Thomas Alva Edison
In Menlo Park, NJ
HIS LIFE AND INVENTIONS
FRANK LEWIS DYER
GENERAL COUNSEL FOR THE EDISON LABORATORY
AND ALLIED INTERESTS
THOMAS COMMERFORD MARTIN
EX-PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE
OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS
Published in New York by Harper Brothers, 1929
THE INVENTION OF THE INCANDESCENT LAMP
IT is possible to imagine a time to come when the hours of work and rest will once more be regulated by the sun. But the course of civilization has been marked by an artificial lengthening of the day, and by a constant striving after more perfect means of illumination. Why mankind should sleep through several hours of sunlight in the morning, and stay awake through a needless time in the evening, can probably only be attributed to total depravity. It is certainly a most stupid, expensive, and harmful habit. In no one thing has man shown greater fertility of invention than in lighting; to nothing does he cling more tenaciously than to his devices for furnishing light. Electricity to-day reigns supreme in the field of illumination, but every other kind of artificial light that has ever been known is still in use somewhere. Toward its light-bringers the race has assumed an attitude of veneration, though it has forgotten, if it ever heard, the names of those who first brightened its gloom and dissipated its darkness. If the tallow candle, hitherto unknown, were now invented, its creator would be hailed as one of the greatest benefactors of the present age.
Up to the close of the eighteenth century, the means of house and street illumination were of two generic kinds--grease and oil; but then came a swift and revolutionary change in the adoption of gas. The ideas and methods of Murdoch and Lebon soon took definite shape, and "coal smoke" was piped from its place of origin to distant points of consumption. As early as 1804, the first company ever organized for gas lighting was formed in London, one side of Pall Mall being lit up by the enthusiastic pioneer, Winsor, in 1807. Equal activity was shown in America, and Baltimore began the practice of gas lighting in 1816. It is true that there were explosions, and distinguished men like Davy and Watt opined that the illuminant was too dangerous; but the "spirit of coal" had demonstrated its usefulness convincingly, and a commercial development began, which, for extent and rapidity, was not inferior to that marking the concurrent adoption of steam in industry and transportation.
Meantime the wax candle and the Argand oil lamp held their own bravely. The whaling fleets, long after gas came into use, were one of the greatest sources of our national wealth. To New Bedford, Massachusetts, alone, some three or four hundred ships brought their whale and sperm oil, spermaceti, and whalebone; and at one time that port was accounted the richest city in the United States in proportion to its population. The ship-owners and refiners of that whaling metropolis were slow to believe that their monopoly could ever be threatened by newer sources of illumination; but gas had become available in the cities, and coal-oil and petroleum were now added to the list of illuminating materials. The American whaling fleet, which at the time of Edison's birth mustered over seven hundred sail, had dwindled probably to a bare tenth when he took up the problem of illumination; and the competition of oil from the ground with oil from the sea, and with coal-gas, had made the artificial production of light cheaper than ever before, when up to the middle of the century it had remained one of the heaviest items of domestic expense. Moreover, just about the time that Edison took up incandescent lighting, water-gas was being introduced on a large scale as a commercial illuminant that could be produced at a much lower cost than coal-gas.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the search for a practical electric light was almost wholly in the direction of employing methods analogous to those already familiar; in other words, obtaining the illumination from the actual consumption of the light-giving material. In the third quarter of the century these methods were brought to practicality, but all may be referred back to the brilliant demonstrations of Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution, circa 1809-10, when, with the current from a battery of two thousand cells, he produced an intense voltaic arc between the points of consuming sticks of charcoal. For more than thirty years the arc light remained an expensive laboratory experiment; but the coming of the dynamo placed that illuminant on a commercial basis. The mere fact that electrical energy from the least expensive chemical battery using up zinc and acids costs twenty times as much as that from a dynamo--driven by steam-engine--is in itself enough to explain why so many of the electric arts lingered in embryo after their fundamental principles had been discovered. Here is seen also further proof of the great truth that one invention often waits for another.
From 1850 onward the improvements in both the arc lamp and the dynamo were rapid; and under the superintendence of the great Faraday, in 1858, protecting beams of intense electric light from the voltaic arc were shed over the waters of the Straits of Dover from the beacons of South Foreland and Dungeness. By 1878 the arc-lighting industry had sprung into existence in so promising a manner as to engender an extraordinary fever and furor of speculation. At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, Wallace-Farmer dynamos built at Ansonia, Connecticut, were shown, with the current from which arc lamps were there put in actual service. A year or two later the work of Charles F. Brush and Edward Weston laid the deep foundation of modern arc lighting in America, securing as well substantial recognition abroad.
Thus the new era had been ushered in, but it was based altogether on the consumption of some material --carbon--in a lamp open to the air. Every lamp the world had ever known did this, in one way or another. Edison himself began at that point, and his note-books show that he made various experiments with this type of lamp at a very early stage. Indeed, his experiments had led him so far as to anticipate in 1875 what are now known as "flaming arcs," the exceedingly bright and generally orange or rose-colored lights which have been introduced within the last few years, and are now so frequently seen in streets and public places. While the arcs with plain carbons are bluish-white, those with carbons containing calcium fluoride have a notable golden glow.
