Who invented the lightbulb? Define Invent.

A buddy I work with an I have been at odds as to who ‘really’ invented the lightbulb.

IIRC, the first lightbulb was invented my Joseph Swan in the late 1800’s in Underhill. (It used a carbon filament.)

Edison improved it by using tungston.

By buddy says that since Edison ‘improved’ it and made it practical, he shouldm be credited with inventing it.

I dissagree. I believe that the first person to come up the the idea am make one should be credited.

Anyone dissagree?

History is full of examples of “the other guy actually invented it first, but this guy gets the credit.”

Charles Darwin beat “the other guy” into print by only a couple of weeks–guess who gets the credit for “inventing” evolution.

Or maybe it was the other way around–the “other guy” was in print first. At any rate, the “other guy” had the same theory, all set to go, but Darwin is the one who gets the credit.

Life isn’t fair sometimes.

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Well, shoot, I couldn’t go off and have Cecil bein’ ashamed of me…

That’s interesting…I didn’t know all that…hmmm…

But regardless of who is credited, who should be considered the inventor?

Personally, I believe the first person to realise the idea should be the inventor. I can imagine all sorts of devices, but the hard part is in getting one to work. IMHO, the people who have the ideas should receive the credit for that, and the people who actually make them work should be the “inventors” (I’m thinking of Da Vinci and helicopters here).

Edison used carbon for his first filament too – burnt banboo, I think. Tungsten came later. I don’t know why Swann doesn’t get more credit. (I think he gets more in Britain. In the Sherlock Holmes story “Hound of the Baskervilles” Henry Baskerville talks about dispelling the gloom before Baskerville Hall by installing a “Swann and Edison” lamp.)

IIRC, neither man was able to get any filament to work earlier because the vacuum inside their bulb wasn;t good enough. It was the creation of a new German vacuum pump thatr went to lower pressures that allowed both men to proceed. In essence, both men succeeded about simultaneously because they were limited by the same technical problem, and took advantage of the same advance.
You can aask the same question about the telephone – there’s another fellow whose patent was in the office at the same time as Bell’s. So why does Bell get ALL the credit? I suspect it has a lot to do with Edison and Bell’s penchant for self-promotion.

Then there’s the story that Janmes Burke tells about celluloid film. He claims that a clergyman invented the process for putting photigraphic emulsion on celluloid, but that Eastman (of Kodak) kept dogging him in court, so he never profited from his invention. Wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.

You mean it wasn’t Tesla?

That was Elisia Gray…Gray actually invented it first.
And, IIRC, submitted the patent first, but Bell paid off the guys at the patent office.

I do not know the validity of the ‘pay off’ but I have heard it from many sources.

The telephone was invented by Salvatore Miucci, and Italian immigrant , in Brooklyn NY. Miucci tried to file hispatent application, but the patent office “lost” his application, until afetr the patent was granted to Bell.
Just think-instead of the “bell” system, we would have had the “Miucci” system!

cool, egkelly; got any cites for that? I’d like to bring them with me on Christmas so as to make my Brooklyn-Italian family proud. :slight_smile:


The question is almost futile. There are very few inventions that can be definitively attributed to any one person or group. Just about anything one can think of is based on some other things that someone else thought of. Usually, an invention is just putting together those pieces in a different way, or making some change that looks relatively minor by itself but makes the package practical.

So who invented the light bulb? The person who invented the glassblowing technique or the machinery, the one who thought of tungsten, the one who thought of a filament, the one who thought of an inert gas, the one who thought of a vacuum, the one who invented the screw-in base, the one who thought electric light might be useful but knew a generation/distribution system would be needed and invented that? How about the person who just kept tweaking dimensions etc. until making it work, even if nothing in particular he did was really new? That’s just an incomplete but typical chain of stuff for a simple item; it gets much more complicated for other stuff.

But usually the credit in our society goes to the person or company whose own innovation and effort first made the invention practical and commercially successful. That makes Edison the winner, fairly or not, and I do think it’s fair. You could say the same about Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, or many others.

A 1913 lecture on the history of incandescent bulbs can be found at:


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Salient points from the lecture are:

By William J. Hammer

While Mr. Thomas Alva Edison is universally recognized as the father of the commercial incandescent electric lamp, it is nevertheless a fact that there were incandescent electric lamps made long before Mr. Edison’s time; yes, even before he was born.
In the year 1810 Sir Humphrey Davy, in the Royal Institution in London, with his famous battery of 2,000 cells and his pieces of willow charcoal, formed a 4-inch electric bow or “arc” and this experiment laid the foundation for all subsequent “arc” lighting systems. It is interesting to note that he was also the founder of incandescent electric lighting, as he at this early period made both platinum and carbon incandescent by means of his famous battery. After describing his experiments with the arc light, he says, “And a platinum wire 1/30 of an inch in thickness and 18 inches long, placed in circuit between the bars of copper, instantly became red hot, then white hot, and the brilliancy of the light was insupportable to the eye.”
The first English patent on the incandescent electric lamp was that of De Moleyns in 1841. He proposed to sprinkle finely divided carbon or graphite over the surface of an incandescent platinum wire.
Mr. J. W. Starr, a young man from Cincinnati, Ohio, a protege of the well known philanthropist Peabody, in 1845 took out a patent, through his English attorney, King, in whose name the patent appears, for a lamp consisting of a strip of graphite in a Torricellian vacuum. It is very interesting to note that in the year of his death 1847 (the very year, by the way, in which Mr. Edison was born) Starr had the privilege of exhibiting before the immortal Faraday a chandelier, or electrolier, of 26 of these lamps, representing the 26 states which constituted the Union at that time.
In 1858 Gardner and Blossom took out the first American patent in this field, it being for a platinum lamp to be used for a railway signal lamp. One of these lamps may be seen today in the Patent Office Museum at Washington, D. C."**

There’s a lot more of the same. As to whom should get the credit - take your pick!