Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World - Light Bulbs


In 2006, The Huntington assumed ownership of a unique collection of nearly 400 light bulbs. Originally amassed by Dr. Samuel Hibben of the Westinghouse Electric Company in the 1920’s, and then acquired by Bern Dibner in 1965, these bulbs tell an incredible story of persistence and creativity that spans several continents and over 100 years. Here are just a few examples of the bulbs in this collection:


bulb-191The Early Years #191

Manufactured by the Sawyer-Man Company about 1883-84, this bulb is one of the oldest in the collection. The design was conceived by William E. Sawyer, an inventor with a brilliant engineering mind, unpleasant personality, and poor health. In 1878, Sawyer joined forces with Albon Man, who had a record of business success.


This bulb has an “Edison” base, though Edison and the Sawyer-Man were competitors at the time. In the early years, bases were not always patented and patents were not always enforced. This bulb was also designed for 220 volts, as 120 volts had not yet become standard.


bulb-517Patent Wars #517

The bulb has an Ediswan base. The label, though now illegible, is in the distinctive handwriting of Thomas Alva Edison. Joseph Swan’s company in England was successful in litigating with Edison on patent infringement, and forced Edison's company into a joint venture called “Ediswan.”


bulb-537Lighting the World’s Fair #537

In 1893 George Westinghouse and his young company bested a bid by Edison to win the contract for 92,000 bulbs to light the Chicago World’s Fair, the first all-electric fair. It was a welcome opportunity to showcase carbon filaments, and the company’s novel “stopper” construction, devised to avoid a possible violation of Edison patents. Westinghouse also used a base of his own design. The successful lighting of The Chicago World's Fair greatly enhanced the commercial popularity of incandescent bulbs.


bulb-548Branching Out to Mercury #548

This particular bulb, manufactured about 1939, is an early Westinghouse mercury vapor lamp. Mercury vapor lamps are more efficient than incandescent lamps, but produce a colored light too harsh for homes. They were – and are now – extensively used for street and highway lighting.





bulb-176Innovation Through Magnetic Induction #176

Designed without a base or the external lead wires that normally connect to an electric circuit, this bulb is a closed loop inside, consisting of a filament and a metallic conductor, which is probably copper.


The bulb was designed to use magnetic induction, as devised and patented by Philip Diehl in 1882. Diehl’s design required many turns of the wire in both the magnetic “socket” and in the bulb.This bulb may have been an experimental version to see if a “one-turn” loop could be energized sufficiently so the filament would incandesce. It likely would have taken an extremely powerful (and uneconomical) magnetic socket to produce incandescence in this bulb. Magnetic induction bulbs were scientifically interesting, but not commercially viable.


bulb-566Lifelong Exploration #566

The label is in Edison’s distinctive handwriting, however, it was not part of Edison’s early efforts on incandescent lighting. The bulb is dated 1916, when Edison was 69 years old, and incandescent light was a fairly mature technology. Throughout his life, Edison tried to improve his products. Though unclear what improvements Edison was investigating, one possibility is he was looking for a better way to remove contaminants from inside the bulbs, since contaminants decrease bulb life.


bulb-594Mysterious Purpose #594

In this "double-ended bulb, each of the two bases has right-handed threads.


Mounting this bulb into sockets would have been a challenge since energizing one end meant that the other end was “hot,” the bulb would deliver a shock to anyone foolish enough to touch it. This was probably not a production bulb, but made for some special purpose or demonstration, long forgotten.




bulb-608Expanding Products for Railroad and Industry  #608

This 40 watt bulb was manufactured by Westinghouse in 1918 with a “ruggedized” construction.


Westinghouse described the filament construction as “fir tree.” The filament is supported at many places to minimize motion, even if the bulb is subject to considerable vibration. This bulb's ruggedized construction meant it was suitable for industrial or railroad service.


bulbs-618The Evolution of Filaments #618

This European bulb was manufactured with a tantalum filament in 1904, and put into service the next year. The manufacturer was likely Siemens & Halske, which possessed patents on a process for drawing tantalum filament wire from ingots.


In 1904, some manufacturers used tantalum to replace short-lived carbon filaments, but within a few years tantalum itself was replaced by tungsten. The base of this bulb is similar to an Edison base. It has slightly larger spacing between the threads and the button contact. The spacing difference between the threads and button contact, possibly to avoid a claim of patent infringement by Edison.


lightbulbs-635Mercury Vapor Innovation #635

This bulb is of the mercury vapor construction. The outer cylinder is open at the top and therefore not under vacuum. Within the cylinder there is another glass structure that is evacuated and contains mercury and the circuitry to generate and ignite the vapor. Small drops of liquid mercury are on the walls of the inner structure. This bulb was probably a developmental model, not a production bulb.






About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. and Arabella Huntington. Henry Huntington, a key figure in the...

Read More