He was convinced, however, that the greatest field of lighting lay in the illumination of houses and other comparatively enclosed areas, to replace the ordinary gas light, rather than in the illumination of streets and other outdoor places by lights of great volume and brilliancy. Dismissing from his mind quickly the commercial impossibility of using arc lights for general indoor illumination, he arrived at the conclusion that an electric lamp giving light by incandescence was the solution of the problem.
Edison was familiar with the numerous but impracticable and commercially unsuccessful efforts that had been previously made by other inventors and investigators to produce electric light by incandescence, and at the time that he began his experiments, in 1877, almost the whole scientific world had pronounced such an idea as impossible of fulfilment. The leading electricians, physicists, and experts of the period had been studying the subject for more than a quarter of a century, and with but one known exception had proven mathematically and by close reasoning that the "Subdivision of the Electric Light," as it was then termed, was practically beyond attainment. Opinions of this nature have ever been but a stimulus to Edison when he has given deep thought to a subject, and has become impressed with strong convictions of possibility, and in this particular case he was satisfied that the subdivision of the electric light--or, more correctly, the subdivision of the electric current--was not only possible but entirely practicable.
It will have been perceived from the foregoing chapters that from the time of boyhood, when he first began to rub against the world, his commercial instincts were alert and predominated in almost all of the enterprises that he set in motion. This characteristic trait had grown stronger as he matured, having received, as it did, fresh impetus and strength from his one lapse in the case of his first patented invention, the vote-recorder. The lesson he then learned was to devote his inventive faculties only to things for which there was a real, genuine demand, and that would subserve the actual necessities of humanity; and it was probably a fortunate circumstance that this lesson was learned at the outset of his career as an inventor. He has never assumed to be a philosopher or "pure scientist."
In order that the reader may grasp an adequate idea of the magnitude and importance of Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp, it will be necessary to review briefly the "state of the art" at the time he began his experiments on that line. After the invention of the voltaic battery, early in the last century, experiments were made which determined that heat could be produced by the passage of the electric current through wires of platinum and other metals, and through pieces of carbon, as noted al- ready, and it was, of course, also observed that if sufficient current were passed through these conductors they could be brought from the lower stage of redness up to the brilliant white heat of incandescence. As early as 1845 the results of these experiments were taken advantage of when Starr, a talented American who died at the early age of twenty-five, suggested, in his English patent of that year, two forms of small incandescent electric lamps, one having a burner made from platinum foil placed under a glass cover without excluding the air; and the other composed of a thin plate or pencil of carbon enclosed in a Torricellian vacuum. These suggestions of young Starr were followed by many other experimenters, whose improvements consisted principally in devices to increase the compactness and portability of the lamp, in the sealing of the lamp chamber to prevent the admission of air, and in means for renewing the carbon burner when it had been consumed. Thus Roberts, in 1852, proposed to cement the neck of the glass globe into a metallic cup, and to provide it with a tube or stop-cock for exhaustion by means of a hand-pump. Lodyguine, Konn, Kosloff, and Khotinsky, between 1872 and 1877, proposed various ingenious devices for perfecting the joint between the metal base and the glass globe, and also provided their lamps with several short carbon pencils, which were automatically brought into circuit successively as the pencils were consumed. In 1876 or 1877, Bouliguine proposed the employment of a long carbon pencil, a short section only of which was in circuit at any one time and formed the burner, the lamp being provided with a mechanism for automatically pushing other sections of the pencil into position between the contacts to renew the burner. Sawyer and Man proposed, in 1878, to make the bottom plate of glass instead of metal, and provided ingenious arrangements for charging the lamp chamber with an atmosphere of pure nitrogen gas which does not support combustion.
These lamps and many others of similar character, ingenious as they were, failed to become of any commercial value, due, among other things, to the brief life of the carbon burner. Even under the best conditions it was found that the carbon members were subject to a rapid disintegration or evaporation, which experimenters assumed was due to the disrupting action of the electric current; and hence the conclusion that carbon contained in itself the elements of its own destruction, and was not a suitable material for the burner of an incandescent lamp. On the other hand, platinum, although found to be the best of all materials for the purpose, aside from its great expense, and not combining with oxygen at high temperatures as does carbon, required to be brought so near the melting-point in order to give light, that a very slight increase in the temperature resulted in its destruction. It was assumed that the difficulty lay in the material of the burner itself, and not in its environment.
It was not realized up to such a comparatively recent date as 1879 that the solution of the great problem of subdivision of the electric current would not, however, be found merely in the production of a durable incandescent electric lamp--even if any of the lamps above referred to had fulfilled that requirement. The other principal features necessary to subdivide the electric current successfully were: the burning of an indefinite number of lights on the same circuit; each light to give a useful and economical degree of illumination; and each light to be independent of all the others in regard to its operation and extinguishment.
