Who invented the first electric light bulb? Who invented the fluorescent lamp? And who invented the LED lamp? Keep reading to find out!

TL;DR

The first electric bulb was created by....
English Chemist Humphry Davy in 1802. The first battery was created by Alessandro Volta. The first fluorescent light bulb was invented by Heinrich Geissler in 1858. The first lightbulb patent was issued to Englishman Frederick de Moleyns in 1841. The LED was invented in the 1960s by Nick Holonyak.

who invented the light bulb? time line of lightbulbs

Who discovered electric light?

In 1800, Italian inventor Alessandro Volta accidentally discovered electrical lighting. He was developing the battery at the time. The batteries, known as “voltaic piles“, were made from piled layers of zinc and copper interspersed with cardboard soaked in salt water. This was connected at each end by a copper wire. When the circuit closed the wire began to glow and the first electric light was accidentally invented.

Voltaic pile the first ever light bulb
Voltaic pile / CC

Who invented the first electric lamp?

In 1802, English Chemist Humphry Davy invented the first electric lamp. It was an electric arc lamp. The electric light worked by creating an arc of electricity through the air between two charcoal electrodes, connected to voltaic piles. See an electric arc lamp in action.

carbon electrodes battery
This is a reproduction of the invention of the arc light by British chemist Humphrey Davy around 1808. Davy used a battery of 3000 liquid cells to produce a high voltage arc between carbon electrodes.

It wasn’t the most practical design, it was pretty dangerous, burnt out quickly and burned far too brightly for it to be practical. However, it was useful for applications such as lighthouses and train stations.

Who invented the light bulb?

In 1840 Warren de la Rue invented a type of incandescent light bulb we would recognize today. It was made with a platinum filament encased in a glass bulb. Unfortunately, the high cost of the material prevented the bulb from becoming a commercial success.

Who patented the first light bulb?

In 1841 Englishman Frederick de Moleyns, patented the first carbon filament, incandescent light bulb. The filament was made from powdered charcoal heated between two platinum wires. This was a far more cost-effective solution.

Unfortunately, at the time, no way to create a high-quality vacuum in the light bulb to prevent the filament from burning up too quickly and the filament itself still needed perfecting. The technology was very much in its infancy.

Who came next in the invention of the light bulb?

In 1860 English chemist, Joseph Swan designed a lightbulb that uses carbonized cotton thread in a vacuum chamber. More financially viable than de la Rue’s design and more efficient than de Moleyns’. Unfortunately, vacuum pump technology of the time remained unreliable.

Joseph Swan the inventor of the light bulb? the first carbon filement patent
Joseph Swan in his Laboratory

Who created the first vacuum light bulb?

In 1865, German chemist Herman Sprengel invented the Sprengel pump. It was vacuum technology they had all been waiting for. This advance in technology finally allowed scientists to place their light bulb filaments in vacuum chambers.

vacuum pump mercury lightbulb

Sprengel mercury vacuum pump. A container of mercury (A) allowed by a valve (C) to fall one drop at a time into a long glass tube (XD) which empties into a reservoir (H). Air is trapped between the drops in the tube and carried by the weight of the mercury out the bottom of the tube. This slowly evacuates the container (R) attached at the top.

Who designed the first gas-filled electric lightbulb?

Shortly after this in 1874, in Canadian, inventors Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans patented a nitrogen-filled, carbon filament lamp. It was not a commercial success and they eventually sold their patent to Edison in 1879. This technology was not used in Edison’s light bulbs until 1911.

Who made the light bulb?

Did  Edison invent the lightbulb? Well, no he did not, but he certainly “made” the light bulb! What he succeeded in doing, where others before him had failed, was finding a way of making the light bulb a commercial success and this was no mean feat!

Between 1878 -1880 Edison and his team experimented with more than 3,000 different possible designs. They also tested an alleged 6,000+ different plants to find the perfect material for the filament. Eventually, they settled on carbonized bamboo, capable of burning for more than 1,200 hours!

edison invented the light bulb
Early Edison, Carbon Filament light bulb.

Edison was awarded a US patent for his lightbulb in November 1879.

The battle of UK lighting

In the UK Edison sued Swan for patent infringement, but due to Swan’s existing 1887 UK patent, Edison was unsuccessful.  Eventually, the pair formed Ediswan, one of the world’s largest light bulb manufacturers.

Ediswan the combination of English and American lighting companies

Who invented the electric light bulb as we know it today?

In 1910 William David Coolidge developed the tungsten filament, capable of burning brighter and longer than carbon filaments. Tungsten has the highest melting point of any element and is still used in incandescent bulbs to this day.

The tungsten was not a new discovery, but the technology to create super-thin tungsten wires was.

how invented the electric light bulb
Early GE tungsten filament incandescent light bulb from around 1908, 100 watt, 120 V, produced 80 candlepower. Coiled filament were not yet possible, so the filament consisted of several long loops connected in series, supported by the elaborate wire structure in the center.

