Edison did not invent the lightbulb (The Myth of The Lone Inventor)

[This is an excerpt from The Myths of Innovation, Chapter 5: The Myth of the Lone Inventor]

Who invented the electric light? No, it wasn’t Thomas Edison. Two lesser-known inventors, Humphrey Davy and Joseph Swan (who won a patent lawsuit against Edison), both developed working electric lights well before Edison. Think Ford invented the automobile? Wrong again. Unfortunately, popular credit for major innovations isn’t brokered by historians: it’s driven by markets, circumstance, and popularity, forces not bound by accuracy. Often, even historians have trouble sorting it out. Here’s what the U.S. Library of Congress has to say on the subject, specific to the automobile:

This question [who invented it] does not have a straightforward answer. The history of the automobile is very rich and dates back to the 15th century when Leonardo da Vinci was creating designs and models for transport vehicles. There are many different types of automobiles—steam, electric, and gasoline—as well as countless styles. Exactly who invented the automobile is a matter of opinion. If we had to give credit to one inventor, it would probably be Karl Benz from Germany. Many suggest that he created the first true automobile in 1885/1886.

If the librarians at the largest library in the world don’t know, how could we? There are similar complexities surrounding most innovations, from the first steam engines to personal computers or even airplanes (no, it’s not the Wright brothers). As simple as it should be, innovation history is complicated. Most innovations are not the solid, tangible, independent things we imagine them to be. Each one is made up of threads and relationships that don’t separate easily or yield simple answers.

For example, take the electric light. When Edison sat down to design the lightbulb, he was far from the first person to try. If several people were trying to make it work, who deserves the credit? Would it be enough to come up with the idea itself? Have a prototype? Would it matter how long the prototype stayed alight? How bright it burned? How many people witnessed it? How many bulbs were sold? Would it matter whether they cost $5,000,000 per bulb or weighed 500,000 pounds? Depending on which question is seen as most important, different names surface as the rightful owner of the title “inventor.” However, as folks at the U.S. Library of Congress suggest, there is no guidebook: the rules change from innovation to innovation. While there is some guidance for resolving these issues, before we get to explore them, things get worse.

Beyond the innovation itself, there is the problem of precedence: various invented light sources date back as far as 70,000 BCE. The idea of a lightbulb, a small portable object that gives light, is beyond ancient—it’s older than the screw (500 BCE), the wheel (3000 BCE), and the sword (5000 BCE). The inventors of torches, candles, and lamps through history are mostly unnamed, but they certainly contributed to Swan’s, Davy’s, and Edison’s thinking (not to mention proving to the world the value of being able to easily see the way to the bathroom after sunset). In similar fashion, web sites derive layouts and graphic design techniques from newspapers, which are based on the early typographies of the printing press, and on it goes. All innovations today are bound to innovations of the past.

And if that’s not enough, there are the people who developed the glassmaking techniques required for the bulbs, the copper mining and metal refinement processes for the filaments, and countless other forgotten creators of the tools, machines, and mathematics Edison and other innovators used. Certainly their anonymous contributions were essential to the innovation known as the lightbulb: remove them from the past, and in that same puff of history changing smoke, the electric light we know disappears.

The answer to the list of questions above is simple: Edison, Ford, and countless innovators are recognized as sole inventors for convenience. The histories we know depart from the truth for the simple reason that it makes them easier to remember.

Read the rest of Chapter 5, The Myth of The Lone Inventor, in the Myths of Innovation

8 Responses to “Edison did not invent the lightbulb (The Myth of The Lone Inventor)”

  1. Aliwani Saysom Bel- Eir

    I know that henry ford didn’t invent automobile but ford mobile… But edison did invent light bulb, of course the theory of electricity/bulb etc has been tested by many before him: the likes of Benjamin Franklin, charles,etc. Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb, but instead invented the first commercially working bulb… Therefore he is the inventor, because everybody else before him they were failing. The idea of airplane came up with Davinci but the credit of who invented the planes goes to the ” Wright brothers”…

    Reply
    1. Scott

      That’s just not how history generally works – nor should it. Commercial viability has dozens of factors that have little to do with the idea or the invention itself.

      In the end it comes down to how you want to define the word “inventor” – nearly any use of that word that makes it a singular, as in, “there was one inventor of the lightbulb”, defies reason. If you’re willing to narrow it down and say “Edison created the first successful commercial use of the lightbulb” then fine, but that’s not what most people think nor say.

      Reply
    2. John Marks

      Actually, Edison only improved the light bulb. He bought the patent from two Canadians who had run out of funding; Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, Canadian patent 3,738 Aug. 3rd 1874; US Patent 181,613. They patented using inert Nitrogen as the gas within the bulb. Edison improved on this, replacing the filament material, refiling the patent.

      Reply
  2. Sean Crawford

    It’s relative to your space-time location. And memory.

    Regarding heavier-than-air machines, while google pages mention a few other (British and South American) contenders to the Wright brothers claim, I seem to have a childhood memory that some continental European guy made the front pages of Europe’s newspapers for his first flight. Wow! He was the toast of the town!… it took a while for the news of an obscure earlier flight to get there from across the Ocean Blue. Now he’s as forgotten as the third astronaut on Apollo 11.

    By the way, I thanked sf writer Alan Steele for having a bar on his moon base named after Michael Collins.

    Reply
  3. Jodi Friedman

    Hi Everyone! My name is Jodi Friedman and I’m a Casting Director with Leftfield Entertainment, one of the largest TV programming powerhouses in the world! We have created a number of programs for virtually every television network, including History Channel, Discovery, and Nat Geo, to name a few.

    I’m reaching out because we’re currently casting a groundbreaking new series for one of the major TV networks that will feature history enthusiasts or descendants of historical figures. Specifically, we are looking for individuals who want to challenge history, and are confident that the history books got something wrong. People must have some sort of proof, or need some sort of proof, whether it be a diary, photographs, documents, etc. Our series will dive into an active investigation to reveal the truth about a well-known historical event. We are looking to cover all time periods, everything from ancient Greece to Obama’s presidency – nothing is too old or too recent. All the topics covered on this thread are of interest, including the real inventors and the lightbulb, airplane, automobile, etc. If you (or someone you know) has physical evidence of something that can possibly rewrite history – and the passion prove it – we want to hear from you ASAP! My contact info. is below if anyone has questions. Thank you so much, and I look forward to hearing from you.

    Jodi Friedman
    Casting Director
    212.564.2607 x2648
    jodi.friedman@leftfieldpictures.com

    Leftfield Pictures
    460 W 34th St, 5th Fl
    New York, NY 10001
    http://www.leftfieldpictures.com

    Reply

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  1. What is the most interesting fact that you know and I don’t, but I should?

    Who invented the light bulb? Your obvious answer will be Thomas Edison.. Did he??????? Nope… He has stolen the idea of making bulb so stop taking a thief as a motivational inventor.. Here are some links to support my arguement http://www.unmuseum.org…

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