The opinions of scientific men of the period on the subject are well represented by the two following extracts--the first, from a lecture at the Royal United Service Institution, about February, 1879, by Mr. (Sir) W. H. Preece, one of the most eminent electricians in England, who, after discussing the question mathematically, said: "Hence the sub-division of the light is an absolute ignis fatuus." The other extract is from a book written by Paget Higgs, LL.D., D.Sc., published in London in 1879, in which he says: "Much nonsense has been talked in relation to this subject. Some inventors have claimed the power to `indefinitely divide' the electric current, not knowing or forgetting that such a statement is incompatible with the well-proven law of conservation of energy."
"Some inventors," in the last sentence just quoted, probably--indeed, we think undoubtedly--refers to Edison, whose earlier work in electric lighting (1878) had been announced in this country and abroad, and who had then stated boldly his conviction of the practicability of the subdivision of the electrical current. The above extracts are good illustrations, however, of scientific opinions up to the end of 1879, when Mr. Edison's epoch-making invention rendered them entirely untenable. The eminent scientist, John Tyndall, while not sharing these precise views, at least as late as January 17, 1879, delivered a lecture before the Royal Institution on "The Electric Light," when, after pointing out the development of the art up to Edison's work, and showing the apparent hopelessness of the problem, he said: "Knowing something of the intricacy of the practical problem, I should certainly prefer seeing it in Edison's hands to having it in mine."
The reader may have deemed this sketch of the state of the art to be a considerable digression; but it is certainly due to the subject to present the facts in such a manner as to show that this great invention was neither the result of improving some process or device that was known or existing at the time, nor due to any unforeseen lucky chance, nor the accidental result of other experiments. On the contrary, it was the legitimate outcome of a series of exhaustive experiments founded upon logical and original reasoning in a mind that had the courage and hardihood to set at naught the confirmed opinions of the world, voiced by those generally acknowledged to be the best exponents of the art--experiments carried on amid a storm of jeers and derision, almost as contemptuous as if the search were for the discovery of perpetual motion. In this we see the man foreshadowed by the boy who, when he obtained his books on chemistry or physics, did not accept any statement of fact or experiment therein, but worked out every one of them himself to ascertain whether or not they were true.
Although this brings the reader up to the year 1879, one must turn back two years and accompany Edison in his first attack on the electric-light problem. In 1877 he sold his telephone invention (the carbon transmitter) to the Western Union Telegraph Company, which had previously come into possession also of his quadruplex inventions, as already related. He was still busily engaged on the telephone, on acoustic electrical transmission, sextuplex telegraphs, duplex telegraphs, miscellaneous carbon articles, and other inventions of a minor nature. During the whole of the previous year and until late in the summer of 1877, he had been working with characteristic energy and enthusiasm on the telephone; and, in developing this invention to a successful issue, had preferred the use of carbon and had employed it in numerous forms, especially in the form of carbonized paper.
Eighteen hundred and seventy-seven in Edison's laboratory was a veritable carbon year, for it was carbon in some shape or form for interpolation in electric circuits of various kinds that occupied the thoughts of the whole force from morning to night. It is not surprising, therefore, that in September of that year, when Edison turned his thoughts actively toward electric lighting by incandescence, his early experiments should be in the line of carbon as an illuminant. His originality of method was displayed at the very outset, for one of the first experiments was the bringing to incandescence of a strip of carbon in the open air to ascertain merely how much current was required. This conductor was a strip of carbonized paper about an inch long, one-sixteenth of an inch broad, and six or seven one-thousandths of an inch thick, the ends of which were secured to clamps that formed the poles of a battery. The carbon was lighted up to incandescence, and, of course, oxidized and disintegrated immediately. Within a few days this was followed by experiments with the same kind of carbon, but in vacuo by means of a hand-worked air-pump. This time the carbon strip burned at incandescence for about eight minutes. Various expedients to prevent oxidization were tried, such, for instance, as coating the carbon with powdered glass, which in melting would protect the carbon from the atmosphere, but without successful results.
Edison was inclined to concur in the prevailing opinion as to the easy destructibility of carbon, but, without actually settling the point in his mind, he laid aside temporarily this line of experiment and entered a new field. He had made previously some trials of platinum wire as an incandescent burner for a lamp, but left it for a time in favor of carbon. He now turned to the use of almost infusible metals-- such as boron, ruthenium, chromium, etc.--as separators or tiny bridges between two carbon points, the current acting so as to bring these separators to a high degree of incandescence, at which point they would emit a brilliant light. He also placed some of these refractory metals directly in the circuit, bringing them to incandescence, and used silicon in powdered form in glass tubes placed in the electric circuit. His notes include the use of powdered silicon mixed with lime or other very infusible non-conductors or semi- conductors. Edison's conclusions on these substances were that, while in some respects they were within the bounds of possibility for the subdivision of the electric current, they did not reach the ideal that he had in mind for commercial results.