Who invented the modern incandescent light bulb?

Maybe, it is Irving Langmuir who truly invented the incandescent light bulb?

In 1913 Irving Langmuir perfected the Gas-filled, Coiled Tungsten Lamp. He filled the lightbulb with an inert gas, which greatly increased the life of the bulb and prevented darkening of the glass.

He then developed the coiled tungsten filament, building on the work of his colleague Coolidge.

His work on light bulb technology was so important that in 1932, Langmuir was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for work on surface chemistry.

Who invented the fluorescent lamp?

If you think of neon or fluorescent lighting as a modern invention you’d be wrong. Its routes can be traced back as early as 1856 when German glassblower Heinrich Geissler and mathematician Julius Plucker invented the Geissler Tube (gas discharge tube).

the first flourecent neon lights
A Geissle Tube, switched on.

Although the Geissler Tube was designed for entertainment at parties, these exquisite wonders eventually lead to the discovery of cathode rays and subsequently, the electron! Many were designed to spin and create elaborate patterns. It is hard to imagine just how magical these items would have seemed to the people of the time.

Geissler Tubes are made from sealed tubes filled with different types of low-pressure gas. An electrode is placed at either end. When you apply a high voltage to the electrode (for example using a Tesla coil) they glow! This light is created by the movement of electrons. They get their color from a combination of both the pressure and the type of gas they contain.

Nixie tubes were a form of fluorescent lighting, used as an early way to indicate numbers before 7 cell displays became more popular.

Who commercialised the Flurecent Bulb?

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the fluorescent light bulb became a commercial viability.

In 1900 Canadian Peter Cooper Hewitt invented a low-pressure mercury arc lamp. It used metal vapor instead of gas. It wasn’t particularly efficient because it gave off a lot of UV light and the visible light it did give off was an unatractive blue/green color.

Metal vapor lamp patent 1939

In 1927 Edmund Germer improved the efficiency of the technology with a high-pressure vapor lamp and coated the inside of the tube with phosphor to convert the UV light to visible light.

In 1976 Edward E Hammer invented the compact fluorescent bulb, inspired by the energy crisis at the time. As with many other phases of the lightbulb’s history, it was not cost-effective to produce and did so not enter public sale until 1995.

Thomas Edison also had a crack at Fluorescent lighting. In 1896 he filed a patent (U.S. Patent 865,367) for a fluorescent lamp that was, thankfully, never sold. He used-rays to excite the phosphor.

neon lighting pizza sign

Who invented Neon Lamps?

Neon lamps take their name from the gas that was originally used: neon, that glows with a distinctive pink/red color. Nowadays that term refers to any, cold cathode, fluorescent with a diameter of less than 15mm.

Who invented the LED light bulb?

Nick Holonyak accidentally invented the red LED lightbulb in the 1960s whilst trying to create a laser. Although this technology was not new, he was the first to think to patent it for lighting. The Monsanto MV1 became the first mass-produced LED in 1968. Yellow and green LEDs came along quickly after this, but blue LEDs (and subsequently white LEDs) proved more tricky!

led bulbs various styles
Afrank99 / CC BY-SA

It was not until the early 1990s that a group of Japanese and American scientists; Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, developed the blue LED, making white LEDs possible and winning them the 2014 Nobel prize in Physics.

Blue LEDs diodes are coated with phosphor to make them white, not dissimilar to fluorescent tubes.

The dark side of the light bulb

As with many great inventions, there is a dark side to the history light bulb. In 1924 an international group of lightbulb manufacturers (the Phoebus cartel) gathered. Their goal: to split the international lightbulb market and monopolize it. At the same time, they invented built-in obsolescence.

They reduced the light bulb’s life span from around 1,500-2,000 hours down to 1,000 hours. They justified this by claiming that their bulbs “burned more brightly and of higher quality light”. With all major world lightbulb manufacturers in agreement, who was to stop them? Pretty incredible when you learn that the longest lasting lightbulb (the Centennial Light) has been burning – almost non-stop – since 1901!

Centennial Light, Fire Station #6, Livermore, California switched on in 1901 and still burning. Watch the Centennial lightbulb on live webcam.

The legacy of built-in obsolescence lives on with modern-day devices, for example, smartphone manufacturers that release updates to slow down old devices.

However, the Phoebus cartel wasn’t all bad news, the group also created international standardizations, including the E26/E27 screw-type socket that we still use today!

So who invented the light bulb?

Who do you think invented the lightbulb? Was it English Chemist Humphry Davy, German glassblower Heinrich Geissler, or maybe even Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir?


Further reading:

The History of Fluorescent Lights.” ThoughtCo

How Blue LEDs Changed the World

Introduction to Energy Efficiency and P2 in Lighting

The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy

Encyclopedia Britannia – Incandescent Lamps

Geissler Tubes (video)