Beautiful Science: Light
Harnessing and understanding light have challenged humankind for centuries. Our understanding of the properties of light and energy, as well as the ways in which we use them, continue to evolve. Here, the complex science of light is presented through the lens of experimentation. The exhibition also includes a significant collection of historic light bulbs.
The Huntington's collection of historical lamps consists of nearly 400 light bulbs, about half of which are on display in these cases. The light bulbs range from the 1890s to the 1960s. They include examples of the variety of bases, filaments, and globes in use before the development of current incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs.
Learn more about bulbs 191, 517, 537, and 548 - see them in the Dibner Hall of the History of Science.
Manufactured by the Sawyer-Man Company around 1883-84, this bulb is one of the oldest in the collection. It has an "Edison" base despite the fact that Edison and Sawyer-Man were competitors at the time. In the early years, patents for bases were rare and not always enforced. The bulb was also designed for 220 volts as 120 volts had not yet become standard.
This bulb has an "Ediswan" base. 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." The label, though now illegible, is in the distinctive handwriting of Thomas Edison.
In 1893, George Westinghouse and his young company outbid Edison to win the contract to light the Chicago World's Fair. It was a great opportunity to showcase carbon filaments and the company's novel "stopper" construction, devised to avoid a possible violation of Edison's patents. The successful lighting of the Chicago World's Fair greatly enhanced the commercial popularity of incandescent bulbs.
This particular bulb, manufactured around 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.
Learn more about bulbs 176, 566, and 594 - see them in the Dibner Hall of the History of Science.
This bulb does not contain a base or external lead wires that normally connect to an electric circuit. Instead, it has a closed loop inside—consisting of a filament and a metallic conductor. It was designed to use magnetic induction as devised and patented by Philip Diehl in 1882. Magnetic induction bulbs were scientifically interesting but not commercially viable.
Throughout his life, Edison tried to improve his products. This bulb is dated 1916, when Edison was 69 years old and incandescent light technology was fairly mature. 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.
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 long forgotten demonstration.
Learn more about bulbs 608, 618, and 635 - see them in the Dibner Hall of the History of Science.
This 40 watt bulb was manufactured by Westinghouse in 1918 with a "ruggedized" construction ideal for industrial or railroad service. 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 European bulb was manufactured with a tantalum filament in 1904 and put into service the next year. In 1904, some manufacturers used tantalum to replace short-lived carbon filaments, but within a few years tantalum itself was replaced by tungsten.
This example of the mercury vapor construction was probably a developmental model, and not a production bulb. 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.