Did Edison invent the electric light? It doesn’t matter


This is all controversial? The world-famous inventor Thomas Edison (Thomas Edison, 1847-1931) invented the light bulb. The elementary school textbooks have his stories. Can it be fake?

Yesterday, the speech of the Democratic presidential candidate Biden caused quite a lot of controversy. Biden came to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the city of recent racial protests and riots, and said, “Why don’t our history classes teach (real) history? It was a black man who invented the light bulb, not a white man named Edison. Does anyone know? “

Going back to Biden’s controversial speech itself, is the electric light really invented by an unknown black person, not by the great inventor Edison who is well-known to ordinary people? Of course not, Biden is deliberately calming local blacks. The electric light was not invented by the unknown black man, but it was not invented by Edison alone.

Electric lighting is an epoch-making invention in human history. The broad sense of electric light includes electric bulbs, power transmission and power generation systems, and the narrow sense of electric light is what we often call light bulbs .

So who invented the incandescent light bulb? This problem is more complicated. It should be a collective result of the joint efforts of many inventors over the past 100 years and continuous improvement on the basis of their predecessors. In 1801, the British chemist Humphry Davy used platinum wire for the first time and invented the first electric light in 1810. In 1854, American Henry Goebel invented the carbonized bamboo filament light bulb with a lifespan of up to 400 hours, but the technology was still unstable and did not apply for a patent.

In 1860, the British Joseph Swan invented the semi-vacuum carbon filament bulb. In 1878, after improving the technology, a stable carbon fiber bulb was introduced, and it successfully applied for a patent, one year earlier than the Edison Electric Light Company. In February 1879, Swann began to commercialize electric lights in the United Kingdom. His own home was also the first family in the world to use electric lights.

In 1874, two Canadian engineers invented the nitrogen carbon rod bulb, which extended the lighting life of the bulb with inert gas. But they did not have the financial resources to commercialize, so they sold the patent to Edison, who had become a rich man with the invention of the phonograph. Edison’s laboratory made improvements on the design of many predecessors’ bulbs, and finally launched the 1879 carbonized cotton filament incandescent bulb, which has the technical possibility of commercial lighting.

In November 1879, Edison conducted a public display of commercially available incandescent bulbs in Mentop Park, New Jersey, to show the American public the future of commercial lighting, and then began to apply for patents. With the support of the American financial giants Morgan (JP. Morgan) and the Vanderbilt family (Vanderbilt), Edison founded the Edison Electric Lighting Company, and subsequently launched the carbonized bamboo filament bulb with a lifespan of 2,000 hours and laid a power station. And the wire network laid the foundation for the large-scale popularization of electric lights.

Who is the patent for the carbon filament incandescent bulb? The British Swann applied earlier and commercialized earlier. Because of this, Edison was forced to form a joint venture with Swann when it expanded its business in the UK. In the end, Edison paid the money to completely buy out Swann’s patents and equity, and settled the patent dispute with the latter.

Even in the United States, Edison did not get a patent for incandescent light bulbs in the first place. The US Patent Office believed that Edison had incandescent bulbs of similar materials before and refused to grant him related patents. At the same time Edison began commercializing lighting, other competitors in the United States were also selling electric light products. But after years of litigation, the US court finally granted Edison the most important patent in 1889.

Later, the tungsten filament bulbs we commonly used were invented by two inventors in Hungary and Croatia in 1904, but the tungsten filament bulbs that can be used on a large scale were successfully developed by General Electric in 1906. General Electric Company was founded in 1892 by the continuous merger of Edison Electric Light Company and several related companies. From 1896 to 2020, General Electric Company was the only component company that always existed in the Dow Jones Index.

Although the light bulb was definitely not invented by Edison alone, it is undisputed that Edison Electric Light Company and later General Electric Company played a huge role in promoting the popularization of electric lighting, and Wall Street provided strong financial support for Edison. In addition to carbon filament incandescent bulbs, Edison Electric also applied for a patent for a direct current power supply system, and built a complete system consisting of power stations and power transmission. This was the beginning of standardized commercial lighting services in 1883.

So who is Biden’s black inventor? He should be referring to Lewis Latimer (1848-1928), who played an important role in the patent application of Edison electric light bulbs. Both his parents were black slaves, and both fled from Virginia to Massachusetts for freedom. The slave owner chased Boston to capture the two people. In the end, the people of Boston donated 400 US dollars for the redemption fee, in exchange for the freedom of Latimer’s parents.

Latimer started as a handyman in a patent law firm and became an excellent patent draftsman and drafter. Many patent documents were drawn and drafted by him to help inventors, including the telephone patent of Alexander Bell in 1876. In 1879, Latimer joined the American Electric Lighting Company (Edison’s competitor) and devoted himself to the electric lighting industry. In 1884, Edison was dug into his own electric light company.

During his time at Edison, Latimer wrote the first book on electric lighting. In Edison’s battle for patents for electric lights, Latimer also drafted many patent documents. Although Latimer wrote many patents, he was only a patent draftsman and drafter, and he also provided technical assistance in research and development. He was not the main inventor of telephones and electric lights. To call Latimer the “inventor of the light bulb” is obviously disrespect for many true inventors of technology such as Edison, Bell, and Swann.

Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory was the first commercial R&D center. This laboratory employs a large number of engineers and scientists to carry out research and development in different directions according to their different technical expertise, and constantly acquire existing technologies and patents, thereby developing a large number of new products and new technologies that change human life. This research and development model has completely changed the history of previous research in the small workshops of great scientists.

It can be said that Edison was a pioneer in the American technology industry. He is like the CEO of an extremely successful technology company and a business wizard. Edison used the capital provided by financial tycoons, mobilized resources for system research and development, and exerted his personal influence for commercialization. The incandescent bulb display event in 1879 was an epoch-making product launch event.

But Edison was also a narrow-minded, unscrupulous capitalist. Edison took almost all the patents of the laboratory as his own. With the help of newspaper media controlled by Morgan, he established himself as an omnipotent legendary inventor with more than 1,000 patented inventions. He also completely made the invention of incandescent light bulbs. Taking it all by himself has ruthlessly deprived many scientists of the affirmation of their technological achievements.

Edison was even more unscrupulous in combating competitors to obtain commercial benefits. In order to compete with Tesla’s alternating current technology, Edison continued to exaggerate the danger of alternating current; in addition to electrocution of animals in public to scare the public, he even arranged and designed electric chairs (intentionally to show that alternating current would kill people, but it promoted the reform of the death penalty).

Perhaps from the current perspective, Edison and Jobs have many similarities: both have a very keen sense of technology, can see future technology trends, and can recruit outstanding R&D talents with their own reputation, The idea of ​​combining with existing technology for research and development, thus creating a truly commercial mature product, changing people’s lifestyle. In addition, they are also extremely good business and marketing geniuses.

In other words, is Jobs the inventor of the smartphone, and is Musk the inventor of the electric car? Obviously neither, but the company they lead has launched disruptive products in these two areas, which has really driven the popularization of smart phones and electric vehicles. It doesn’t matter whether it is the inventor or not, the important thing is that they changed the world.

By the way, the story of the 7-year-old Edison using a mirror to help the doctor perform surgery to save his mother in the elementary school Chinese textbook is also fake. This story comes from an old American movie and has been reworked. When the true appendicitis surgery appeared, Edison was already a pretty young man. Now the textbook has removed this chicken soup paragraph.

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