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Dr. Cora Angier Sowa



Excerpts from Edwin Hammer, "Incandescent Lamp Development to the Year 1880" in Electrical World and Engineer, December 1, 1900.

To be read in connection with

Engineers in the Family, Part III

Russian and American Life of Alexander Lodyguine, Russian Inventor and Engineer

Click here to go back to "Life of Alexander Lodyguine"

Who invented the electric light?

An introduction to the quoted excerpts:

The question of who invented the electric light continues to interest historians. The debate was intensified during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union issued duelling postage stamps honoring, respectively, the American Thomas Edison and the Russian Alexander Lodyguine as inventors of the incandescent light bulb. Actually, the matter is, as expected, much more complicated than that, with scientists and inventors from England, Germany, France, Russia, and the United States, over the course of many decades, trying many different solutions to the problems the project entailed. (Today, of course, the quest continues, as new kinds of lighting, such as light-emitting diodes (LED), are experimented with.) An entire page of this Web site is devoted to the life and career of Alexander Lodyguine, who was married to my mother's Aunt Alma.

To provide detailed accounts of the many inventions (and some of the patent disputes!) comprising the history of electric lighting, I include as Appendices passages from two early writings (of which full texts are available on Google Books):

  • Lengthy excerpts from Hippolyte Fontaine, Electric Lighting, 1877. (For the complete text on Google Books, click here.)

  • THE PRESENT PAGE: Edwin Hammer, "Incandescent Lamp Development to the Year 1880" in Electrical World and Engineer, December 1, 1900. (For the complete text on Google Books, click here.)

For a short modern summary, see William Hausman, Peter Hertner, Mira Wilkins, Global Electrification: Multinational Enterprise and International Finance in the History of Light and Power, 1878-2007 (Cambridge Studies in the Emergence of Global Enterprise), Cambridge University Press, 2008 (paperback 2011), p.11. In this account, credit for the first commercially viable incandescent light should perhaps be given to the Englishman Joseph Swan. (For the text on Google Books, click here.)

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Electrical World and Engineer, December 1, 1900 pp. 839-841.

The following text is reproduced here for its relevance to the work of the inventor Alexander Lodyguine. To read the entire publication on Google Books (including illustrations, which are omitted on the present page), click here. The author quotes from Hippolyte Fontaine, Electric Lighting (1877). For relevant passages from Fontaine's work, click here.

p. 839

Incandescent Lamp Development to the Year 1880—I.

By Edwin W. Hammer.

TWENTY years, and a little more, have gone by since the scientific world was scandalized, and the commercial world put agape, by the announcement from Menlo Park of the production of a practical and efficient incandescent lamp. But the doubters of those days have long since been convinced, capital has proven itself courageous and an enormous new industry has been created. Now that the controlling lamp patents have expired and many corporations are engaged in making incandescent lamps—the Edison Lamp Works alone turning out over a million lamps each month— jealousies are almost entirely suppressed; a history of the lamp may, therefore, profitably be compiled, and in a manner free from that contentious spirit which, ten years ago, would have militated against an accurate presentation of the facts. The following notes are gathered from original records of sworn testimony in lamp litigations in this country and abroad, and decisions of courts in such cases; from patents, text-books, magazine and newspaper articles, and other similar sources. So far as practicable such sources of information have been indicated in connection with the text. While this method of treatment does not lend itself readily to narrative, it is believed, to be the most satisfactory way of making this historical resume.

To Sir Humphrey Davy is ascribed the distinction of having been the first to produce an electric arc and to have demonstrated the enormous heating power of battery currents. His experiments with the 2000-cell galvanic battery of the Royal Institution are justly celebrated and are described in full in the Transactions of the Institution, 1810.


