Shining a Light on Bookmarks
Electrical light is so common today that it is hard to imagine when it seemed magical. But that effect can be seen in this article, which was quoted in “Turn Down the Lights” in Discover (July 2003) by Eric Scigliano:
On March 31, 1880, the good people of Wabash, Indiana (population 320), launched a technological revolution. Atop the town’s courthouse dome, they mounted two crossarms with a 3,000-candlepower carbon-arc bulb at both ends of each. They then fired up a threshing-machine steam engine to generate electricity, and at 8 p.m. sharp, flipped a switch. Sparks showered, and Wabash became the first electrically lit city in the world. “The strange, weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday,” one witness reported. “Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement. We contemplated the new wonder of science as lightning brought down from the heavens.”
Though the nineteenth century is when the story of electrical light begins, it actually has some deep roots that go back as far as the 1600s when Dr. William Gilbert, who coined the term “electrical” for the effects achieved by rubbing amber and picking up pieces of paper, reported on his experiments that became the foundation for the study of electricity as science. The first primitive lamps were demonstrated in the early 1700s, but it was Sir Humphrey Davy whose research between 1802 and 1808 showed that an electrical current could be used to turn a strip of metal to incandescence, who could be called the father of the light bulb. His demonstration of an arc lamp (lamps that produce light by an electric arc) in 1808 was the first electric light seen publicly. Though what he showed was neither economical or practical for home use, it was the first viable demonstration of the use of electrical light.
Arc lamps continued to be developed throughout the century. During the mid-1800s, improvements made it possible for inventors to harness electric power for lighting. They were installed at the Louvre Museum, on the Thames embankment and on the Holborn viaduct in London. Surrey was the first English city with municipal street lighting using arc lamps, as well as possessing the world’s first public generating station (1881). In Germany, the first major installation for street lamps was on the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, and in the U.S., Wanamakers department store in Philadelphia was the site of the first arc lamps in 1879.
By 1890 more than130,000 arc lamps in use nightly in the United States. In October 1884, nine 250-foot high towers were installed to illuminate the busy East River channel, Hells Gate, in New York. Each light produced 3,000 candlepower and as a side effect illuminated the entire city. Unfortunately, their navigational effects were not quite as promised and they were but they ended up being removed in 1888.
Between 1882 and 1889, the British government passed various legislation to control the supply and use of this new electric power and lighting. The Incorporated Municipal Supply Association, formed in 1895, helped local authorities develop their electrical systems and encouraged more people to install electric lighting.
Prices were expensive, however. Relatively few customers could afford them, and most of those were businesses who used it to operate their factories twenty-four hours a day. It did not help that the consumer had to pay the cost of wiring for the installation of electricity nor that electricity was charged on a unit basis—a discount applying only in excess usage of two hours a day. Sensing opportunity and profits, wiring companies sprang up, offering consumers free wiring; their profits came from the discount they received from the provider but did not pass on. Nevertheless, it proved a popular option. By 1890 the all-electric house was a reality, with clocks, sewing machines, phonographs, fans, electric heating rings, electric heating controls, burglar alarms, annunciators and doorbells. And by 1900 many of the municipal supply companies were installing 1,000 or more lamps per month.
Viable electric lamps for the home took a number of innovations and inventors to achieve. A German clock maker named Heinrich Göebel who had emigrated to America in 1848. earned his living by traveling around in a wagon selling looks through his astronomic telescope, and to attract the customers he illuminated his wagon with battery-powered bulbs he had made from eau-de-cologne bottles.
Baron Carl Auer von Welsbach., born in 1858 in Austria, was primarily a chemist. During his experiments he found a method of making an osmium wire from which he produced an efficient filament bulb in 1898 that he patented and soon manufactured and marketed through the company he set up in 1899, the Auer Company. (The company became a part of the Osram Company in 1919.)
These two, among other inventors around the world, also worked on incandescent bulbs, but success ultimately came about from two men working independently—Thomas Edison in American and Joseph Swan in England.
Joseph Wilson Swan was born in 1828. Recalling the days of his youth, when indoor lighting was dim and expensive, Swan observed that “as a rule, the common people went to bed soon after sunset.” He began his career as an apprentice with a pharmaceutical firm, but soon switched to a career as a chemist, eventually becoming a partner with John Mawson. It was while he was here that he developed a reputation as a photographic consultant. While studying the incandescent filament in the 1840s he realized its potential for photography and as a safe illuminant in coal mines. In 1850 he began working on a light bulb using carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. By 1860 he was able to demonstrate a working device, and obtained a British patent covering a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp. But his lamps remained impractical for two reasons: vacuum pumps at the time were unable to create a high enough vacuum to protect the carbon filament (the bulb’s interior tended to become blackened due to the build-up of carbon particles, thus rendering the light within useless), and electricity supplied by batteries was expensive and unstable.
Swan abandoned this research for 17 years. Then in the late 1870s, he read about the work of William Crookes, who was analyzing new gases, and learned that Hermann Johann Philipp Sprengel had invented a more effective vacuum pump. Also, power generators had been improved to the point where they could supply cheaper, more reliable electricity than batteries.
