M21337 | Light bulb

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Light bulb
1890-1920, 19th century or 20th century
12.2 cm
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Bulb (1)
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Keys to History

The light bulb is an invention that dates back to the 1870s. The light bulb manufactured in the years between 1890 and 1920 was composed of a glass globe around a carbon filament like that used in the first bulbs.

The invention of the incandescent light bulb is attributed to Joseph W. Swan (1828-1914) and Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931). In 1878, Swann tested a bulb comprised of a carbonized paper filament inside a vacuum bulb. Edison perfected this technique and, in 1879, launched the first practical incandescent bulb, which came with a filament of carbon fibres.

Electricity was first used for lighting. Starting in the 1880s, it began to be used in streets and public buildings, and soon went into the homes of the most well-off. It took quite a bit of time before the poorest city dwellers and country people got electricity.

During the 1880s and 1890s, incandescent bulbs proved something of a disappointment: there was no way of dimming the bulbs, they burned out rapidly and the costs of electrical light exceeded those associated with gas. On the other hand, light bulbs were a practical and safe alternative to the use of candles and kerosene lamps, and cut down on the danger of fire.

  • What

    In light bulbs, electrical current is used to heat the filament to the point where it glows and gives off light. The bulb itself is a vacuum, and this protects the filament, which would not last long if exposed to air.

  • Where

    In Montreal, the first public demonstration of the use of electricity took place on the Champ de Mars in 1879. The port of Montreal obtained electricity a year later. In 1889, 1 000 electric lamps provided light for all the streets in the city.

  • When

    The first incandescent light bulbs were plagued by fragile carbon filaments. The tungsten filament, which appeared in 1909, proved to be much more durable.

  • Who

    Joseph W. Swan (1828-1914), a native of England, was the first to demonstrate the use of the incandescent bulb, a feat he performed in 1878. Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931), who introduced a similar bulb the following year, was an American.