Edison's systematized attacks on the problem were two in number, the first of which we have just related, which began in September, 1877, and continued until about January, 1878. Contemporaneously, he and his force of men were very busily engaged day and night on other important enterprises and inventions. Among the latter, the phonograph may be specially mentioned, as it was invented in the late fall of 1877. From that time until July, 1878, his time and attention day and night were almost completely absorbed by the excitement caused by the invention and exhibition of the machine. In July, feeling entitled to a brief vacation after several years of continuous labor, Edison went with the expedition to Wyoming to observe an eclipse of the sun, and incidentally to test his tasimeter, a delicate instrument devised by him for measuring heat transmitted through immense distances of space. His trip has been already described. He was absent about two months. Coming home rested and refreshed, Mr. Edison says: "After my return from the trip to observe the eclipse of the sun, I went with Professor Barker, Professor of Physics in the University of Pennsylvania, and Doctor Chandler, Professor of Chemistry in Columbia College, to see Mr. Wallace, a large manufacturer of brass in Ansonia, Connecticut. Wallace at this time was experimenting on series arc lighting. Just at that time I wanted to take up something new, and Professor Barker suggested that I go to work and see if I could subdivide the electric light so it could be got in small units like gas. This was not a new suggestion, because I had made a number of experiments on electric lighting a year before this. They had been laid aside for the phonograph. I determined to take up the search again and continue it. On my return home I started my usual course of collecting every kind of data about gas; bought all the transactions of the gas- engineering societies, etc., all the back volumes of gas journals, etc. Having obtained all the data, and investigated gas-jet distribution in New York by actual observations, I made up my mind that the problem of the subdivision of the electric current could be solved and made commercial." About the end of August, 1878, he began his second organized attack on the subdivision of the current, which was steadily maintained until he achieved signal victory a year and two months later.
The date of this interesting visit to Ansonia is fixed by an inscription made by Edison on a glass goblet which he used. The legend in diamond scratches runs: "Thomas A. Edison, September 8, 1878, made under the electric light." Other members of the party left similar memorials, which under the circumstances have come to be greatly prized. A number of experiments were witnessed in arc lighting, and Edison secured a small Wallace-Farmer dynamo for his own work, as well as a set of Wallace arc lamps for lighting the Menlo Park laboratory. Before leaving Ansonia, Edison remarked, significantly: "Wallace, I believe I can beat you making electric lights. I don't think you are working in the right direction." Another date which shows how promptly the work was resumed is October 14, 1878, when Edison filed an application for his first lighting patent: "Improvement in Electric Lights." In after years, discussing the work of Wallace, who was not only a great pioneer electrical manufacturer, but one of the founders of the wire-drawing and brass-working industry, Edison said: "Wallace was one of the earliest pioneers in electrical matters in this country. He has done a great deal of good work, for which others have received the credit; and the work which he did in the early days of electric lighting others have benefited by largely, and he has been crowded to one side and forgotten." Associated in all this work with Wallace at Ansonia was Prof. Moses G. Farmer, famous for the introduction of the fire-alarm system; as the discoverer of the self-exciting principle of the modern dynamo; as a pioneer experimenter in the electric-railway field; as a telegraph engineer, and as a lecturer on mines and explosives to naval classes at Newport. During 1858, Farmer, who, like Edison, was a ceaseless investigator, had made a series of studies upon the production of light by electricity, and had even invented an automatic regulator by which a number of platinum lamps in multiple arc could be kept at uniform voltage for any length of time. In July, 1859, he lit up one of the rooms of his house at Salem, Massachusetts, every evening with such lamps, using in them small pieces of platinum and iridium wire, which were made to incandesce by means of current from primary batteries. Farmer was not one of the party that memorable day in September, but his work was known through his intimate connection with Wallace, and there is no doubt that reference was made to it. Such work had not led very far, the "lamps" were hopelessly short- lived, and everything was obviously experimental; but it was all helpful and suggestive to one whose open mind refused no hint from any quarter.
At the commencement of his new attempts, Edison returned to his experiments with carbon as an incandescent burner for a lamp, and made a very large number of trials, all in vacuo. Not only were the ordinary strip paper carbons tried again, but tissue- paper coated with tar and lampblack was rolled into thin sticks, like knitting-needles, carbonized and raised to incandescence in vacuo. Edison also tried hard carbon, wood carbons, and almost every conceivable variety of paper carbon in like manner. With the best vacuum that he could then get by means of the ordinary air-pump, the carbons would last, at the most, only from ten to fifteen minutes in a state of incandescence. Such results were evidently not of commercial value.
Edison then turned his attention in other directions. In his earliest consideration of the problem of subdividing the electric current, he had decided that the only possible solution lay in the employment of a lamp whose incandescing body should have a high resistance combined with a small radiating surface, and be capable of being used in what is called "multiple arc," so that each unit, or lamp, could be turned on or off without interfering with any other unit or lamp. No other arrangement could possibly be considered as commercially practicable.
The full significance of the three last preceding sentences will not be obvious to laymen, as undoubtedly many of the readers of this book may be; and now being on the threshold of the series of Edison's experiments that led up to the basic invention, we interpolate a brief explanation, in order that the reader may comprehend the logical reasoning and work that in this case produced such far-reaching results.
