work by heating a gas that produces ultraviolet light and LED bulbs (opens in new tab).

Several lighting companies are pushing the boundaries of what lightbulbs can do, including Phillips (opens in new tab) . Phillips is one of several companies that have created wireless lightbulbs that can be controlled via smartphone app. The Phillips Hue (opens in new tab) uses LED technology that can quickly be turned on or off or dimmed by a flick on a smart phone screen and can also be programmed. The higher-end Hue lightbulbs can even be set to a large range of colors (only about sixteen million) and synced with music, movies, and video games.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo on Twitter @techEpalermo, Facebook or Google+. Follow LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Rachel Ross and Callum McKelvie contributed to this article.

Additional resources

Elizabeth Palermo
Staff Writer
Elizabeth is a Live Science associate editor who writes about science and technology. 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.