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Edison's Electric Light

The Art of Invention

Robert Friedel and Paul Israel

Publication Year: 2010

In September 1878, Thomas Alva Edison brashly—and prematurely—proclaimed his breakthrough invention of a workable electric light. That announcement was followed by many months of intense experimentation that led to the successful completion of his Pearl Street station four years later. Edison was not alone—nor was he first—in developing an incandescent light bulb, but his was the most successful of all competing inventions. Drawing from the documents in the Edison archives, Robert Friedel and Paul Israel explain how this came to be. They explore the process of invention through the Menlo Park notes, discussing the full range of experiments, including the testing of a host of materials, the development of such crucial tools as the world's best vacuum pump, and the construction of the first large-scale electrical generators and power distribution systems. The result is a fascinating story of excitement, risk, and competition. Revised and updated from the original 1986 edition, this definitive study of the most famous invention of America's most famous inventor is completely keyed to the printed and electronic versions of the Edison Papers, inviting the reader to explore further the remarkable original sources.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Technology

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pp. vii

Thomas Edison’s name is synonymous with invention, and his most famous invention, the electric light bulb, is a familiar symbol for that flash of inspired genius traditionally associated with the inventive act. Besides being the exemplar of the “bright idea,” however, Edison’s electric light is worthy of study for other reasons. The technical...

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1. “A Big Bonanza”

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pp. 1-23 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1112

In 1878, Thomas Edison was only 31 years old, but he had already produced enough significant inventions to credit a lifetime. The press recognized this achievement by calling him the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” Beginning with his improved stock ticker of 1869, ...

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2. “The Throes of Invention”

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pp. 24-44 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1113

Up to the end of 1878, Edison’s attack on the problem of “subdividing the light” was really little different from that of would-be inventors who had preceded him or of rivals who were then in the midst of their own efforts. What was to distinguish Edison’s ...

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The Search for a Vacuum

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pp. 45-47 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1114

On January 19, 1879, Edison became aware that gases were entrapped in platinum and suspected that they might play a major role in its mechanical and electrical properties. His January experiments with platinum and other metals indicated that, ...

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3. “Some Difficult Requirements”

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pp. 48-66 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1115

Despite the complexity that continued to characterize his efforts, by the spring of 1879 Edison believed that he had finally solved the key technical problems of the platinum lamp. To be sure, the various regulators he still employed were troublesome ...

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Carbon and the Incandescent Lamp

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pp. 67-68 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1116

Because of its resistance and ability to withstand high temperatures, carbon was a natural choice for use in an incandescent lamp. Of course, it had to be enclosed in either an inert gas or a vacuum to prevent it from oxidizing. But ...

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4. The Triumph of Carbon

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pp. 69-90 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1117

Much has been written about the events at Menlo Park in October of 1879, the most pivotal month in all of Edison’s work on the electric light. Despite the attention given the activity of those autumn weeks in accounts ranging from contemporary newspaper ...

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Who Invented the Incandescent Lamp?

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pp. 91-93 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1118

Edison was neither the only nor the first inventor to try to make an incandescent electric light. The following list, adapted from Arthur A. Bright’s The Electric Lamp Industry (New York: Macmillan, 1949), contains over twenty predecessors or contemporaries. ...

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5. Business and Science

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pp. 94-117 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1119

On new year’s eve, 1879, Edison put on public display not simply his carbon lamp but the first detailed version of a complete electric light and power system. As the newspapers reported, this was made clear to everyone who came to Menlo Park. The ...

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The Menlo Park Mystique

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pp. 118-120 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1120

Although Menlo Park has, with considerable justification, been called the world’s first industrial research laboratory, it was not, in its essential organization, a prototype for those that followed. Later laboratories would provide an environment ...

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6. A System Complete

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pp. 121-154 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1121

In the first months of 1880, the laboratory at Menlo Park completed the transition from a research establishment, devoted to discovering how to construct a practical incandescent lamp, to a development center, driven by the economic and technical requisites of a marketable system. In some ways, the activities were little different than they had been: a myriad projects pursued at once, a ...

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7. Promises Fulfilled

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pp. 155-188 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1122

In 1880 Edison’s establishment at Menlo Park had evolved from a laboratory primarily devoted to invention to a site for the development and manufacture of components of the Edison lighting system. The little New Jersey village was not well suited for ...

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pp. 189-200 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1123

Thomas Edison’s “method” has been the subject of wonder, comment, and analysis at least since the popular press identified the man as a phenomenon in the late 1870s. The first booklength biography of Edison was a popular work by James McClure, ...

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pp. 201-204 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.5279

When we began working on Edison’s Electric Light in 1980, we were undertaking “an experiment in archival historiography” designed to produce both a more accurate and a richer account of Edison’s most famous inventive project through a close reading of the ...


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pp. 205-220 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.5280

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pp. 221-224 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.5281

A large body of modern studies have examined Edison’s life and work taking into account the technological processes that were the foundation of his contributions to the electric light and other inventions. This has been particularly true from the last decades of the twentieth century to the present.


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pp. 225-233 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.5282

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899447
E-ISBN-10: 0801899443
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894824
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894824

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 20 halftones
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Technology

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Subject Headings

  • Incandescent lamps -- History.
  • Edison, Thomas A. -- (Thomas Alva), -- 1847-1931.
  • Inventors -- United States -- Biography.
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