But, while it was thus known for years that carbon and platinum, for example, could be raised to a white heat by electricity, the history of the incandescent lamp did not really begin until 1845, when a British patent for "Improvements in Obtaining Light by Electricity" was granted to Edward Augustin King. This invention was that of an American, J. W. Starr, of whom practically nothing is known, and for whom King acted. It is generally believed that Starr resided in England, but died prior to King's application, which resulted in patent No. 10,919 of 1845. In view of the relation this lamp bore to those of Lodyguine, Bouliguine, Konn, Sawyer-Man and others, a detailed description may well be given. The lamp itself is shown in Fig. I of this article, reproduced from King's patent, and the following may be considered a fair summary of the specification's description.

King's lamp

King had two alternative forms of lamp; in one he proposed the use of wires of platinum or other metals; in the other he proposed using pieces of carbon. Regarding the carbon he says: "That form of carbon found on the interior of coal gas retorts, which have long been used, is well suited for this purpose, and may be worked into the form of either small pencils or thin plates by the aid of the saw and file." The carbon plates or pencils are to be enclosed in a Torricellian vacuum produced in a glass tube similar to those used for barometers, except that the upper end is enlarged into a cylindrical bulb, with a stout platinum wire sealed in at the top. The length of the tube, exclusive of the bulb, was to be about 30 inches; the tube is filled with mercury in the same manner as a barometer and then stood upright with its open end in a basin of mercury, the column of mercury in the tube falling until it is balanced by atmospheric pressure, leaving a vacuum above it. The stout platinum wire d of Fig. 1 is threaded at its lower end, and to this is screwed a frame formed of the metal forceps f and g and the connecting and insulating porcelain rod i, carrying a carbon pencil c. To the lower end of the frame is fixed a stout copper wire n which serves to introduce

p. 840

the frame up through the barometer tube and screw it to the platinum d before the vacuum is formed.

We thus have a construction described which was evidently never built by either Starr or King, and for obvious reasons. At the date of this patent, and for twenty years more, it was not known how to hermetically seal a "stout platinum wire" into glass and the boiling of the mercury in the tube to expel the air would have destroyed the copper wire n by amalgamation. According to Saywer, in his work on "Electric Lighting," "the Starr-King lamp had failed, because there was present in the Torricellian vacuum the vapor of quicksilver due to heat, with which the carbon entered into chemical combination."

The incandescing burner formed "by the aid of the saw and file" was made from hard, mineral, gas-retort carbon, and was of very low resistance; it required considerable current to heat it, and when two or more lamps were to be used they could only be arranged in series, as the patentee shows. Very little was known in 1845 as to the art of producing carbon conductors and "the irregularity and brittleness of the material seem to have been an insuperable objection and drawback," leaving the problem of commercial electric lighting yet unsolved. (See "Electricity in Lighting," by Dr. Henry Morton, Scribner's Mag., August, 1889, p. 176.)

Roberts, 1852.

British patent No. 14,198 of 1852, to Martyn John Roberts, marks the next step, which is principally in the direction of an improvement in the form of the receptacle for the burner. This lamp is shown in Fig. 2, reproduced from the patent.

Roberts' lamp

The glass globe C has its neck cemented into a metallic cap. The lamp is supported by a metallic tube B provided with a stop-cock, and the globe is exhausted through the pillar by an air-pump or exhausting syringe; after exhaustion the stop-cock is closed and the pillar is screwed into the base A. The burner D is "a thin piece of graphite, coke or charcoal, or other infusible body, being a conductor of electricity," and this is upheld by the metal rods RR' by suitable clamps. The inventor also says the burner may be "a piece of very thin graphite about half an inch long, half an inch wide and as thin as can conveniently be made." While this lamp was better, mechanically, than King's, it had the defects of the latter — low resistance, large radiating surface and inadaptability for use in multiple arc; it not being so well fitted as King's to preserve the vacuum, the life of its carbon would have been very brief.

This lamp apparently attracted no attention, as the various published histories of the art, up to 1880, make no mention of it.

DE CHANGY, 1856.

