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A History of Electric Light

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On September 4, 1882, one square mile of lower Manhattan was aglow with light as the first commercial power station went into operation. Thanks to Thomas Edison's brilliance, for about 24 cents per kilowatt hour, 59 customers were provided with lights and electricity at night. By the late 1880s, the demand for that service had grown so much that small power stations could be found in many U.S. and European cities. We're still amazed by all the practical and aesthetic possibilities offered by lighting.

Electrifying Timeline:

  1. Arc lamps preceded light bulbs. These lamps produced light by creating an electric arc running between two charcoal rods. Inventor Humphrey Davy proved this in 1806, but the lamps weren't widely manufactured until the 1870s, when newly improved generators could efficiently power lighting systems. Some cities used arc lamps as their first electric streetlights, including London, Paris, and Cleveland. However, arc lights were inefficient because the rods had to be replaced as they burned down. Light bulbs would become the best alternative to arc lights.

  2. Inventors worked on electric lighting throughout the 19th century. In 1840, Englishman Warren de la Rue created one of the first light bulbs. He placed a platinum coil in a glass tube and ran an electric current through it. It worked well, but platinum was expensive, so the bulb wasn't practical for widespread use. Then, in 1860, Joseph Swan got a patent for his incandescent light bulb, which had a filament made of carbonized paper instead of platinum. It was dim and didn't burn for many hours; nonetheless, the English city of Newcastle upon Tyne started using Swan's design in 1879, making it the first city to use electric bulbs for street lighting.

  3. Thomas Alva Edison perfected the incandescent light bulb. He purchased Swan's patent, worked on the design -- switching to carbonized cotton for the filament -- and by 1880 produced a bulb that would burn 1200 hours. Edison had found that oxygen-free glass bulbs would burn a long time. In the early 1900s, the General Electric Company, founded by Edison, started using tungsten as the filament in bulbs; it is still used.

  4. The technology spread quickly. In 1895, the first large-scale power station opened at Niagara Falls, New York. It used alternating current (AC); Edison had used direct current (DC), but researchers later found that a two-phase alternating current invented by Nikola Tesla transmitted power over long distances better, and that became the standard. Builders started incorporating electric wiring into designs for new houses and commercial buildings. By the early 1940s, electric lighting had spread across the United States.

  5. Decorative lighting became an important design element. As the novelty of newly installed bulbs wore off, craftsmen started designing frames to better control the light. This period coincided with the Art Nouveau movement (1890-1910), and the new sconces and pendant lights reflected the movement's elegant aesthetic. The Tiffany Glass Company of New York City crafted the first electric Tiffany lamps in 1895, making illuminated stained glass art more available to the public. Neon lighting began its journey into 20th-century culture in the 1920s. By the '40s, soft-light incandescent bulbs offered an alternative to the harsh glare of older bulbs.

  6. Electric lighting has gone green. Incandescent lights require warming a filament to produce light, so a lot of energy is lost as heat. To eliminate this inefficiency, researchers have developed bulbs that use less energy than incandescent bulbs. General Electric showcased the first fluorescent bulbs at the New York World's Fair in 1939. Fluorescence is a cold light that doesn't need heat to glow. The first low-energy compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) were produced in the 1970s, and Philips Lighting produced the first CFL that could simply replace incandescent bulbs for lighting sockets in 1980. Today's long-spectrum bulbs last for several years and are energy-efficient, making them both economical and environmentally friendly.

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