State of Innovation

Patents and Innovation Economics

Did Edison Invent the Light Bulb?

            It is important to understand what is meant by innovating or inventing and what its properties are before embarking on how to encourage or measure technological innovation.  Innovating is creating something new.  What do we mean by new?  Was the light bulb invented by Edison new?  There were other electric light bulbs before Edison.  Some people suggest that Edison did not really invent the light bulb.  One website states “Contrary to what schools have taught for years, the American icon, Thomas Edison, neither invented the light bulb, nor held the first patent to the modern design of the light bulb.”[1]  Most of Edison’s detractors point to Joseph Wilson Swan as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb.  Swan was an English physicist and chemist and applied for a patent on his light bulb before Edison.  However, Swan’s light bulbs were low resistance light bulbs.  If you tried to setup an electrical power system to power Swan’s light bulbs, it would have required such a large copper conductor as to make the system economically unfeasible.  Edison created the first high resistance light bulb, which made it possible to create a commercially feasible electric light system. 

            Did Edison create something totally new?  No, he combined electrical conductors to a high resistance filament inside a glass bulb and created a vacuum in the bulb.  The high resistance filament was made of carbonized bamboo.  By creating a high resistance light bulb Edison made it possible to setup a commercially viable electrical lighting system that did not require large copper conductors.

            Clearly, each of the components or elements of Edison’s light bulb were old.  Of course, the components of Swan’s light bulb were also known or old.  This is not surprising, since “conservation of matter” dictates that all devices are made of existing components.  When we say something is new, we mean that it is a new combination of elements.  Patent law describes inventions as combinations of elements and connections.  The elements of Edison’s light bulb included electrical conductors, a glass bulb, and a high resistance filament.  The connections included placing the high resistance filament inside the glass bulb, connecting the filament between two electrical conductors that extended outside the glass bulb and creating a vacuum in the glass bulb and sealing the glass bulb.  How things are connected is as important as what the elements.  For instance, if Edison had connected a conductor, filament and glass bulb in series nothing would of happened. 

    So what do you think?  Does Edison deserve the credit for inventing the light bulb?



July 20, 2009 - Posted by | -History, -Philosophy, Innovation, Patents | , , , , ,


  1. Edison took an idea and made it better. So, he didn’t invent “the” lightbulb, he invented a “better” light bulb.

    Better, faster, cheaper – These are the fundamental driving principals behind all successful inventors.

    Comment by Shaun McNerney | July 29, 2009 | Reply

    • Who should get credit for the light bulb then? The first person with an incandescent light bulb? Or the first person to invent an electric arc light?

      Comment by dbhalling | August 3, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] essence of the debate between Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison over who invented the light bulb. See…..ght-bulb/. If an inventor is the first one to isolate a useful substance, then they have provided the world […]

    Pingback by Reason’s Ronald Bailey on “Egalitarian” Opponents of Intellectual Property | August 6, 2010 | Reply

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