Canada 2017

How many people does it take to invent a light bulb? At least two Canadians

It’s no coincidence that Thomas Edison’s triumphant light bulb design used a carbon filament. He bought the patent rights to a breakthrough by two Canadians.

The Canadian patent behind Thomas Edison's breakthrough

It’s no coincidence that Thomas Edison’s triumphant light bulb design used a carbon filament. He bought the patent rights to a breakthrough by two Canadians.

Welcome time travellers! Inspired by the missing journal pages in Murdoch Mysteries: Beyond Time, we're exploring what the world might have been like without a few extraordinary Canadians.


Everyone knows who lit up the world with the incandescent light bulb in 1879: Thomas Edison.

Everyone knows it, and yet Canada's Patent #3738 quietly, stubbornly disagrees. It was filed in 1874 by Toronto's Mathew Evans and Henry Woodward, for the invention of an electric light.

In the dark

For those of us who live in Canadian cities today, it's hard to picture how dark streets were in the late 1800s, and how unsafe people felt walking at night. It wasn't just fear of unseen attackers; Victoria's British Colonist reported that residents were actually afraid of tripping and falling on uneven sidewalks.

Cities felt pressured to invest in street lights, but gas, coal oil (or kerosene) and electric arc lamps each had their own problems. Arc lamps threw off dangerous UV radiation, and were so bright they were hard to look at directly. Coal oil lamps had a relatively dim and dirty burn. Gas was popular, but expensive.

For those of us who live in Canadian cities today, it's hard to picture how dark streets were in the late 1800s, and how unsafe people felt walking at night.

In truth, many hands cradled the idea of the incandescent light: pushing electricity through a material to make it glow. The trick was finding a material that would create enough light without melting or burning up.

Each inventor refined the idea.

In 1820, Warren De La Rue invented an incandescent light in a vacuum tube with a platinum filament. It produced light, but the platinum was expensive.

Later, Alexander Lodygin tried bulbs filled with nitrogen.

This undated file photo shows Thomas Edison's incandescent lamp, the first practical light bulb, developed in 1879. Edison used carbonized bamboo for the filament. (AP)

Then along came Woodward and Evans. Not much is written about the Canadian duo.

In their 1874 patent, Woodward describes himself as a "medical electrician," and Evans is listed as a "gentleman." Their "new and useful improvements" to the idea involved using carbon as the filament. Carbon could get extremely hot without melting, but was far cheaper than platinum.

It's no coincidence that Thomas Edison's triumphant lightbulb design also used a carbon filament: he actually bought Woodward and Evans' patent rights in both Canada and the United States.

So when Edison patented his incandescent lightbulb in 1879, it was not a novel idea. England's Joseph Swan developed a similar lightbulb in 1878. But Edison improved on many other teams' ideas, and created an energy company to spread his innovation.

As he tinkered with the design, the lifespan of a lightbulb stretched from half a day to 150 hours to 1200 hours.

Before long, cities across North America were experimenting with electric light at home and in the street.

Coming to light

For a few decades, incandescent bulbs hung side by side with older technologies. But customers warmed up to a cheaper light source that wouldn't blacken their ceilings or flicker the way gas lamps would. (Anyone who's ever tried to read a book by candlelight can appreciate how much harder it was to read and study.)

When Edison patented his incandescent lightbulb in 1879, it was not a novel idea.

In St. John's, disaster hastened the transition.

Gas and electric lights were both popular until a massive fire ripped through the city in 1892. It burned down about a third of the buildings in the city, and destroyed infrastructure from both the gas and electric company.

Gas customers had to wait for nearly two years in some areas for rubble to be cleared for new gas mains, while the electric company was back online in a matter of months.

By the early 1900s, incandescent bulbs became the major light source in Canadian cities. Electrification went more slowly in rural areas and on reserves. Many First Nations in Alberta didn't have electricity on reserve until the 1950s and '60s.

Today, electric light seems indispensable — perhaps a human right. It has profoundly changed the way we work, sleep, study and play.

And on the long relay race to that invention, two Canadians held the baton.

It’s no coincidence that Thomas Edison’s triumphant light bulb design used a carbon filament. He bought the patent rights to a breakthrough by two Canadians.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is the Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton and News Coordinator at CJSR 88.5 FM. He also produces a monthly history podcast called Let's Find Out where he asks Edmontonians for questions about local history, and then they find out the answers together.

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