When Thomas Edison demonstrated the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879 the “Wizard of Menlo Park” turned night into day and forever changed how people work, play and live.
As the remaining hours of 1879 dwindled to a precious few, a Pennsylvania Railroad special steamed into a remote New Jersey hamlet. Scores of men dressed in elegant evening wear and women wrapped in short fur jackets and silk gowns stepped off the nighttime train eager to set foot in the future. Although dressed for New Year’s Eve celebrations, these revelers felt content to let others ring in a new decade while they witnessed the launch of a new epoch in human history.
The sleepy village of Menlo Park boasted only a dozen scattered houses, but it promised a luminous New Year’s Eve spectacle unrivaled even by cosmopolitan Manhattan, 20 miles to the north. As soon as the train passengers disembarked and shuffled up the snow-sprinkled stairs, they cast their gazes skyward in wonder. Although storm clouds blotted out the twinkling stars, the heavens still sparkled, though not from familiar pyrotechnics, but from something foreign to their 19th-century eyes: a series of gleaming incandescent light bulbs that bathed Christie Street in an artificial radiance.
The trail blazed by the little globes of fire sitting atop slender wooden lampposts stretching toward the night sky led the frosty crowds to a two-story clapboard building enveloped in a warm glow. Upstairs in his laboratory, Thomas Edison dazzled all the guests crowded inside his “invention factory” with the first public demonstration of his latest marvel—the first practical incandescent light bulb.
Already hailed as the “Wizard of Menlo Park” for his invention of the phonograph and his telegraph and telephone innovations, Edison now stood ready to revolutionize daily life for the majority of Americans who still relied upon tallow candles, kerosene and even whale oil for illumination and for additional millions dependent on noxious gaslights, which blackened walls and furniture, reeked of sulfur and ammonia and had the potential to explode.
Edison was hardly the first to develop the incandescent light, which was first patented in England in 1841 by Frederick de Moleyns. In the ensuing four decades, however, numerous inventors failed to produce a safe, bright and affordable bulb that could stay lit for more than a few minutes at a time. Edison threw himself into the challenge of developing a commercially viable incandescent light in 1878, and investors in the Edison Electric Light Company provided him with the necessary seed money. The 31-year-old inventor sought to develop not only a working bulb, but an entire lighting system powered by a generator.
Edison bragged that he would have a viable bulb ready in just months, but he soon found himself stymied like the inventors who came before him. Inside the laboratory on his 34-acre research-and-development campus at Menlo Park, the “Wizard” and his 20- to 30-person team of young assistants succeeded in creating a vacuum with no more than a 1-millionth part of air that allowed a platinum filament to light without catching fire, but Edison consigned it to the “cemetery of inventions” because the metal was too costly. Turning to cheaper carbon filaments, Edison tested raw silk, cork and even the beard hair of two of his employees with little success. The big breakthrough finally came in October 1879 when a high-resistance, carbon filament burned continuously for more than 13 hours.
On December 21, 1879, a full-page article in the New York Herald announced “the great inventor’s triumph in electric illumination” in producing a light “like the mellow sunset of an Italian autumn.” Although the newspaper announced that Edison would stage his first public exhibition of his electric light on New Year’s Eve, work at Menlo Park came to a standstill over the next 10 days as a ceaseless flow of overanxious pilgrims descended upon the laboratory to take a sneak peek.
When Edison finally opened his doors to the public on December 31, a human wave surged into the laboratory, ablaze with 25 brilliant electric lights that glistened off the hundreds of glass bottles lining the shelves on the walls as well as the pipes on the out-of-tune organ that America’s most famous inventor occasionally played with his soot-stained hands. Hundreds huddled around Edison as he explained in plain language and a homespun manner how a 2-inch-long, horseshoe-shaped thread of carbonized cardboard could glow for hours on end inside a pear-shaped vacuum bulb when an electric current ran through it. He even showed how a bulb still burned for hours even after submerged in water. The awestruck audience also noticed that the incandescent bulbs didn’t flicker like gaslights and emitted softer light than harsh electric arc lamps.
The crowd who had invaded Edison’s inner sanctum tried the inventor’s patience, but he shook hands and answered questions even from his skeptics who came to grill him. The laboratory staff, though, spent as much time futilely guarding their fragile equipment from the visitors conducting their own impromptu experiments as they did demonstrating the vacuum pump and the baking of carbon filaments. Edison’s assistants repeatedly turned down requests to buy the bulbs, but eight were stolen anyway by guests who left with a piece of history.
Not only did a new decade dawn in Menlo Park when the clock struck midnight, so did the electric age. The only disappointed visitors to Edison’s laboratory on New Year’s Eve may have been the crestfallen representatives of the Brooklyn Gaslight Company who realized with everyone else that they had just seen the light of the future. Just the rumors of Edison’s breakthrough had sent gas company stocks plummeting by 15 percent over the past month, and that was just the beginning. The fortunes were reversed for the stockholders of the Edison Electric Light Company, whose original $100 shares now sold for $4,500, according to the Boston Globe.
On January 27, 1880, Edison received the patent for his electric light. Three decades later when asked to reflect upon which of his inventions was his greatest, he scrawled across the bottom of a letter: “Incandescent Electric Lighting and Power System.”