Eyewitness Reports in History Edison and the Electric Light Part 2

An eyewitness account of Thomas Edison inventing the electric light, an important event in American history.

Edison and the Electric Light

Edison needed money for new equipment and pay for his lab assistants, so he went for help to J.P. Morgan, the New York banker. Edison told Morgan that he could turn out a marketable electric light in six weeks and convinced him that the invention would be a gold mine. In turn, Morgan talked other bankers into forming the Edison Electric Light Company in October of 1878. Three thousand company shares were issued but did not sell; therefore, to stimulate business Edison lied to the newspapers, telling reporters that he had already invented an electric light. The deception worked. The company's stock was bought up, and Morgan gave Edison $50,000 to conduct his research.

For the next year Edison worked 20 hours a day with his five assistants. Electric light was not a new concept. Seventy years earlier, in England, Humphry Davy had produced a glaring electric light by passing current through two sticks of charcoal, but after several minutes the charcoal was burned to cinders. Throughout the 19th century inventors had all encountered the same problem, which was that electricity quickly melted the filament--the substance the electrical current passed through to produce light. For this reason lights were impractical, since they lasted only a few minutes before burning out. Edison attacked this problem by enclosing the filament in a glass bulb and creating a vacuum inside the bulb, thereby removing the oxygen which caused the filament to burn. Also, Edison tested a multitude of substances as filaments, including various types of bamboo.

Finally, he manufactured carbonized cotton thread and used it as a filament. It worked, and Edison's electric light bulb was turned on, on Oct. 21, 1879. Emitting a reddish light, it burned for over 40 hours, and quit then only because Edison increased the voltage to see how much the filament could take before burning out.

Eyewitness Report: In 1907, in an interview with his biographer, Francis Arthur Jones, Edison gave this account of his successful experiment:

"We had to take this piece of carbonized thread [the filament] to the glassblower's house. With the utmost precaution Batchelor [Charles Batchelor, one of Edison's lab assistants] took up the previous carbon, and I marched after him, as if guarding a mighty treasure. To our consternation, just as we reached the glassblower's bench, the wretched carbon broke. We turned back to the main laboratory and set to work again. It was late in the afternoon before we had produced another carbon, which was again broken by a jeweler's screwdriver falling against it. But we turned back again, and before night the carbon was completed and inserted in the lamp. The bulb was exhausted of air and sealed, the current turned on, and the sight we had so long desired to see met our eyes....We sat and looked, and the lamp continued to burn, and the longer it burned, the more fascinated we were. None of us could go to bed--there was no sleep for any of us for 40 hours. We sat and just watched it with anxiety growing into elation. It lasted about 45 hours. If it burned that number of hours...I knew I could make it burn 100 hours...."

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