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[Inventions That Changed the World]Lighting: The Invention that Created Time

[Inventions That Changed the World]Lighting: The Invention that Created Time

KIM Jae-Yun

June 10, 2011


Welcome to our video program. I'm Jae-Yun Kim from the Industry and Strategy Department I.

Electric lighting, cars, and elevators are now a part of our daily lives. These inventions were so significant that they changed the future of human industry almost instantaneously.

In this series on “Inventions that Changed the World,” SERI will take a look at the great innovative products of history, and how global industry has changed since their emergence, as well as how these products shed light on the future of industry.

The first installment of the series is about the incandescent light bulb.

The invention of the incandescent light bulb sparked a second industrial revolution of electricity and cars. Incandescent lighting actually “created time” by allowing people to be active 24 hours a day. Newspapers of the day called it a “tabletop sun,” proclaiming that one era of human civilization had ended and a new era was beginning.

Lamps, of course, existed long before the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Candles and oil lamps were already invented by 3,000 BC. By the industrial revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, gas lighting was becoming widely available. However, those lamps were powered by natural materials and could only be used in limited places. They also gave off unpleasant fumes and smoke, and constituted a major fire hazard.

Thomas Edison, however, solved these problems when he invented a flameless artificial light. Next we will discuss the background of Edison's invention and the commercialization of the incandescent light bulb.

Thomas Edison is famous for his motto “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Indeed, the invention of the incandescent light bulb is a case in point. He failed thousands of times before he came up with the right one.

In fact, the incandescent light bulb was invented by English inventor Joseph Swan in 1860. However, Swan's earlier version lacked the highly resistant filament needed for practical use. To solve the problem, Edison boldly adopted outside ideas and learned from each of his failures.

He collected more than 6,000 materials and conducted experiments thousands of times to find a long-lasting filament. He even collected Asian bamboo to be the ideal material.

What is notable is that Edison focused thoroughly on commercialization. He knew expensive platinum could be a long-lasting filament, but went out of his way to find alternatives, enduring numerous failures to find a cheaper material. Eventually, he achieved his goal using carbon filament in 1879, opening the era of electric lighting.

When people think about starting a new business or making a new product, they often waste too much time and energy looking for a concept that does not exist. Edison instead looked for a specific business problem, and then solved it. By doing this, Edison created an enormous new industry.

However, Edison is perhaps more renowned for what he did after his invention. More than just a single invention, Edison was deeply interested in how he could distribute electric lighting to the public. He decided to build an infrastructure for the light bulb. As light bulbs need electricity, he thought they should be bundled with electricity as a business.

To that end, Edison followed the model of gas lighting, then a widely used rival of the light bulb, and introduced a power transmission and distribution system. Under this plan, Edison established a value chain that stretches from power generation to lighting, building power plants and laying distribution lines.

At the same time, Edison established an electricity institute and made himself a teacher who nurtured electrical engineers. He went into business, resolving the infrastructure issues which always surface when starting a new business.

Lastly, Edison carefully considered the best way to introduce his new infrastructure to customers. Until the 1930s, most people had grave fear of electricity, with some likening it to ghosts. The UK Electricity Association cited fear as the largest obstacle to power generation.

Edison's solution to the issue was to make electricity seem familiar. Although gas lighting was the existing competitor to his invention, it was already familiar to the public. Therefore, he introduced the incandescent light bulb as a better-performing, improved version of “gas lighting” to the public. He diminished public fear by dimming the bulbs to 16-candle-power to make them similar to gas, and produced similar supply systems and fixtures.

Edison did not make the mistake of overstressing bold innovation and dramatic breaks with the past. This would have made the concept of electricity difficult to accept. Through his efforts, he reduced the time required for widespread commercialization from decades to just a few years, beginning an era of electric lighting that lasts to this day.

130 years ago the lighting industry sold about 4,000 light bulbs a year. Today the lighting industry is an enormous global industry selling more than 10 billion bulbs a year. The invention of the incandescent light bulb by Edison was followed by the fluorescent tube in 1938, and the LED light in 1997. Since then, new technologies have been developed almost every 60-years. Incandescent light bulbs have continued to be popular even in the era of cheaper and more energy efficient fluorescent lighting, due to their warm light. However, as energy saving has become an issue, the incandescent light bulb may finally be set to retire from a brilliant career.

The invention of the incandescent light bulb was an innovation that changed daily lives and reshaped the industry of the world. Edison was a great inventor because he pioneered the path of commercialization rather than just building a new invention.

Edison's example provides the following lessons:

First, when launching a new business, start with the definition of the problem.

Second, take a systemic approach, rather than building products in isolation.

Finally, always make sure you explain your new product in language that consumers can understand.

The next part of this series will focus on “standards wars,” the birth of new companies, and new industries triggered by the invention of the light bulb.

Thank you for watching. I'm Jae-Yun Kim.

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