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Light bulb

The electric light bulb uses a glowing wire filament heated by electrical resistance to white heat to generate light (a process known as thermal radiation). The 'bulb' is the glass enclosure which keeps the filament in a vacuum or low-pressure noble gas (or halogen gas in the case of quartz-halogen lamps: see below).

Table of contents
1 History of the light bulb
2 Standard fittings
3 Efficiency
4 Heat
5 Voltage, light output, and life
6 See also
7 External links, references, resources

History of the light bulb

The invention of the light bulb is sometimes attributed to Thomas Alva Edison, but today it is well-known that Heinrich Goebel built functional bulbs three decades earlier. Many others also contributed to the development of a truly practical device for the production of electrically generated lighting.

In 1801 Sir Humphry Davy, an English chemist, made platinum strips glow by passing an electric current through them, but the strips evaporated too quickly to make a useful lamp. In 1809 he created the first arc lamp, which he demonstrated to the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1810, by creating a small but blinding arc between two charcoal rods connected to a battery.

In 1820 a British scientist Warren De la Rue enclosed a platinum coil in an evacuated tube and passed an electric current through it. The design was based on the concept that the high melting point of platinum would allow it to operate at high temperatures and that the evacuated chamber would contain less gas particles to react with the platinum, improving its longevity. Although it was an efficient design, the cost of the platinum made it impractical for commercial use.

In 1835 James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated a constant electric light at a public meeting in Dundee. He stated that he could "read a book at a distance of one and a half foot". However having perfected the device, to his own satisfaction, he turned to the problem of wireless telegraphy and did not develop the electric light any further.

In 1841 Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp, with a design using powdered charcoal heated between two platinum wires.

In 1854, the German inventor Heinrich Goebel developed the first 'modern' light bulb: a carbonized bamboo filament, in a vacuum bottle to prevent oxidation. In the following five years he developed what many call the first practical light bulb. His lamps lasted for up to 400 hours. He did not immediately apply for a patent, but his priority was established in 1893.

Joseph Wilson Swan(1828-1914) was a physicist and chemist born in Sunderland, England. In 1850 he began working with carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. By 1860 he was able to demonstrate a working device but lack of a good vacuum and an adequate supply of electricity resulted in a short lifetime for the bulb and inefficient light. By the mid-1870s better pumps became available, and Swan returned to his experiments. Swan received a British patent for his device in 1878. Swan reported success to the Newcastle Chemical Society and at a lecture in Newcastle in February 1879 he demonstrated a working lamp that utilized a carbon fibre filament. The most significant feature of Swan's lamp was that there was little residual oxygen in the vacuum tube to ignite the filament, thus allowing the filament to glow almost white-hot without catching fire. From this year he began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks in England and by the early 1880s had started his own company.

Across the Atlantic, parallel developments were also taking place. On July 24 1874 a Canadian patent was filed for the Woodward and Evan's Light by a Toronto medical electrician named Henry Woodward and a colleague Mathew Evans, who was described in the patent as a "Gentleman" but in reality a hotel keeper. They built their lamp with a shaped rod of carbon held between electrodes in an glass bulb filled with nitrogen. Woodward and Evans found it impossible to raise financial support for the development of their invention and in 1875 Woodward sold a share of their Canadian patent to Thomas Edison.

US223898 Electric Lamp

Edison purchased the Woodward and Evans patent and had a team of developers search for an alternative filament material. Eventually he used a carbon filament that burned for forty hours (first successful test was on October 21 1879; it lasted 13 1/2 hours). Edison continued to improve their design. By 1880 he had a device that could last for over 1200 hours using a bamboo-derived filament, longer than the 400 hours of Heinrich Goebel's earlier light bulb.

In January 1882, Lewis Latimer received a patent for the "Process of Manufacturing Carbons," an improved method for the production of light-bulb filaments which yielded longer lasting bulbs than Edison's technique.

In Britain, Swan took Edison to court for patent infringement. Edison lost and as part of the settlement, Edison was forced to take Swan in as a partner in his British electric works. The company was called the Edison and Swan United Electric Company. Eventually, Edison acquired all of Swan's interest in the company. Swan sold his U.S. patent rights to the Brush Electric Company in June 1882.

The U.S. Patent Office had ruled on October 8, 1883 that Edison's patents were based on the prior art of William Sawyer and were invalid. Litigation continued for a number of years. Eventually on October 6, 1889, a judge ruled that Edison's electric light improvement claim for "a filament of carbon of high resistance" was valid. Research exposed in "A Streak of Luck" by Robert Conot (1979), shows that Edison and his attorneys hid significant information from the judge. They cut out the October 7-21, 1879 section of a notebook that the judge might have determined showed that they were simply extending Sawyer's (or Swan's) work with carbon "burners" or "rods" in an evacuated glass bulb.