If we consider a simple circuit in which a current is flowing, and include in the circuit a carbon horseshoe-like conductor which it is desired to bring to incandescence by the heat generated by the current passing through it, it is first evident that the resistance offered to the current by the wires themselves must be less than that offered by the burner, because, otherwise current would be wasted as heat in the conducting wires. At the very foundation of the electric- lighting art is the essentially commercial consideration that one cannot spend very much for conductors, and Edison determined that, in order to use wires of a practicable size, the voltage of the current (i.e., its pressure or the characteristic that overcomes resistance to its flow) should be one hundred and ten volts, which since its adoption has been the standard. To use a lower voltage or pressure, while making the solution of the lighting problem a simple one as we shall see, would make it necessary to increase the size of the conducting wires to a prohibitive extent. To increase the voltage or pressure materially, while permitting some saving in the cost of conductors, would enormously increase the difficulties of making a sufficiently high resistance conductor to secure light by incandescence. This apparently remote consideration --weight of copper used--was really the commercial key to the problem, just as the incandescent burner was the scientific key to that problem. Before Edison's invention incandescent lamps had been suggested as a possibility, but they were provided with carbon rods or strips of relatively low resistance, and to bring these to incandescence required a current of low pressure, because a current of high voltage would pass through them so readily as not to generate heat; and to carry a current of low pressure through wires without loss would require wires of enormous size. Having a current of relatively high pressure to contend with, it was necessary to provide a carbon burner which, as compared with what had previously been suggested, should have a very great resistance. Carbon as a material, determined after patient search, apparently offered the greatest hope, but even with this substance the necessary high resistance could be obtained only by making the burner of extremely small cross-section, thereby also reducing its radiating surface. Therefore, the crucial point was the production of a hair-like carbon filament, with a relatively great resistance and small radiating surface, capable of withstanding mechanical shock, and susceptible of being maintained at a temperature of over two thousand degrees for a thousand hours or more before breaking. And this filamentary conductor required to be supported in a vacuum chamber so perfectly formed and constructed that during all those hours, and subjected as it is to varying temperatures, not a particle of air should enter to disintegrate the filament. And not only so, but the lamp after its design must not be a mere laboratory possibility, but a practical commercial article capable of being manufactured at low cost and in large quantities. A statement of what had to be done in those days of actual as well as scientific electrical darkness is quite sufficient to explain Tyndall's attitude of mind in preferring that the problem should be in Edison's hands rather than in his own. To say that the solution of the problem lay merely in reducing the size of the carbon burner to a mere hair, is to state a half-truth only; but who, we ask, would have had the temerity even to suggest that such an attenuated body could be maintained at a white heat, without disintegration, for a thousand hours? The solution consisted not only in that, but in the enormous mass of patiently worked-out details--the manufacture of the filaments, their uniform carbonization, making the globes, producing a perfect vacuum, and countless other factors, the omission of any one of which would probably have resulted eventually in failure.
 As a practical illustration of these facts it was calculated by Professor Barker, of the University of Pennsylvania (after Edison had invented the incandescent lamp), that if it should cost $100,000 for copper conductors to supply current to Edison lamps in a given area, it would cost about $200,000,000 for copper conductors for lighting the same area by lamps of the earlier experimenters --such, for instance, as the lamp invented by Konn in 1875. This enormous difference would be accounted for by the fact that Edison's lamp was one having a high resistance and relatively small radiating surface, while Konn's lamp was one having a very low resistance and large radiating surface.
Continuing the digression one step farther in order to explain the term "multiple arc," it may be stated that there are two principal systems of distributing electric current, one termed "series," and the other "multiple arc." The two are illustrated, diagrammatically, side by side, the arrows indicating flow of current. The series system, it will be seen, presents one continuous path for the current. The current for the last lamp must pass through the first and all the intermediate lamps. Hence, if any one light goes out, the continuity of the path is broken, current cannot flow, and all the lamps are extinguished unless a loop or by-path is provided. It is quite obvious that such a system would be commercially impracticable where small units, similar to gas jets, were employed. On the other hand, in the multiple-arc system, current may be considered as flowing in two parallel conductors like the vertical sides of a ladder, the ends of which never come together. Each lamp is placed in a separate circuit across these two conductors, like a rung in the ladder, thus making a separate and independent path for the current in each case. Hence, if a lamp goes out, only that individual subdivision, or ladder step, is affected; just that one particular path for the current is interrupted, but none of the other lamps is interfered with. They remain lighted, each one independent of the other. The reader will quite readily understand, therefore, that a multiple-arc system is the only one practically commercial where electric light is to be used in small units like those of gas or oil.
Such was the nature of the problem that confronted Edison at the outset. There was nothing in the whole world that in any way approximated a solution, although the most brilliant minds in the electrical art had been assiduously working on the subject for a quarter of a century preceding. As already seen, he came early to the conclusion that the only solution lay in the use of a lamp of high resistance and small radiating surface, and, with characteristic fervor and energy, he attacked the problem from this standpoint, having absolute faith in a successful outcome. The mere fact that even with the successful production of the electric lamp the assault on the complete problem of commercial lighting would hardly be begun did not deter him in the slightest. To one of Edison's enthusiastic self-confidence the long vista of difficulties ahead--we say it in all sincerity-- must have been alluring.