In 1878, Swan solved his problem and invented a practical incandescent filament lamp, which he displayed in December 1878. It didn’t blacken and could run for more than twelve hours. Swan’s discovery had removed one of the major obstacles to home lighting. In December of that year, he demonstrated his invention at a meeting of the Newcastle Chemical Society, and at a lecture in February 1879 he demonstrated a working lamp. Starting that year he began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks in England. His own house was the first electrically illuminated private home in England.
Though he felt strongly that his successful work was due, at least in part, to his predecessors’ work—he once said “there are no inventions without a pedigree”—this belief that caused him some patent problems later on. Nevertheless, he applied for a patent for the heating of the element during evacuation on January 2, 1880. (It was this patent that proved to be the catalyst for Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan combining forces not long after.) The Swan Electric Light Company Ltd. was set up in 1881 and started commercial production. The next year it was renamed Swans United Electric Light Company Ltd. and the year after that the lights were installed in the Savoy Theater, the House of Commons, and the British Museum. At one point, Swan's factory received an order from the United States for 25,000 lamps.
Meanwhile Thomas Edison had begun similar research. Edison, unlike Swan, was an aggressive, informed businessman and patented every idea he ever had even if he didn’t intend to pursue it. He also had a string of important inventions to his name, and a team of experienced researchers and engineers working with him.
Edison had been born in Ohio in 1847. It was while he was visiting the workshops of William Wallace in Connecticut in 1878 that he became aware of the desirability of a practical lamp. He eventually managed to create a lamp with a vacuum, which would run for more than 1,500 hours, and took out patents in both the U.S. and Britain in late 1879. So when Swan started to turn out bulbs from his factory, he found himself in court in 1882, sued by Edison for patent infringement. When Edison's lawsuit failed to stop work at Swan's factory and when another lamp maker lost to Swan, Edison, realizing he and Swan had effectively created a stalemate that stalled either of them from dominating the huge potential market, settled out of court. They joined forces in 1883 to form the United Electric Light Company. Yet the fight had taken something from Swan. According to EPN (Electronic Product News):
While Edison & Swan United Electric wanted to enforce its monopoly and stamp out the growing number of companies that were infringing on its patents, Edison’s priority began to be questioned. As Swan had made several public demonstrations of his lamp before Edison's patent had been filed, it could be argued that the patent was invalid, Swan would be regarded as what is termed as a ‘prior user’.This offered a strong defence to anybody else who breached the patent. This whole mess could have been sorted out from day one if Swan had taken out the patent. Instead he had just part ownership in the company that produced the lamps, therefore only getting a cut of the money, which really should have been all his. To make matters worse it was soon to become apparent that he would have to give up the glory as well. The reason for this is as follows:. If the company was to retain the Edison patent, then it had to prove that Swan’s work that pre-dated it didn't interfere. The best way for them to achieve this was to argue that the carbonated conductor Swan used in his lamps was not a filament (which formed the basis of Edison's system). The point was highly contentious (in fact there was no actual difference in the illuminating element that either parties had used), but somehow the British courts bought it. The patent was upheld, and the company's strangle hold on the market was assured. Nevertheless it came with a high price, Swan had been forced to cheapen his achievements to save the business, and the magnitude of his contribution to one of the most important innovations in modern times had been greatly diminished. Eventually Edison bought him out of the business. He died on the 27th May 1914.
In 1883 the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company (known commonly as “Ediswan”) was established, selling lamps made with a cellulose filament that Swan had invented in 1881. As a team they were formidable, their combined patents preventing any serious competition until 1893 when Edison’s patent expired. In 1886, Ediswan moved its production to a former jute mill in north London; in 1928 AEI (Associated Electrical Industries) purchased the company. Later, in 1957, a subsidiary, Siemens Edison Swan subsidiary was formed. Finally, AEI became part of GEC (General Electric Company), the UK’s largest electrical group.
The Poison Belt, Arthur Conan Doyle’s story written in 1913 that is also advertised on this bookmark, was a novella about Professor Challenger, the main character in a series of science fiction stories. This second story takes place in a room in Challenger’s house. The professor has sent his companions (from the initial story) cryptic telegrams, asking from the previous story to join him and to bring a tank of oxygen. When they arrive, they are ushered into a sealed room with Challenger and his wife. The professor predicts that earth is about to come into contact with a belt of poisonous ether that will cause the end of life. The oxygen is not to keep the ether out, he predicts, but to “keep the oxygen in.” They watch as people die and machines run amok, and when their tanks run dry they open the windows, prepared to face their own deaths.
Doyle’s story was intended, as was War of the Worlds, written fifteen years earlier, to wake people up to the need to use their time and lives well because life could end at any time. It seems an odd juxtaposition, this story about values and the advertisement of a commercial product. But perhaps not. It’s merely science fiction. And read under the bright light of the Ediswan bulb, it is nothing more than entertainment.
Bookmark specifications: Royal Ediswan Lamp
Dimensions: 6 3/4" x 2 1/4 "
Manufacturer: Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company
Date: circa 1913
Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, nearly 1,300 bookmarks and approximately 1,200 books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. Contact Lauren.