Persistence That Lit the World

You’d probably never think that we’d actively toss Thomas Edison aside, but over the past few years, the world has been taking steps that make it seem like we’re doing just that.

In March of this year, the European Commission voted to effectively phase out the incandescent light bulb by 2012.  This follows steps taken by the United States just over a year prior to ban them outright by 2014.

As our society grows, we invent new ways to light our homes and offices that use much less energy.  As it turns out, incandescent light bulbs, an invention dating back to the 1800s, take up to twice as much energy to use as more efficient halogen bulbs and up to three times more energy than compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs.

Of course, we’re not really throwing Thomas Edison aside, just his particular invention.  And further, we’re certainly not diminishing Edison’s contributions – there are important lasting lessons we can learn.

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor, having 1,093 U.S. patents to his name.  Many of his patents described improvements to the main technologies of his day, including the telegraph, and burgeoning ones, such as electric motors and electric railways.

In addition, Edison created significant innovations such as the phonograph (the first device to record and reproduce sound), the kinetograph (an early form of the motion picture camera), the first commercially available fluoroscope (an X-ray imaging device), and systems for the distribution of electric power.

Of course, Edison’s most famous invention is his seminal improvement on the electric light bulb.

While others scientists invented the electric light bulb itself, Edison worked to make the light bulb practical.  According to the most prominent of Edison’s patent applications for his electric light bulb, the key was using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires”.  With this filament, an electric current passing through it would give off light, and the oxygenless environment inside the bulb would prevent the filament from burning, thereby making the bulb last longer.

Edison’s first successful test of his invention lasted 40 hours, and he soon improved his design to last for over 1200 hours.  In comparison, bulbs designed by others could last only 12 hours or so – a 100x improvement.

However, we shouldn’t credit some stroke of genius for enabling Edison’s light bulb to be invented.  While Edison’s carbon filament was the key to his invention, Edison’s persistence was the key to his success.

It is said that Edison tried thousands of different kinds of filaments before coming up with his final design. He tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and failed. And while a single filament design may have failed, he never considered himself a failure; he just learned another new way not to make a light bulb.

Obviously, Edison created his inventions over 100 years ago, so we’ve certainly progressed since Edison’s time, replacing his inventions with the new innovations of today. 

The phonograph has been replaced with the iPod.  The fluoroscope has been replaced by magnetic resonance imagers or MRIs.  The kinetograph has now evolved into the handheld digital camcorder.  So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Edison’s incandescent light bulb has finally been replaced with better technologies.

However, Edison’s influence has been unquestionably dramatic, and the lessons of his success are enduring.  Had Edison not persisted in his quest to build a better light bulb, the practicality of illuminating every corner of our world with electric light could not have been realized.

When we turn on a light switch, the lights go on.  While this seems so simple to us today, we can thank Thomas Edison and his persistence for making it real.

I serve as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've also served in leadership positions with Elanix, Inc. (now Agilent Technologies) and Mentor Graphics. I live in Thousand Oaks, CA, where I've served the public as Chair of our city's Planning Commission and our county's Tobacco Settlement Allocation Committee. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daugther Monroe. Learn more about me »

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.ceolas.net Peter in Dublin

    I agree
    There’s a lot of talk about that it’s “just old technology”

    But compare with the similar radio valve (tube)
    It wasn’t banned just cause people preferred transistors.

    Anyway, people prefer to buy light bulbs over “energy saving” fluorescent lights – 19/20 of US sales, 9/10 EU sales – hence the perverse logic of banning what people want (no need to ban what people don’t want!)

    There’s a lot of talk that the new LED lamps will be great,
    and that “a ban should wait until then”:
    But, again, why ban bulbs if new LED lamps (like transistors) will be so good that people want to buy them anyway?! In that case, like radio valves/tubes, the fewer people using bulbs can be allowed to do so.

    All about why bans are wrong, from
    http://www.ceolas.net/#li1x onwards

    All lights have advantages, none should be banned.
    People can make up their own minds about the advantages, including any energy savings, and pay more for using ordinary light bulbs if that’s what they want.

    Does society need to save energy?
    No, there’s plenty, including new renewable forms.

    Does society need to save on greenhouse gases?
    Yes, on current evidence.
    But everyone forgets a basic simple fact:
    Light bulbs don’t give out any gases.
    Power stations don’t necessarily either.
    Power station emissions can of course be dealt with themselves (including by new energy forms)
    - bans are unfair on emission-free households
    and in the end don’t save that much energy or money or emissions anyway as explained on
    http://www.ceolas.net/#li13x

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