After having devoted several months to experimental trials of carbon, at the end of 1878, as already detailed, he turned his attention to the platinum group of metals and began a series of experiments in which he used chiefly platinum wire and iridium wire, and alloys of refractory metals in the form of wire burners for incandescent lamps. These metals have very high fusing-points, and were found to last longer than the carbon strips previously used when heated up to incandescence by the electric current, although under such conditions as were then possible they were melted by excess of current after they had been lighted a comparatively short time, either in the open air or in such a vacuum as could be obtained by means of the ordinary air-pump.
Nevertheless, Edison continued along this line of experiment with unremitting vigor, making improvement after improvement, until about April, 1879, he devised a means whereby platinum wire of a given length, which would melt in the open air when giving a light equal to four candles, would emit a light of twenty-five candle-power without fusion. This was accomplished by introducing the platinum wire into an all-glass globe, completely sealed and highly exhausted of air, and passing a current through the platinum wire while the vacuum was being made. In this, which was a new and radical invention, we see the first step toward the modern incandescent lamp. The knowledge thus obtained that current passing through the platinum during exhaustion would drive out occluded gases (i.e., gases mechanically held in or upon the metal), and increase the infusibility of the platinum, led him to aim at securing greater perfection in the vacuum, on the theory that the higher the vacuum obtained, the higher would be the infusibility of the platinum burner. And this fact also was of the greatest importance in making successful the final use of carbon, because without the subjection of the carbon to the heating effect of current during the formation of the vacuum, the presence of occluded gases would have been a fatal obstacle.
Continuing these experiments with most fervent zeal, taking no account of the passage of time, with an utter disregard for meals, and but scanty hours of sleep snatched reluctantly at odd periods of the day or night, Edison kept his laboratory going without cessation. A great variety of lamps was made of the platinum-iridium type, mostly with thermal devices to regulate the temperature of the burner and prevent its being melted by an excess of current. The study of apparatus for obtaining more perfect vacua was unceasingly carried on, for Edison realized that in this there lay a potent factor of ultimate success. About August he had obtained a pump that would produce a vacuum up to about the one-hundred- thousandth part of an atmosphere, and some time during the next month, or beginning of October, had obtained one that would produce a vacuum up to the one-millionth part of an atmosphere. It must be remembered that the conditions necessary for MAINTAINING this high vacuum were only made possible by his invention of the one-piece all-glass globe, in which all the joints were hermetically sealed during its manufacture into a lamp, whereby a high vacuum could be retained continuously for any length of time.
In obtaining this perfection of vacuum apparatus, Edison realized that he was approaching much nearer to a solution of the problem. In his experiments with the platinum-iridium lamps, he had been working all the time toward the proposition of high resistance and small radiating surface, until he had made a lamp having thirty feet of fine platinum wire wound upon a small bobbin of infusible material; but the desired economy, simplicity, and durability were not obtained in this manner, although at all times the burner was maintained at a critically high temperature. After attaining a high degree of perfection with these lamps, he recognized their impracticable character, and his mind reverted to the opinion he had formed in his early experiments two years before --viz., that carbon had the requisite resistance to permit a very simple conductor to accomplish the object if it could be used in the form of a hair-like "filament," provided the filament itself could be made sufficiently homogeneous. As we have already seen, he could not use carbon successfully in his earlier experiments, for the strips of carbon he then employed, although they were much larger than "filaments," would not stand, but were consumed in a few minutes under the imperfect conditions then at his command.
Now, however, that he had found means for obtaining and maintaining high vacua, Edison immediately went back to carbon, which from the first he had conceived of as the ideal substance for a burner. His next step proved conclusively the correctness of his old deductions. On October 21, 1879, after many patient trials, he carbonized a piece of cotton sewing- thread bent into a loop or horseshoe form, and had it sealed into a glass globe from which he exhausted the air until a vacuum up to one-millionth of an atmosphere was produced. This lamp, when put on the circuit, lighted up brightly to incandescence and maintained its integrity for over forty hours, and lo! the practical incandescent lamp was born. The impossible, so called, had been attained; subdivision of the electric- light current was made practicable; the goal had been reached; and one of the greatest inventions of the century was completed. Up to this time Edison had spent over $40,000 in his electric-light experiments, but the results far more than justified the expenditure, for with this lamp he made the discovery that the FILAMENT of carbon, under the conditions of high vacuum, was commercially stable and would stand high temperatures without the disintegration and oxidation that took place in all previous attempts that he knew of for making an incandescent burner out of carbon. Besides, this lamp possessed the characteristics of high resistance and small radiating surface, permitting economy in the outlay for conductors, and requiring only a small current for each unit of light--conditions that were absolutely necessary of fulfilment in order to accomplish commercially the subdivision of the electric-light current.
This slender, fragile, tenuous thread of brittle carbon, glowing steadily and continuously with a soft light agreeable to the eyes, was the tiny key that opened the door to a world revolutionized in its interior illumination. It was a triumphant vindication of Edison's reasoning powers, his clear perceptions, his insight into possibilities, and his inventive faculty, all of which had already been productive of so many startling, practical, and epoch-making inventions. And now he had stepped over the threshold of a new art which has since become so world-wide in its application as to be an integral part of modern human experience.
