All major inventions were an evolution of ideas and inventors over many years. Many light bulbs were invented before Edison's that worked in the laboratory and for short-term demonstrations. There were more that twenty inventors that filed patents for various versions of the incandescent lamp before Edison, and there have been dozens of inventors that have filed patents for incandescent lamps since Edison.
In the mythology of famous scientists and inventors, there is the eureka moment, that's when some totally new idea or totally new theory is discovered. Thomas Edison's eureka moment was not in inventing the light bulb but in creating a carbon-filament lamp in a vacuum. This one improvement of the concept of the light bulb created the first commercially practical incandescent light. Edison's first attempts lasted a little over half a day, but eventually his efforts led to a bulb that could burn for 1,200 hours.
Edison's success went beyond the incandescent light bulb to developing an entire integrated system of electric lighting. Thomas Edison presented to the world a complete system of commercial electric lighting and power using a DC (Direct Current) generating station.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847 - 1931) was a legendary inventor that saw the need for improving upon existing ideas. Thomas Edison was influenced by the work of many inventors in Europe that were moving forward in the 1870s. Using the dynamo as a power source, Pavel Yablochov invented the the Yablochkov Candle in 1876. Yablochkov's inventions improved on previous arc light designs and proving that the installation of electric lighting economically feasible.
Edison saw that arc lighting was becoming popular as an outdoor form of lighting, he improved upon the concept of lighting creating a more practical and efficient of the incandescent light bulb. With his improved invention of the Edison bulb, he created a demand for a source of electrical power.
When we start telling the story that begins with, "when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb," we are usually quickly attacked by someone screaming, "Edison didn't invent the light bulb!" Well, in one sense that is true, Edison did not invent the incandescent light bulb. But, when you step back and look at the big picture you could say that not only did Thomas Edison introduce the world to the incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison launched the modern electric utility industry with the creation of the Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan in 1882.
From Edison Electric to General Electric
The biggest mistake of Edison's career was his refusal to acknowledge the limitations of DC power. By the time the War of Currents ended around 1893, Thomas Edison was no longer in control of Edison Electric. In 1892 Thomas Edison lost control of his own company, as financier J. P. Morgan merged Edison Electric with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric.
Even thought the War of Currents was short lived, roughly from 1886 through 1893, the rivalry of the Edison team (which became part of the General Electric Company) versus the Westinghouse team lived on in many ways.
Charles P. Steinmetz (1865-1923), began his career as a draftsman at the Osterheld and Eickemeyer company in 1889, which was acquired by General Electric in 1892. The Osterheld and Eickemeyer company, along with all of its patents and designs, was acquired by the newly formed General Electric Company, because of their expertise in the area of electrical power and transformers.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz understood electromagnetism better than anyone of his generation and while working for General Electric he worked on the team that developed the some of the world's first 3 phase electrical systems. General Electric was the company formed by the merger of Edison Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric Company. Ironic when you consider that Edison originally fought against the use of AC power, and now General Electric would now switch gears from Edison's ideas on DC power distribution and embrace the work of Steinmetz in the areas of AC circuit theory and analysis.
Even though Edison was not at the helm of General Electric, the interactions between Steinmetz and Edison are source for many legendary stories. One famous story is the $10,000 bill sent to Henry Ford for services performed by Steinmetz to repair an electric generator. When asked for an itemized bill, Steinmetz responded personally to Ford’s request with the following: Making chalk mark on generator $1, Knowing where to make mark $9,999.
Elihu Thomson (1853-1937), invented the 3 coil dynamo, which was the basis for a successful electric lighting system he produced in 1879 through the Thomson-Houston Electric Company. Elihu Thomson and E. J. Houston established the Thomson-Houston Electric Company in Philadelphia in 1879. Thomson-Houston Electric Company merged with the Edison General Electric Company to become the General Electric Company In 1892. Thomson was elected chief engineer of General Electric producing many of the fundamental inventions for the newly formed company.
When we speak of the great engineers who lead the Westinghouse Company we think of William Stanley followed by Benjamin Lamme. When the great engineers who lead the General Electric Company the names Charles P. Steinmetz and Elihu Thomson rise to the top of the list. Neither Steinmetz or Thomson worked directly for Edison, but became members of the General Electric team when their companies were acquires by the General Electric Company.
Graphic: Charles P. Steinmetz and Thomas A. Edison