In 1878 Thomas Edison began working on a system of electrical illumination, something he hoped could compete with gas- and oil-based lighting. He began by tackling the problem of creating a long-lasting incandescent lamp, something that would be needed for indoor use. Many earlier inventors had previously devised incandescent lamps, but they were commercially impractical because they had flaws such as an extremely short life, high expense to produce, and high electric current drawn.
After many experiments, first with carbon filaments and then with platinum and other metals, in the end Edison returned to a carbon filament. The first successful test was on October 22, 1879, and it lasted 13½ hours.
Edison continued to improve this design and by November 4, 1879, filed for US patent 223,898 (granted on January 27, 1880) for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires.” Although the patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including “cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways,” it was not until several months after the patent was granted that Edison and his team discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that could last over 1,200 hours.
Edison had worked on his invention for years and it took him hundreds of attempts to finally get it right. When he finally did find the answer, he then set about the task of making light bulbs. But, since there was no such thing as mass production at the time, each bulb had to be made by hand and it took his team 24 straight hours of meticulous, painstaking work to make just one bulb.
Now I’ve heard the next part of the story described as an “urban legend,” but I believe it to be true because the story was first related to me by my mentor Jim Newton, who was accepted as a member of Thomas and Mina Edison’s Fort Myers household in the final years before Edison died in 1931. Jim knew the great man intimately and could discern fact from legend.
When Edison’s team had fabricated that first light bulb, Edison turned and surveyed each of his co-workers as if he was sizing each of them up. After surveying them all, Edison handed the light bulb to a young boy who was helping in the lab, entrusting him with the very delicate task of carrying the first light bulb ever produced upstairs and placing it gently into a vacuum machine.
Needless to say, this bulb was very precious and the boy knew it. Step by step he cautiously watched his hands, obviously frightened of dropping such a priceless piece of work. But the boy was concentrating so hard on making sure that the bulb didn’t slip from his hands that he forgot to watch his feet. He tripped at the top of the stairs and dropped the bulb and it shattered.
Undeterred by the setback, Edison put his team back to work. Their effort to construct the second light bulb consumed an additional 24 hours. Exhausted from so much work and ready for a break, Edison was ready to have his bulb carried up the stairs again. He once again looked around and surveyed each of his co-workers to determine who would carry the bulb upstairs.
Everyone was shocked when Edison selected the young boy who had dropped it the first time. Edison knew that the boy was probably devastated by the first incident. He decided to give the boy another chance. This time the boy successfully completed his task.
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