 The following extract from Walker on Patents (4th edition) will probably be of interest to the reader:
"Sec. 31a. A meritorious exception, to the rule of the last section, is involved in the adjudicated validity of the Edison incandescent-light patent. The carbon filament, which constitutes the only new part of the combination of the second claim of that patent, differs from the earlier carbon burners of Sawyer and Man, only in having a diameter of one-sixty-fourth of an inch or less, whereas the burners of Sawyer and Man had a diameter of one-thirty-second of an inch or more. But that reduction of one-half in diameter increased the resistance of the burner FOURFOLD, and reduced its radiating surface TWOFOLD, and thus increased eightfold, its ratio of resistance to radiating surface. That eightfold increase of proportion enabled the resistance of the conductor of electricity from the generator to the burner to be increased eightfold, without any increase of percentage of loss of energy in that conductor, or decrease of percentage of development of heat in the burner; and thus enabled the area of the cross-section of that conductor to be reduced eightfold, and thus to be made with one-eighth of the amount of copper or other metal, which would be required if the reduction of diameter of the burner from one-thirty-second to one-sixty- fourth of an inch had not been made. And that great reduction in the size and cost of conductors, involved also a great difference in the composition of the electric energy employed in the system; that difference consisting in generating the necessary amount of electrical energy with comparatively high electromotive force, and comparatively low current, instead of contrariwise. For this reason, the use of carbon filaments, one-sixty-fourth of an inch in diameter or less, instead of carbon burners one-thirty-second of an inch in diameter or more, not only worked an enormous economy in conductors, but also necessitated a great change in generators, and did both according to a philosophy, which Edison was the first to know, and which is stated in this paragraph in its simplest form and aspect, and which lies at the foundation of the incandescent electric lighting of the world."
No sooner had the truth of this new principle been established than the work to establish it firmly and commercially was carried on more assiduously than ever. The next immediate step was a further investigation of the possibilities of improving the quality of the carbon filament. Edison had previously made a vast number of experiments with carbonized paper for various electrical purposes, with such good results that he once more turned to it and now made fine filament-like loops of this material which were put into other lamps. These proved even more successful (commercially considered) than the carbonized thread--so much so that after a number of such lamps had been made and put through severe tests, the manufacture of lamps from these paper carbons was begun and carried on continuously. This necessitated first the devising and making of a large number of special tools for cutting the carbon filaments and for making and putting together the various parts of the lamps. Meantime, great excitement had been caused in this country and in Europe by the announcement of Edison's success. In the Old World, scientists generally still declared the impossibility of subdividing the electric-light current, and in the public press Mr. Edison was denounced as a dreamer. Other names of a less complimentary nature were applied to him, even though his lamp were actually in use, and the principle of commercial incandescent lighting had been established.
Between October 21, 1879, and December 21, 1879, some hundreds of these paper-carbon lamps had been made and put into actual use, not only in the laboratory, but in the streets and several residences at Menlo Park, New Jersey, causing great excitement and bringing many visitors from far and near. On the latter date a full-page article appeared in the New York Herald which so intensified the excited feeling that Mr. Edison deemed it advisable to make a public exhibition. On New Year's Eve, 1879, special trains were run to Menlo Park by the Pennsylvania Railroad, and over three thousand persons took advantage of the opportunity to go out there and witness this demonstration for themselves. In this great crowd were many public officials and men of prominence in all walks of life, who were enthusiastic in their praises.
In the mean time, the mind that conceived and made practical this invention could not rest content with anything less than perfection, so far as it could be realized. Edison was not satisfied with paper carbons. They were not fully up to the ideal that he had in mind. What he sought was a perfectly uniform and homogeneous carbon, one like the "One- Hoss Shay," that had no weak spots to break down at inopportune times. He began to carbonize everything in nature that he could lay hands on. In his laboratory note-books are innumerable jottings of the things that were carbonized and tried, such as tissue- paper, soft paper, all kinds of cardboards, drawing- paper of all grades, paper saturated with tar, all kinds of threads, fish-line, threads rubbed with tarred lampblack, fine threads plaited together in strands, cotton soaked in boiling tar, lamp-wick, twine, tar and lampblack mixed with a proportion of lime, vulcanized fibre, celluloid, boxwood, cocoanut hair and shell, spruce, hickory, baywood, cedar and maple shavings, rosewood, punk, cork, bagging, flax, and a host of other things. He also extended his searches far into the realms of nature in the line of grasses, plants, canes, and similar products, and in these experiments at that time and later he carbonized, made into lamps, and tested no fewer than six thousand different species of vegetable growths.
The reasons for such prodigious research are not apparent on the face of the subject, nor is this the occasion to enter into an explanation, as that alone would be sufficient to fill a fair-sized book. Suffice it to say that Edison's omnivorous reading, keen observation, power of assimilating facts and natural phenomena, and skill in applying the knowledge thus attained to whatever was in hand, now came into full play in determining that the results he desired could only be obtained in certain directions.
