Let there be light!

On this day in 1879, Thomas Alva Edison invented a workable electric light in his laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Though Edison’s was not the first light bulb ever invented, his design for the incandescent bulb was the first that was practical commercially, and thus quickly became the standard. You can read the actual news article from the New York Times announcing Edison’s breakthrough here.

Though we now almost exclusively associate Edison as the father of many modern electrical systems, at the time of the unveiling of his inventions it was by no means a foregone conclusion that his would be the prevailing technology. Though Edison’s incandescent lamp created a huge demand for power, Edison and rival inventor Nikola Tesla waged an extended battle during the end of the 19th century over whose electric standard was better, Edison’s direct current system or Tesla’s alternating current system. Tesla worked for Edison for a time in the late 1870’s, but Edison dismissed the AC system Tesla developed as competition, and reportedly refused to pay him an agreed upon fee for his work, saying his offer of $50,000 had been a joke. Tesla then struck out on his own, selling the rights to the patents for AC technology to George Westinghouse along the way, and began to develop his AC technology in earnest.

The War of the Currents was on, a war which Edison fought using a broad publicity campaign labeling Tesla’s technology as dangerous, as well as lobbying against the use of AC technology in state legislatures. The turning point came when in 1896 Westinghouse and Tesla were given the opportunity to harness Niagara Falls for electricity, and the benefits of alternating current (range, safety, cost) became clear.

Edison, despite this turn of events, continued work on his many other groundbreaking inventions, including the flouroscope (the forerunner of modern x-rays), the two-way telegraph, and many technologies associated with the motion picture industry. Edison held an extraordinary almost 1,100 patents by the end of his life, and the site of his historic laboratory is now a National Historic Site, dedicated to one of the most prolific and revolutionary inventors in history.


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