The Future Looks Bright…but not Incandescent

The future looks bright, but not incandescent.  So starts this eulogy to the Edison bulb; a bright spot in our daily lives for over 100 years. Kudos go to the man who invented it. Actually there are approximately 22 men who had a hand in the light bulb’s evolution. So kudos to the man who got most of the credit! It doesn’t take a genius to come up with a good idea, but if you market it well you are considered one.

A Little Bit of History: In 1809 Humphry Davy invented the first electric light bulb. It consisted of two wires connected to a battery which made a strip of charcoal glow. In 1820, Warren De La Rue put a platinum coil in an evacuated tube and achieved even better results. Entrepreneurs over the years made successive improvements to the idea, but it wasn’t until 1875 that Herman Sprengal invented the mercury vacuum pump which produced a good enough vacuum to make the electric light bulb practical.

Leave it to Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans to patent the technology that same year. Why don’t we call it the Woodward bulb? because entrepreneurs Woodward and Evans could not raise the capital to finance the commercialization of their patent idea. Their investors seemed to take a dim view of this new technology. Who in their right mind would want to replace perfectly good gas lighting?

Along came Tommy A, the American whiz kid of the 19th century, who was working on the same idea. He bought the rights to Woodward and Evan’s patent and was off and running. With a syndicate of industrial interests providing venture capital, Edison perfected the product we have been using for the past 130 years.

Tommy A did not invent the lightbulb, but he was able to commercialize and capitalize on a 50-year-old idea and in the process made a lot of people a lot of money. If this success story sounds familiar (again thank Tommy A for democratizing sound) it is. This story follows the arc of all successful technological introductions, in this case it is an electric arc.

A Little Bit of a Detour: Bringing the lightbulb to market was not simply a matter of repackaging Woodward and Evan’s patent. Edison invented seven more elements in order to make electric lighting a practical alternative to gas lighting. He is credited with the development of the parallel circuit, a more durable bulb form, he created an improved dynamo, created devices for maintaining constant voltage, created safety fuses and insulating materials, and last but no least he created the screw-in light socket with an on-off switch. Which leads me to my DUH moment: along the path to a great idea, something or someone always gets screwed.

The first public demonstration of Edison’s incandescent lighting system was held in Menlo Park New Jersey in 1879, which led to the birth of the electric utility industry in the 1880s. Edison’s genius was in his ability to develop both a great idea and the system needed to support that great idea. His lightbulb moment was envisioning all the pieces of delivering electric light to the masses as one elegant connected system.

One more Diversion: The first commercial power station was built on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. It provided power to customers within a one-mile radius of the facility. It must have been quite the event to take a carriage ride downtown to see the electric spectacle of Pearl Street. The Pearl Street Power Plant burned coal and initially served 59 customers who in 1882 paid $0.24 per kilowatt hour for electricity. Things have not changed that much since then.

So this eulogy to the incandescent lightbulb, which is officially being retired as of January 1st, 2014, is really an homage to a bright idea and to the man who has come to be known for his bright ideas. Thomas Alva Edison, Tommy A. as he is known to the homeys in Menlo Park, is a role model for the successive generations of techies, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. He saw the bigger idea behind a good idea and had the skill to bring it to market. He had the organization and organizational backing to deliver at scale. He spawned an industry that begat many others. He probably had no idea that his lightbulb moment would become a cultural meme. He was too busy pursuing the next great idea, and in the process helped establish a great legacy of American technological innovation.

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