The Electric Light Bulb is Invented

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | October 22, 2011

October 22, 2011
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When the visionary inventor and entrepreneur Steve Jobs died some two weeks ago, he was compared, repeatedly, to just one person: Thomas Alva Edison. That 19th century wizard held over a thousand patents, inventing the phonograph, the motion picture camera and most significantly, the electric light. In this extraordinary letter, here Edison writes about the epic work that lit up the entire world – on the very day, October 22, 1879, it was invented…

The primacy of the matter was unmistakable: God Himself, after all, had made it the subject of his first decree. “Let there be light.”  When, millennia later, that effect, if not the feat, was replicated, on the night of October 22, 1879 in Menlo Park, New Jersey, it was hailed as the greatest invention in modern history. But whereas it had taken the Deity but four words to illuminate the cosmos, it had taken 32 year-old Thomas Edison some 2000 tries to make a bulb with a fragile filament of carbonized thread glow on earth for the very first time. This extraordinary letter was written about that epic work, on the very day it was realized. It is brief, concise and wonderfully – almost miraculously – prescient:

Your favor of the 19th was duly received.  The megaphone is not yet completed and I am quite unable to say when it will be as at present I am busily engaged on the electric light.

Why the “megaphone” – an incredible amplifier of the human voice, allowing a speaker to be heard up to two miles away – was temporarily set aside had to do with a pivotal decision Edison had just made concerning yet another long-standing project: electric light. Replacing rare and expensive platinum for cheap and plentiful carbon as the crux of an incandescent bulb, experiments on electric light were, suddenly, coming fast and furious.   Tried were celluloid, cedar, coconut hair, fishing line, and cotton soaked in boiling tar; until, late in the evening of the 22nd of October, a thread of cotton was carbonized – and glowed for an astonishing 13 ½ hours, at a level of light equal to thirty candles. Thomas Edison, having made night day, changed human life on the planet, and so became, the greatest American inventor – of his time.

Not less than a quarter century after Edison’s death, Steve Jobs was born. Soon, once again, the inventive genius of one man would remake the world.

THOMAS EDISON. 1847-1931. American inventor and businessman.

Autograph Letter Signed (“T.A. Edison”), 1 page, octavo, Menlo Park, New Jersey, October 22, 1879. To Eleanor Hallowell Stroud.