Who Invented the Light Bulb? The Story Of Lewis Latimer and the Evolution of the Light Bulb

Written By Timarea Kimbrough, Writer

Lewis Latimer
Lewis Latimer

Many credit Thomas Edison for being the inventor of the light bulb. What people often fail to realize is that the history of the light bulb begins before Edison claimed to have invented it and doesn’t end after Edison turned one on for the first time. The truth is that multiple engineers are responsible for the creation of the light bulb, most notably Lewis Latimer, who is responsible for the light bulb we know and love today.

Edison used the discoveries of other engineers to create his light bulb, such as Italian inventor Alessandro Volta’s method of generating electricity. This method was called the voltaic pile and consisted of discs of zinc, copper, and cardboard that were soaked in saltwater. The voltaic pile would conduct electricity when connected to a copper wire on either end, and allowed for scientists to conduct electricity like they never had before. Edison would also borrow ideas from Sir Humphrey Davy. Davy used the voltaic pile and attached it to two carbon rods filled with charcoal electrodes. When charged, an arc of light would emit from the two rods. 

The voltaic pile
Alessandro Volta’s invention. The voltaic pile.

With Davy’s work, we were able to create light powered by electricity. Many engineers used this design and would refine it using expensive materials that were not available to non-engineers. Joseph Swan created a more cost-effective design that involved a carbonized paper filament placed within a vacuum tube. The vacuum tube would reduce the amount of oxygen near the filament and allow the light to shine for longer. While Swan’s design was more effective, vacuum tubes around that time were not, this meant that Swan’s design was perfect for demonstration but not for day-to-day usage. This is when Thomas Edison joined the story and innovated Swan’s design by replacing the filament with a thinner carbonized bamboo filament. The bamboo filament was smaller and resistant to electricity which means it would burn longer than Swan’s. While this light bulb was the most innovative and functioning at the time, it is not the one we know and love today.

Vacuum tube light
Joseph Swan’s innovation. Vacuum tube light.

Lewis Latimer was the man to give us today’s fully functioning and cost-friendly light bulb. Latimer was a black inventor and pioneer in electricity who worked as a patent lawyer for notable inventors such as Hiram Maxim and Alexander Graham Bell before innovating the light bulb. After around 11 years of working as a lawyer, Latimer would begin his work at the Edison General Electric Company. During his time there, he published a book with details regarding Edison’s system and the development of incandescent light. He saw that the bamboo filament within Edison’s design could be improved, so he replaced Edison’s carbonized bamboo filament with a carbon filament placed in cardboard, resulting in the light bulb we know today.

Oftentimes the history taught in schools is simplified so that children may understand it better. Some critique the way we are taught in American public schools and even say things like “We were lied to!” and “We were taught the wrong history,”. While these claims hold some truth, I believe we should consider who gets to tell these stories. We often blame our teachers and the education system itself for not supplying us with the full truths and honest narratives. We should be more like Latimer, and improve our current ways of teaching history so that future generations can better enlighten themselves.

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