At this time he was investigating everything with a microscope, and one day in the early part of 1880 he noticed upon a table in the laboratory an ordinary palm-leaf fan. He picked it up and, looking it over, observed that it had a binding rim made of bamboo, cut from the outer edge of the cane; a very long strip. He examined this, and then gave it to one of his assistants, telling him to cut it up and get out of it all the filaments he could, carbonize them, put them into lamps, and try them. The results of this trial were exceedingly successful, far better than with anything else thus far used; indeed, so much so, that after further experiments and microscopic examinations Edison was convinced that he was now on the right track for making a thoroughly stable, commercial lamp; and shortly afterward he sent a man to Japan to procure further supplies of bamboo. The fascinating story of the bamboo hunt will be told later; but even this bamboo lamp was only one item of a complete system to be devised--a system that has since completely revolutionized the art of interior illumination.
Reference has been made in this chapter to the preliminary study that Edison brought to bear on the development of the gas art and industry. This study was so exhaustive that one can only compare it to the careful investigation made in advance by any competent war staff of the elements of strength and weakness, on both sides, in a possible campaign. A popular idea of Edison that dies hard, pictures a breezy, slap-dash, energetic inventor arriving at new results by luck and intuition, making boastful assertions and then winning out by mere chance. The native simplicity of the man, the absence of pose and ceremony, do much to strengthen this notion; but the real truth is that while gifted with unusual imagination, Edison's march to the goal of a new invention is positively humdrum and monotonous in its steady progress. No one ever saw Edison in a hurry; no one ever saw him lazy; and that which he did with slow, careful scrutiny six months ago, he will be doing with just as much calm deliberation of research six months hence--and six years hence if necessary. If, for instance, he were asked to find the most perfect pebble on the Atlantic shore of New Jersey, instead of hunting here, there, and everywhere for the desired object, we would no doubt find him patiently screening the entire beach, sifting out the most perfect stones and eventually, by gradual exclusion, reaching the long-sought-for pebble; and the mere fact that in this search years might be taken, would not lessen his enthusiasm to the slightest extent.
In the "prospectus book" among the series of famous note-books, all the references and data apply to gas. The book is numbered 184, falls into the period now dealt with, and runs along casually with items spread out over two or three years. All these notes refer specifically to "Electricity vs. Gas as General Illuminants," and cover an astounding range of inquiry and comment. One of the very first notes tells the whole story: "Object, Edison to effect exact imitation of all done by gas, so as to replace lighting by gas by lighting by electricity. To improve the illumination to such an extent as to meet all requirements of natural, artificial, and commercial conditions." A large programme, but fully executed! The notes, it will be understood, are all in Edison's handwriting. They go on to observe that "a general system of distribution is the only possible means of economical illumination," and they dismiss isolated- plant lighting as in mills and factories as of so little importance to the public--"we shall leave the con- sideration of this out of this book." The shrewd prophecy is made that gas will be manufactured less for lighting, as the result of electrical competition, and more and more for heating, etc., thus enlarging its market and increasing its income. Comment is made on kerosene and its cost, and all kinds of general statistics are jotted down as desirable. Data are to be obtained on lamp and dynamo efficiency, and "Another review of the whole thing as worked out upon pure science principles by Rowland, Young, Trowbridge; also Rowland on the possibilities and probabilities of cheaper production by better manufacture--higher incandescence without decrease of life of lamps." Notes are also made on meters and motors. "It doesn't matter if electricity is used for light or for power"; while small motors, it is observed, can be used night or day, and small steam-engines are inconvenient. Again the shrewd comment: "Generally poorest district for light, best for power, thus evening up whole city--the effect of this on investment."
It is pointed out that "Previous inventions failed-- necessities for commercial success and accomplishment by Edison. Edison's great effort--not to make a large light or a blinding light, but a small light having the mildness of gas." Curves are then called for of iron and copper investment--also energy line--curves of candle-power and electromotive force; curves on motors; graphic representation of the consumption of gas January to December; tables and formulae; representations graphically of what one dollar will buy in different kinds of light; "table, weight of copper required different distance, 100-ohm lamp, 16 candles"; table with curves showing increased economy by larger engine, higher power, etc. There is not much that is dilettante about all this. Note is made of an article in April, 1879, putting the total amount of gas investment in the whole world at that time at $1,500,000,000; which is now (1910) about the amount of the electric-lighting investment in the United States. Incidentally a note remarks: "So unpleasant is the effect of the products of gas that in the new Madison Square Theatre every gas jet is ventilated by special tubes to carry away the products of combustion." In short, there is no aspect of the new problem to which Edison failed to apply his acutest powers; and the speed with which the new system was worked out and introduced was simply due to his initial mastery of all the factors in the older art. Luther Stieringer, an expert gas engineer and inventor, whose services were early enlisted, once said that Edison knew more about gas than any other man he had ever met. The remark is an evidence of the kind of preparation Edison gave himself for his new task.
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Last updated by Jim Halpin on 9/17/99.