Introduction

Thomas Alva Edison’s 1889 invention of the first commercially practical incandescent bulb continues to light the public’s imagination of the brilliant but lone innovator working long hours in the laboratory. Edison is credited with inventing a better filament as well as an improved vacuum seal around this incandescent material. Today, we recognize Edison’s bulb as a “disruptive technology,”1 one that not only upset traditional lighting customs2 but also created the power industry. Indeed, it has transformed how people the world over live and work.

Yet, Edison was not the first to invent the incandescent bulb; some 20 groups had worked for 40 years to develop a brighter and more reliable light bulb before Edison’s eventual success.3 Edison’s genius, in retrospect, lay more in develop-

1  

See Clayton Christensen, Thomas Craig, and Stuart Hart, “The Great Disruption,” Foreign Affairs 80(2): 80-95, 2001. The authors argue that a key reason national economies rise and fall is their ability to nurture disruptive technologies. These innovations lead to new classes of cheaper and more efficient products than their predecessors. They relate the United States’ ability to exploit such disruptions to its recent robust economic performance.

2  

The introduction of electric light is one milestone in the long history of disruptive technologies in lighting—from the domestication of fire by Australopithecus, to the use of oil lamps and candles, and beyond. For an economist’s perspective on the history of lighting, see William E. Nordhaus, “Do Real Output and Real Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not,” in Timothy F. Bresnahan and Robert J. Gordon (eds.), The Economics of New Goods, vol. 58, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 29-70.

3  

In 1860, an English physicist and electrician, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, produced his first experimental light bulb using carbonized paper as a filament. Unfortunately, Swan did not have a strong enough vacuum or sufficiently powerful batteries and his prototype did not achieve complete incandescence. See Kenneth R. Swan, Sir Joseph Swan and the Invention of the Incandescent Electric Lamp, London: British Council, 1948.



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