Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. In fact he wasn’t even close. It was on July 24, 1874, at the height of the Victorian era, when University of Toronto medical student Henry Woodward patented the first practical light bulb. In partnership with his neighbor, a hotelkeeper named Mathew Evans, he worked at Morrison’s Brass Foundry on Adelaide St. West in Toronto, performing early experiments with an induction coil and battery. Observing that the spark produced by the contacts shed a steady light the pair spent long hours pursuing their research. This culminated in the development of a carbon filament light source housed in a glass globe filled with nitrogen gas. While an earlier version of the light bulb had been invented by Englishman Sir Joseph Swan, it proved short lived and impractical due to the inability to provide a good vacuum within the globe. This caused the carbon filament to burn out very quickly.
Woodward and Evans solved the problem nicely by pumping nitrogen gas into the glass tube, which housed the carbon filament. As Woodward’s original patent states:
“In the first place we use a gas engine, or other suitable motive power, for the purpose of rotating a magneto Electric machine, and at Such Velocity, as shall create electricity, sufficient to heat certain pieces of carbon to a state of incandescence… A piece of Carbon, as hereinbefore mentioned, pure in quality, and of suitable size, proportionate to the size of lamp or vessel to be used, is scraped and shaped until fitted for the purpose. One electrode is then connected with the Carbon at the top, and the other electrode is connected with the Carbon at the bottom, in the following manner. A small hole is drilled a short distance into each end of the Carbon to fit the electrodes, and when necessary they are further secured by surrounding them with a portion of plaster of Paris or other suitable substance. The electrodes not passing through the carbons, nor connecting with each other. It is then enclosed in a globe, or other vessel, either of glass or other suitable material. The air is extracted from the said globe, or vessel, after it has been hermetically sealed at the ends, and then filled with rarefied gas that will not unite chemically with the carbon when hot. Electricity is now supplied and in sufficient quantity, so as to heat the carbon within the vessel to a State of incandescence, the rarefied gas previously introduced now becomes luminous, and constitutes the light herein designated as Woodward and Evans’ Electric Light.”
Realizing the importance of their discovery the excited inventors tried to establish a company to develop and market the light bulb. To further their efforts Woodward even traveled to France and spent five hundred pounds on a special dynamo developed by the renowned French engineer, M. Gramme. For their trouble Woodward and Evans were publicly ridiculed, scorned as cranks and considered to be less than “bright” by the general public and their confreres. In spite of these setbacks Woodward went on to patent their invention in the United States in 1876.
By now you are wondering where Thomas Edison fits into the scheme of things. The American Inventor had been doing his own research on the light bulb, without much success, when he got wind of the work of the two Canadians. Despite less than “glowing” reports from the general public, Edison knew a good thing when he saw it. The same could not be said for the niggardly investors in Woodward and Evans’ new company. Strapped for cash the inventors sold half of their Canadian patent to Edison in 1876, and in 1879 the U.S. patent was also sold to Edison in its entirety. A disgusted Woodward decided to leave Canada and immigrate to England. It’s reported that Evans died in 1899 in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Edison declared his intention to invent “an inexpensive electric light” and received a fifty thousand-dollar grant to further his efforts. The result was a carbon filament bulb essentially identical to that of Woodward and Evans. Most of the practical work was actually done by Edison’s Serbian lab assistant, Nikola Tesla.
In England, Joseph Swan continued his own work and eventually produced a lamp very similar to Edison’s in the same year. These became known as Swan lamps, and by 1881 were being used to light the House of Commons. Edison and Swan eventually ended up in court to decide who had priority in the invention. They later settled out of court and in 1883 formed a joint company which dominated the electrical illumination industry in Britain for years.
Nowadays Canadians spend much of their lives depending on artificial sources of illumination. Few realize that they have fellow countrymen Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans to thank for this.
The First Electric Light Bulb by Bruce Ricketts
Pardon Me, My Maple Leaf is Showing by Gain Wong
Home Page Feature Image - Wikimedia Public Domain
“Electric Light.” … 1874 © Library and Archives Canada
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