Edison and his team did not find a commercially workable filament (bamboo) until more than 6 months after Edison filed the patent application. The weak and short lived (40-150 hours) carbon filament was eventually superseded by the tungsten filament. In 1903 Willis Whitnew invented a filament that would not make the inside of a lightbulb turn dark. It was a metal-coated carbon filament. In 1906, the General Electric Company were the first to patent a method of making tungsten filaments for use in incandescent lightbulbs. The filaments were costly, but by 1910 William David Coolidge (1873-1975) had invented an improved method of making tungsten filaments. The tungsten filament outlasted all other types of filaments and Coolidge made the costs practical.

One of the major problems of the standard electric light bulb is evaporation of the filament, leading to narrowing. Where the filament is narrower, electrical resistance is higher (due to the smaller cross-section) and the filament heats up more, increasing the rate of evaporation further at that point. The end point of this process is the failure of the filament.

This problem is addressed in the halogen lamp which is filled with halogen gas. This creates an equilibrium reaction where evaporated filament is chemically re-deposited at the hot-spots, preventing the early failure of the lamp. This allows halogen lamps to be run at higher temperatures which would cause unacceptable low lamp lifetimes in ordinary light bulbs, allowing for greater brightness and efficiency.

The incandescent light bulb is still widely used in domestic applications, and is the basis of most portable lighting (for instance, some car headlamps and electric torcheses). Halogen lights have become more common in auto headlights and domestic situations, particularly where light is to be concentrated on a particular point. The fluorescent light, has, however, replaced many applications of the light bulb with its superior life and energy efficiency. LED lights are beginning to see increased home and auto use, replacing incandescent bulbs.

Standard fittings

Most domestic and industrial light bulbs have standard fittings compatible with standard lampholders. Common types of fitting are:


Luminous efficiency is defined as the ratio of luminous flux to total radiated flux, and is measured in
lumen per watt (lm/W) or as a percentage of 680 lm/W, the efficiency of a monochromatic source of wavelength 556 nm (a yellow-green colour to which the human eye is most sensitive).

A different measure, the overall luminous efficiency, is defined as the ratio of luminous flux to total energy input. This is less than or equal to the luminous efficiency.

light-emitting diode0.04-20 [6]0.005%-2.9%
40W tungsten incandescent12.6 [7]1.9%
60W tungsten incandescent14.5 [7]2.1%
100W tungsten incandescent17.5 [7]2.6%
glass halogen162.3%
quartz halogen243.5%
tungsten-halogen18-25 [6]2.6%-3.6%
13W twin-tube fluorescent56.3 [1]8.2%
compact fluorescent45-60 [4]15%-32% [3]
xenon arc lamp30-150 [5]4.4%-22%
mercury-xenon arc lamp50-55 [5]7.3%-8%
high-temperature incandescent35 [2]5.14%
ideal blackbody radiator95 [2]14% [7]
ideal white light source242.5 [2]36%
monochromatic 556nm source680 [7]100%

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A fluorescent lamp, which is approximately 8 times more efficient than an incandescent lamp, will produce 8 times less heat, assuming the same levels of light from both sources. This is one reason why fluorescent lighting is so popular in commercial spaces.

Voltage, light output, and life

Incandescent lamps are extraordinarily sensitive to changes in the supply voltage. These characteristics are of great practical and economic importance. For a supply voltage V, This means that 5% reduction in operating voltage will double the life of the bulb, at the expense of reducing its light output by 20%. This may be a very acceptable tradeoff for a light bulb that is a difficult-to-access location. So-called "long-life" bulbs are simply bulbs in which this tradeoff is designed in.

According to the relationships above (which are probably not accurate for such extreme departures from nominal ratings), operating a 100-watt, 1000-hour, 1700-lumen bulb at half voltage would extend its life to about 65,000,000 hours or over 7000 years—while reducing light output to 160 lumens, about the equivalent of a normal 15-watt bulb. A television news story once reported on a firehouse in which a light bulb was said to have been burning continuously for over a century. The story treated this as amusing but inexplicable phenomenon. Footage showed that the bulb was putting out very little light and that the filament was glowing a dim orange. The story is thus perfectly credible; had the reporter dug deeper, it would probably have transpired that this was no miracle, but simply a 240-volt bulb being operated on a 120-volt supply.

In photoflood bulbs used for photographic lighting, the tradeoff is made in the other direction. Compared to general service bulbs, for the same wattage, these bulbs produce far more light, and (more importantly) light at a higher color temperature, at the expense of greatly reduced life (which may be as short as 50 hours).

See also

External links, references, resources