On this day in 1879, Thomas Edison first successfully tested an incandescent light bulb. We celebrate his success as one of the great inventions of history, but Dr. Boli believes that we completely miss the point of it. Herds of inventors were working on incandescent light bulbs, all following the same notion of putting a filament in a vacuum; Edison himself faced years of patent litigation from other experimenters who claimed to have come up with his idea first. If he had not succeeded in 1879, someone would have succeeded in 1880.
It is at the other end of his bulb that we see Edison’s real genius. When Alexander Graham Bell gave us the telephone, it was an appliance that had to be installed in the home by a professional telephone-company technician. It was not until the latter twentieth century that a connector was devised to make it possible for anyone to plug in a telephone. Another inventor might have given us light bulbs, but they would probably have been light bulbs that had to be installed by your electric company’s technicians. Edison saw that the secret to making electric lighting a success was to make it possible for the ordinary consumer to install the bulbs. Thus the Edison screw mount was born, a connector so simple that the simplicity of its operation has become a standing joke. Even when other connectors are used—the English bayonet mounts, for example, or the two-pin connector promoted by Westinghouse—they followed Edison’s design philosophy, while changing the design itself enough to escape his patent. The screw-mount connector is such a success, in fact, that it will survive the demise of the incandescent light itself: compact fluorescents and LED bulbs are successful only because they use the same connector.
The next time you see a light bulb used in a cartoon as an image of a bright idea, remember at which end of the bulb the genius really lies.