Electric Light Bulb Invention and Inventors Edison, Lindsay, Swan
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Electric Light Bulb Invention and Inventors Edison, Lindsay, Swan

The first inventor of the electric light bulb was not Thomas Alva Edison but James Lindsay, a Scottish schoolmaster. Sir Joseph Swan also invented the electric light the same year as Edison.

American inventor Thomas Alva Edison is famously known as the inventor of the electric light bulb. He is not alone. Scottish James Lindsay is reportedly the first inventor of the electric light bulb. Sir Joseph Swan of Newcastle-upon-Tyne also invented the electric light the same year as Edison.

James Lindsay (1835-1862), Scottish Educator

The very first electric light was invented by a schoolmaster, James Lindsay, of Scotland in 1835. Lindsay’s invention operated from a battery. He made progress on innovations but they were never developed fully. These included the electric light bulb and wireless telegraphy. Lindsay mainly kept the electric light bulb only for his own use. All that is known about it is that it worked, and involved using a glass tube with the air sucked out to create a vacuum.

Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914), English Physicist and Chemist

On the other hand, both Sir Joseph Swan and Thomas Alva Edison invented the modern electric lamp quite independently of each other in the same year, 1878.

Sir Joseph Swan, of Newcastle-upon-Thyne, received he first patent in 1878. His house in England was the first in the world to be lit by a light bulb. This was followed by the Savoy Theatre in Westminster, London, in 1881. According to the article “The Savoy Theatre” in the UK newspaper, The Times, dated October 3, 1881, the Savoy Theatre was lit by Swan incandescent light bulbs, the first theatre and first public building in the world to be lit by electricity. Swan was knighted by King Edward VII in 1904, and awarded the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal, among his other honours and awards.

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), American Inventor and Businessman

Considered as one of the most prolific inventors of all-time who received over 1,000 patents for practical applications, so many things have been written about Thomas Alva Edison, born in Milan, Ohio in 1847. Edison developed and invented great devices including the phonograph, incandescent lamp, camera, motion picture, the Edison effect and the electric light bulb. Interestingly, he was self-educated, a railroad newsboy at 12 and telegraph operator at 16 years old. His first invention was an electronic vote recorder in 1869. Many more followed, after this first invention. 

Thomas Alva Edison formed the Edison Light Electric Company in 1889 which went through mergers in 1892, becoming the famous General Electric (GE).  

Few More Insights on the Electric Light Bulb, Edison and Swan

Present-day electric lamps use a metal filament to glow white-hot and so give light, but both Swan and Edison used a filament made of carbon. The first successful Edison lamp appeared on October 1879, when it burned for 13.5 hours before failing.

In 1880, Edison changed to carbonized paper filaments and began manufacturing his lamps for use by the public. In the meantime, Swan had changed to a carbonized cotton thread filament and produced these from the public in November, of the same year.

Both Swan and Edison began suing each other in the courts of law for “stealing” each other’s inventions. Eventually, they joined forces and worked together, because it appeared neither had actually stolen anything from the other.

Photo Courtesy:  Electric Light Bulb


Aldridge, Susan, Elizabeth K. Humphrey and Julie Whitaker. Know It All.  Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

McKinnis, Peter. 100 Discoveries. Sydney: Murdoch Book P/L, 2009

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Comments (4)

Very informative. Well done

Ranked #15 in Science

Thanks Abdel-moniem. Cheers!

Very detailed and nicely composed write-up.  Thanks

Ranked #15 in Science

Thanks, Donata. Appreciate your comment.

Best regards.