Belgian patent No. 3244 C, dated Aug. 28, 1856. was issued to Ch. de Changy, and is the only definite information we have regarding the inventor's lamp. Fig. 3 is reproduced from this patent, and shows the burner to be a cone-shaped spiral G' of platinum wire heated to incandescence in a metal-ended glass cylinder; no vacuum is employed and the burner is protected by a supplementary external resistance J.

De Cnangy's lamp

Considerable prominence has been given to this lamp in the literature of the art, but this seems to have been entirely due to a highly eulogistic statement made to the French Academy of Sciences by M. Jobart, March 1, 1858. The Academy referred this report to M. Becquerel who, on April 5, reported that he had found nothing which would warrant an expression of opinion as to the value of the invention, and asked for fuller information; on April 19 M. Jobart responded that "he could not give more precise details without exposing the author, to see another profit by his discovery." (See Comptes Rendus, 1858, Vol. 46, p. 789.)

Numerous other experimenters, as Greener and Staite, Petrie, Draper, Farmer and others, had used similar applications of carbon and platinum, but without reaching any more practical results.

Adams, 1865-9.

Dr. Isaac Adams, residing at Gloucester, Mass., testified for the defendants in the suit of the Edison Electric Light Company vs. the United States Electric Lighting Company, on the Edison filament lamp patent, No. 223,898 (hereinafter referred to as the "Filameni Record"), regarding his experiments with incandescent lamps. He was educated as a physician, but while abroad became interested in the manufacture of Geissler tubes, which he took up as a commercial undertaking upon his return to this country, in 1864. Being familiar with the properties of carbon, he, during 1865-6, made a number of lamps just as he had made his Geissler tubes, but with carbon burners about an inch to an inch and a quarter long, about three-sixteenths of an inch in width and from .005 to .01 of an inch thick; these carbons varied in resistance from .69 to 1.2 ohms, and were made by filing or scraping a block or strip of carbon as thin as he dared to, then dipping it in sugar and then reheating, making it tough and dense. The carbons were cut from gas-retort carbon, blocks of plumbago, carpenters' pencils or from a mixture of lampblack, powdered coke and molasses. Fig. 4 (from Filament Record, Vol. IV, p. 2691) shows how these lamps were made.

Adams' lamp

A is a glass globe, B a carbon slip; D D copper or brass extension of platinum conductors; P P platinum conductors; S double sleeve of glass fused together and surrounding the platinum conductors; J joint of fused glass shutting out atmosphere.

The vacuum employed was as perfect as Dr. Adams could make it with his improved mercury pump. Great difficulty was experienced by Dr. Adams in maintaining a vacuum because of the cracking of the glass around his large platinum leading-in wires (No. 16 B. W. G.), made necessary to carry the large current (from 11.5 amperes to 18.8 amperes) required by his carbons. This difficulty was not overcome until he produced a special character of glass from which to make his globes, having the same coefficient of expansion as the platinum. The question of dates was somewhat involved in Dr. Adams' mind when he testified, and it seems probable that no perfect globes were made before 1867. When cross-examined in the above case Dr. Adams said (Vol. IV, p. 2716):

"I had no idea at that time" — 1867-9 —"of having done anything of any special merit, as I thought the introduction of a piece of carbon into a globe to a person who was in the habit of making Geissler tubes was not much of a trick; but I was interested in the fact as to whether or not the big platinum that I put in the glass would hold, because I have always considered — did then, and do now — that I made an invention there which was a useful one. That was my interest in the lamp, and that was about all the interest I had in it * * * Introducing platinum wires of relatively large cross section was the novelty."

