Edison: His Life and Inventions HTML version

The Invention Of The Incandescent Lamp
IT is possible to imagine a time to come when the hours of work and rest will once more
be regulated by the sun. But the course of civilization has been marked by an artificial
lengthening of the day, and by a constant striving after more perfect means of
illumination. Why mankind should sleep through several hours of sunlight in the
morning, and stay awake through a needless time in the evening, can probably only be
attributed to total depravity. It is certainly a most stupid, expensive, and harmful habit. In
no one thing has man shown greater fertility of invention than in lighting; to nothing does
he cling more tenaciously than to his devices for furnishing light. Electricity to-day reigns
supreme in the field of illumination, but every other kind of artificial light that has ever
been known is still in use somewhere. Toward its light-bringers the race has assumed an
attitude of veneration, though it has forgotten, if it ever heard, the names of those who
first brightened its gloom and dissipated its darkness. If the tallow candle, hitherto
unknown, were now invented, its creator would be hailed as one of the greatest
benefactors of the present age.
Up to the close of the eighteenth century, the means of house and street illumination were
of two generic kinds--grease and oil; but then came a swift and revolutionary change in
the adoption of gas. The ideas and methods of Murdoch and Lebon soon took definite
shape, and "coal smoke" was piped from its place of origin to distant points of
consumption. As early as 1804, the first company ever organized for gas lighting was
formed in London, one side of Pall Mall being lit up by the enthusiastic pioneer, Winsor,
in 1807. Equal activity was shown in America, and Baltimore began the practice of gas
lighting in 1816. It is true that there were explosions, and distinguished men like Davy
and Watt opined that the illuminant was too dangerous; but the "spirit of coal" had
demonstrated its usefulness convincingly, and a commercial development began, which,
for extent and rapidity, was not inferior to that marking the concurrent adoption of steam
in industry and transportation.
Meantime the wax candle and the Argand oil lamp held their own bravely. The whaling
fleets, long after gas came into use, were one of the greatest sources of our national
wealth. To New Bedford, Massachusetts, alone, some three or four hundred ships brought
their whale and sperm oil, spermaceti, and whalebone; and at one time that port was
accounted the richest city in the United States in proportion to its population. The ship-
owners and refiners of that whaling metropolis were slow to believe that their monopoly
could ever be threatened by newer sources of illumination; but gas had become available
in the cities, and coal-oil and petroleum were now added to the list of illuminating
materials. The American whaling fleet, which at the time of Edison's birth mustered over
seven hundred sail, had dwindled probably to a bare tenth when he took up the problem
of illumination; and the competition of oil from the ground with oil from the sea, and
with coal-gas, had made the artificial production of light cheaper than ever before, when
up to the middle of the century it had remained one of the heaviest items of domestic
expense. Moreover, just about the time that Edison took up incandescent lighting, water-
gas was being introduced on a large scale as a commercial illuminant that could be
produced at a much lower cost than coal-gas.