Event 80

Beginning 1879 AD

Thomas Edison's light bulb
An early Edison light bulb with a carbon filament from ca. 1890.
Credit: Photo by Kathy Schick, courtesy of the Stone Age Institute. All rights reserved.

When we have a temporary blackout today, almost everything stops – our lights, computers, TVs, radios, elevators, refrigerators, washers, dryers, air conditioners, and furnaces. Anything not operating on a backup battery is dead. Such dependence on electricity for the huge majority of our everyday functions and activities is mind-boggling, and somewhat disturbing. But the beginning of this dependence is only a little over 100 years old, starting with the development of widespread electrical systems along with the development of early electrical lighting.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, forms of lighting were being devised using different forms of gas lamps, and by 1807 the first street lighting based on gas lamps was launched in London. The development of controlling and managing another source of energy, electricity, essentially energy produced from the flow of electrons along a path, became a real focus in the 1800s. An early attempt at electrical street lighting was undertaken by Charles Brush, who in 1878 invented the arc light (with the current passing between electrodes enclosed in a gas), which was first used for street lighting in 1879 on Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio. Arc lighting was problematic, though, especially because any problem along the string would make the whole array go dark.

08 080 002earthlights
Composite image of earth at night.
Credit: Data courtesy of Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.  Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878 and set his aim on finding a way to make a long-lived light bulb and to develop a system of public lighting. By the late 1870s, he had worked out a way to make light bulbs with a long-lasting carbon filament. By 1800 Edison also took out a patent on how to distribute power and also formed an early company for this purpose, the Edison Illuminating Company. By 1882 his company installed the first commercial system of electric lights in a small section of Manhattan, in the Financial District, and by the following year the number of customers’ bulbs had increased 25 times. Within a few years, Edison was also set up to distribute electricity in London and the first overhead electrical wires could be seen in New Jersey. The age of electricity was well underway.




If we take electricity away from us, all of our current systems die – Our communications, our banking, our investments, our entertainment, our lighting, the basic functions of our cities (elevators, heating and cooling, stoplights, computers), our security systems, air traffic control, etc. What started as a way to illuminate the places we live, work and play, has ended up being essential to our lives. The loss of electricity would be the end of our life as we know it.




This is a very short, slightly goofy, NASA video about the history of electricity.

This is an article on how electricity works.

This is a timeline of the history of electricity that goes back to 600 BC.

This is a timeline of the history of electricity.

This is an article on the first demonstration of Edison’s light bulb with a timeline.

This is a history of the incandescent light bulb in the form of a timeline.

This is an amateur video about the history of electricity.



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