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The Evolution of Artificial Lighting, Pt. 3

The Evolution of Artificial Lighting, Pt. 3

In Part 1 we covered the origins of pre-electrical lamps, concluding with the popularization of kerosene lamps in 900 AD. In Part 2 we discussed early 19th century experiments with electrical lighting and the creation of the first practical-use incandescent light bulb. Now in Part 3, we go over 20th century modern lighting and the development of halogen, compact fluorescent, and LED lights.

Part 3: Modern Lighting (20th Century)

General Electric Helped Set The Stage for Modern Lighting


After Thomas Edison developed the first commercially successful electric light bulb in 1879, he realized the need for electric utility companies to power them. He thereby formed his own electric utility company, the Edison Electric Light Company, in New York City. However, he had business interests in several other lighting companies as well, such as Edison Lamp Company, Edison Machine Works, and Bergmann & Company, which all dealt with electric light manufacturing or power generation. Backed by J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family, he eventually merged these companies together to form the Edison General Electric Company in 1889. In 1892, he helped form General Electric by merging Edison General Electric Company with one of its competitors, Thomson-Houston Electric Company. The newly formed General Electric was then headquartered in Nela Park, Ohio that same year. It was here that artificial lighting developments began to accelerate at an unprecedented pace.


In addition to electric light manufacturing and power generation, General Electric (GE) had a well-renowned research center which held some of the “brightest” lighting inventors and engineers. In 1934, GE researchers Richard Thayer and George Inman invented the first modern fluorescent lamp, stemming from an earlier (but much less practical) fluorescent lamp made in 1926 by German inventor, Edmund Germer. Stable, reliable, and containing real white phosphors, Thayer and Inman’s design has not changed much to this day.


Later in 1955, two other GE researchers, Elmer Fridrich and Emmet Wiley, developed the first halogen lamp. While others had tried to build halogen lamps, they couldn’t figure out how to keep the lamps from blackening. However, Fridrich discovered that surrounding the tungsten filament with a small amount of iodine would allow it to burn for an extended period of time at high temperatures without becoming damaged.  Early halogen lamps were used to "bake" paint onto metal due to their high heat output, but they soon evolved into their modern-use as a popular way to light specific areas in home or businesses as track lights and spot lights.


The first practical light-emitting diode was also developed by a GE employee—engineer and educator, Nick Holonyak—at the company’s Syracuse division in 1962. Although GE had been exploring semiconductor applications as far back as 1957, Holonyak was the one who noticed that semiconductors were able to emit visible light when electricity was applied to them. Holonyak's diode was only able to emit red light, but nonetheless led to a research boom. The many advantages LEDs have over incandescent light sources were clear: they consume less energy, have longer lifetimes, are smaller in size, have improved physical robustness, and have faster switching.  However, since LEDs were only able to emit a limited scope of colors, they didn’t have many applications outside of miniature indicator lights in electronic devices until the 1990s.


By the 1980s, Americans were becoming increasingly conscious of their energy consumption. To address this, in 1981, Philips developed Compact Fluorescent Energy Saving Lamps, which contained the first integrated ballasts and were created as household-use, energy-efficient alternatives to incandescent lights. Finally, fourteen years later in 1995, Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki, and Hiroshi Amano (electronic engineers at the Nichia Corporation in Japan) revolutionized LED lighting for general lighting applications when they invented the first blue LED (and with an additional Phosphor, white LED), which ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2014. From here, smart lighting began to be developed, and new applications for LED lighting continue to be explored to this day.

This concludes our 3-part journey on the evolution of artificial lighting. Do you have any questions or comments?  Let us know below in the comments or on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest or Instagram!

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