Did Edison Knock Off the Light Bulb?

Light Bulbs: Edison didn't invent them, andwhat it means to be "Westinghoused".
by Steve Silverman

So, who invented the lightbulb? Most people would answer little Tommy Edison, but they would be wrong. In fact, they were being used as electric lights for more than 50 years prior to his patent date.

In addition, Edison was not the first to patent the modern design of the lightbulb. It seems that an inventor named Joseph Swan demonstrated the same carbon filament lightbulb in Newcastle at least ten months prior to Edison's announcement. In addition, Swan received a British patent in 1878 for the same bulb that Edison patented in the U. S. in 1879.

Did Edison know about Swan's work, or did they simply work independently and arrive at the same conclusion? There is no question that Edison had seen a Scientific American article on Swan's preliminary work with carbon filament electric lighting. But Swan's work had not been perfected at this point, so Edison may have arrived at his invention by improving on Swan's preliminary designs.

Eventually, Edison was the one making the big $$$ off this invention and Swan was rightfully upset with this situation. So, if you were in Swan's boots, what would you do?

Sue the pants off of Edison.

And that is exactly what Swan did.

Edison lost in the British courts for infringement of Swan's patent. As part of the settlement, Edison was forced to take Swan in as a partner in his British electric works. The company was called the Edison and Swan United Electric Company. Eventually, Edison acquired all of Swan's interest in the company.

In the United States, Edison didn't have the chance to put up a fight. The U.S. Patent Office had ruled on October 8, 1883 that Edison's patents were based on the prior art of a man named William Sawyer and were invalid. In addition, Swan had already sold his U.S. patent rights to the Brush Electric Company in June of 1882.

So why does Edison get all the credit for the invention of the lightbulb?

Very simple, he owned the power company - what was to eventually become General Electric.

After all, what use is a light bulb without electricity? Edison set up a system of power distribution in New York City. He used the DC (direct current) system, which is no longer used.

As a side note, one of our greatest and least recognized scientists, Nikola Tesla, designed the modern system of AC (and the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls) for George Westinghouse.

From 1879 to 1882, Edison only sold 3,144 bulbs to 203 Manhattan customers. After another seven years, their customer base grew to only 710! Eventually, word of mouth and lower electricity costs led to a rapid increase in customers. Ten years later, there were three million customers.

By the way, the original bulbs only lasted for 150 hours (an average one lasts 1500 hours today). Within ten years, Edison had perfected a 1200 hour bulb.

Which leads us to a really useful device - the electric chair!

The story goes something like this:

Both Edison and Westinghouse developed an electric chair to kill our convicts. They sold the devices as the only humanly way to execute.

The major debate was whether to use Edison's DC or Westinghouse's AC electric chair.

One would think that Edison would have pushed for the adoption of his DC electric chair as the chair of choice. Instead, Edison actually endorsed Westinghouse's competing AC system.

Why? Very simple. Edison had so much money invested in the DC electric system that he had to show that AC was too dangerous for use in the household. The best way to do this was to have the AC system be the system of choice for the electric chair.

New York was the first state to try the electric chair (today it would be California). They bought one of those AC chairs - and guess what - it didn't work. No one had ever tested it before.

Edison's plan to show how dangerous AC current was backfired on him.

Within a few years, it became obvious that AC was the better system. Eventually, AC current was adopted as the current of choice worldwide as it can be delivered more efficiently along power lines.

Lastly, due to Edison's push for an AC electric chair, for many years people referred to the process of being electrocuted in the chair as to being "Westinghoused".


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