from The Dark
written by Lemony Snicket
illustrated by Jon Klassen
Little, Brown & Co., 2013
I usually wake up before the sun. I can use the bathroom, turn on my coffee pot, feed the cats, and find my way to my reading chair before I turn on a light. If I’m lucky enough to have a book downloaded on my Libby app, I can read on my phone or iPad and not turn a light on all morning.
It’s not that I have anything against electricity or that I prefer the dark. Even though he did not act alone, Thomas Edison was really onto something when he invented the lightbulb. Roads and stores, barbershops, playgrounds, and sidewalks are safer if we can avoid trippers and other hazards as we move through our day.
But, let’s step back into history. Remember that kite and key experiment we all learned about in elementary school? Well, turns out Benjamin Franklin didn’t really discover electricity after all. According to an article on the Franklin Institute’s website, people were aware of electricity for thousands of years before that famous experiment. What Ben Franklin (and his son) proved by flying a kite in a thunderstorm was the connection between lightning and electricity.
Franklin’s kite was a simple square. He attached a wire to the top to attract lightning to his kite. He attached a length of hemp to the bottom and a silk thread to the hemp. He attached a metal key to the silk thread. Then he waited for the thunder and lightning. When lightning struck the kite, it traveled through the hemp, soaked by the rain, to the silk, kept dry in his hand. When Franklin noticed that the loose hemp strands stood out in every direction, he moved his knuckle toward the key. He felt an electric jolt. Fortunately, he had brought a Leyden jar, a container with conductors on the inner and outer surfaces that become positively and negatively charged. When it is charged, the jar holds electricity. Franklin “collected electric fire very copiously,” as was recounted by a contemporary British scientist, Joseph Priestley.
The first constant electric light was demonstrated in Great Britain in 1835. For forty years, scientists and inventors from around the world made improvements to the incandescent light. Basically it works like this. A filament, a slender, threadlike fiber, is attached to the base of a glass bulb. The filament is heated by electricity passing through it. When the filament is hot enough, it glows. It emits light and heat. Only 5% is emitted as light. The other 95% is generated as heat. What a waste! But it was the best we had for a long time. Those early lightbulbs were expensive to produce. The filaments burned for a very short time.
Thomas Edison looked for an improvement. It is said he tested “no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material” (Franklin Institute) as he looked for a much longer-lasting bulb that was much less expensive to produce. When asked about his many, many tries to find a better material for his filament, he’s quoted saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” (Smithsonian Magazine )
Edison made a carbonized filament of uncoated cotton thread that could last for 14.5 hours. But he and is team continued to experiment with filament fibers. He settled on one made from bamboo that gave his lamp a lifetime of up to 1,200 hours. He received a patent for his bulb that used carbon-coated bamboo filament on January 27, 1880. He continued to use the bamboo filament for 10 years.
In 1904, European scientists invented the tungsten filament. Tungsten is a metallic element with an extremely high melting point. Tungsten filament bulbs burned brighter and lasted longer than carbon filaments. Placing an inert gas like nitrogen in a lamp doubled its efficiency to 10%. The vast majority of energy was still being lost as heat. By the 1950s, researchers began to focus their own energy on finding a more efficient solution.
The march of progress included neon lights, florescent lights, and CFLs (compressed florescent lights). At first, CFLs were expensive and bulky. Now you can buy a four-pack for less than $2.00. They last about 10 times longer and use about 75 percent less energy than incandescents.
Enter LED, a light emitting diode. They don’t get hot, which is proof of their efficiency. Their energy is converted to photons, not heat. They last up to 30 times longer than an incandescent bulb. They can be made with epoxy lenses instead of glass, so they’re much less likely to break. (The discussion of epoxy requires a blog post of its own!)
And now new rules put LEDs in the forefront of energy conservation.
Joe Biden’s Energy Department will require manufacturers to sell energy-efficient light bulbs. Incandescents will not be available after July 2023. Besides saving money on family utility bills ($100/year), businesses, schools, and factories will save billions of dollars. The Department’s rules are projected to cut planet-warming carbon emissions by over 7,000,000 metric tons per year.
Even though merchants will be allowed to sell incandescent bulbs until July 2023, why in this wonderful world would anyone want one?
-—stay curious! (and look on the bright side)