This shows quite clearly what was the state of Dr. Adams' mind.

p. 841

He did not make a practice of measuring the resistance of his lamps "because," he says, "I was not interested in that direction. I was not proposing to get up a system of lighting, not at all. I was simply making a lamp." He dropped the matter entirely in 1869. He had no records of the life of any of these experimental lamps and could only guess at the life of any one of them. It is perhaps unfortunate that Dr. Adams should have regarded his work from the standpoint of the glass-worker rather than that of the electrician, but the fact is that he had not advanced beyond the conceptions of King or Roberts, except so far as the enclosing globe and the leading-in wires were concerned, guaranteeing a better vacuum.


M. Hyppolyte Fontaine, in his "Electric Lighting" (Paris, 1877; translated from the French by Dr. Paget Higgs and published in London, 1878) proves to be a most interesting historian in this art. He says (p. 171):

"Light by incandescence and the principle of its production, had for a long time fallen into oblivion, when in 1873 a Russian physicist, M. Lodyguine, resuscitated both, and invented a new lamp, which has since been perfected by Messrs. Konn and Bouliguine."

In 1874 the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences awarded the Lomonossow prize of 50,000 roubles (about $38,500) to M. Lodyguine, upon the report of Dr. Wild, director of the Imperial Observatory. Describing this lamp, Fontaine says (p. 173):

"In his lamp, M. Lodyguine employs carbon in a single piece by diminishing the section at the point of the luminous focus, and he places two carbons in the same apparatus with a small exterior commutator, in order to pass the current into the second carbon, when the first has been consumed. Nothing is less practical or less studied than the apparatus of this inventor."

Dr. Wild is quoted by Fontaine as having said in his report:

"Besides, the resistance of the carbon in question, as a conductor of electricity, is nearly 250 times greater than that of platinum; it results that the small rod of carbon may be fifteen times thicker than a platinum bar of the same length, and that the current traversing it will engender the same quantity of heat."

It is thus seen that rods of carbon of low resistance and large radiating surface were still the ideals of all inventors or experimenters in this field, and that provision was still made for renewing destroyed burners. An atmosphere of nitrogen gas was first employed, but subsequently this was replaced by a vacuum, more or less perfect.

Konn, 1875.

In 1875, M. Konn, also from St. Petersburg, patented an improvement of the Lodyguine lamp, which is illustrated in Fig. 5, reproduced from Fontaine's book.

Konn's lamp

This lamp consisted of a glass tube B, enlarged and enclosed at the upper end, the lower open end being fitted upon a metallic base, A, provided with packing, L, and a valved opening, K. The two parallel vertical rods, C D, insulated from each other, support a frame in which are mounted five rods of carbon, E, arranged to be automatically brought into circuit successively. This is accomplished by the metal plate, I, hinged to the rod, C. Each carbon burner has a pin of different length at its upper end, the hinged plate resting on the tallest one, until the carbon to which it is attached burns out; thereupon the plate falls upon the next pin, bringing its carbon rod in circuit, and so on until the five carbons are consumed. Hard, dense carbons having low specific resistance, low total resistance and large radiating surface, were employed, and these were utilized in the imperfect vacuum which was all that was possible with the form of enclosure adopted for the globe. The idea was that the first carbon should, by its burning, transform the oxygen remaining in the globe into gases which would not support combustion, and that the subsequent carbons in burning would be surrounded by these innocuous gases. Fontaine describes some extensive experiments which he had made with the Konn lamps, and says (p. 179) regarding their life:

"The first carbon of a lamp never lasts for less time than a quarter of an hour; sometimes it breaks at the end of thirty to thirty-five minutes, but that is very rarely; its average duration is twenty-one minutes. The succeeding carbons last upon an average for two hours, so long as the luminous intensity does not exceed 40 burners, in which case the average duration is only half an hour. * * * From what precedes, it appears to result that King and Lodyguine's system is much more favorable to large foci than to the divisibility of the electric light."

Fontaine considered the repetition of his experiments, in connection with a Gramme machine, but was discouraged from doing so by the difficulty he had experienced in making the lamps burn; they presented too great difficulty in obtaining good contacts and too much delicacy and care were necessary at the beginning of each operation to secure any results.