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Home » Magic of Light: 1850-1899

Magic of Light: 1850-1899

Designers and Makers

Cornish scientist, Humphry Davy, was the first recorded scientist to create light from electricity. He worked at the Royal Institution in London where he had access to a large electric battery. With this he was able to generate enough current to briefly illuminate a thin strip of platinum. By 1806 he was demonstrating an early form of incandescent light, a filament heated by electricity until it glows. An arc of light was created between two charcoal rods with current running through them.

Throughout the C19th others then experimented with creating light in this way as a scientific pursuit. As knowledge improved, entrepreneurial engineers began to see commercial opportunities in developing this technology. One of these was the Russian military engineer, Pavel Yablochkov, who created a complete system of electric lighting using candle shaped arc lights. In 1878 he installed street lighting along the Avenue de l’Opera and Place de l’Opera in Paris using this method. Carbon rod arc street lighting became increasingly popular in cities across Europe, Russia, North America, and countries of western empire.

Carbon rod arc lights required powerful generators and large systems that worked in external spaces but were not suitable for homes and other domestic settings. Other scientists beavered away exploring ways that incandescent light could be created effectively using less powerful electric currents for intimate spaces. Joseph Swan was one such individual. Born in Sunderland he worked as a manufacturing chemist in Newcastle. At least as early as 1860 he was experimenting with the idea of a light bulb that used carbonised paper filaments in a vacuum. It was not until 1879, however, that he was able to demonstrate his working light bulb at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. In the audience was William Armstrong, a local businessman who had made his significant wealth through the manufacture of guns and hydraulic engineering. He and others invested in Swan’s work, including installing his light bulbs at his house in Cragside, and the Swan Electric Light Company was formed in 1881.

Swan and Armstrong were not the only entrepreneurs who could see the commercial potential of inventing an efficient and attractively priced light bulb for use in the home. Thomas Edison was a wealthy and successful American inventor based in New Jersey where he had established a laboratory at Menlo Park and employed a team of scientists. Together one of their projects was to crack the light bulb opportunity. In 1878 he formed the Edison Electric Light Company and their first installation was an electric lighting system on board a new steamship, the Columbia. As well as designing and making the light bulbs, Edison set up a company to design and build full electricity generating and distributing systems for these light bulbs to work in homes across towns and cities. This bigger picture thinking, made possible by his own wealth and that of his investors, helped Edison to quickly dominate the early electric light market both in North America and internationally.

Edison began to takeover smaller light bulb manufacturers and quickly realised that in Britain it would be necessary to merge with the main competitor, Swan Electric Light Company. Both Swan and Edison had set up their Electric Light Companies of London in 1882 and on 1st October 1883 a merger between the English Edison and Swan (British rights) companies was agreed at an Emergency General Meeting held at the Cannon Street Terminus Hotel. The Edison and Swan United Electric Lighting Company Limited was established. By 1885 all but one of their competitors (Sunbeam) had ceased production in the UK, with their production centred on a new factory at Ponders End in Middlesex. Sunbeam was eventually forced out of business in 1892.

Edison Electric Light Company and Swan United Electric Light Company continued to trade independently and license their products for manufacture in continental Europe and Russia, where the competition was much fiercer. Ousted firms from the UK also set themselves up in Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands, where patent law was more relaxed or non-existant. Charles Stearn, who had helped Swan with his early experiments in the 1870s and worked for Edison Swan, left to become the director of Zurich Incandescent Lamp Company in Switzerland in 1889. Other designers and makers operating on the continent at this time included Alessandro Cruto in Turin, Italy, and Gabriel et Angenault in Paris, France.

In the United States, Edison continued his drive to take over all other electric light companies and had good success until he met his match with Thomson-Houston. This Massachusett company had been founded in 1882 by Elihu Thomson and Edwin Houston. Within a decade it had sales of $10 million and 4,000 employees. When Edison began action to take over this business in 1892, the opposite happened with the two companies merged to form General Electric. Edison became a minority director on the board and his private research laboratory was closed.

In 1900, the original light bulb design patents registered under Edison-Swan expired, and a whole new world of incandescent light bulb innovation and manufacture begun to take shape.


The incandescent light bulb works because of activity happening at a sub-atomic level. Electron particles that exist naturally in materials become excited by an applied electric current, and flow through the material releasing energy in the form of heat and light. During this process the material itself burns away over time.

An electric light bulb is literally a sealed glass bulb containing a thin strip of material (filament) naturally containing electrons attached to wires that allow for a current to be passed through. The sealed environment inside the bulb was usually a vacuum in early bulbs especially, where air had been removed. Manufacturing these light bulbs by hand involved highly technical and skilled work; the bulbs are small and the components inside are miniature with each requiring their own intricate manufacturing process before the bulb can be assembled.

Key to creating a commercially viable light bulb was the invention of a filament design and environment supplied by a practically delivered electric current that could be cheaply produced and reproduced thousands if not millions of times in a factory environment. A design that was also both reliable and long-lasting for consumer confidence in an increasingly competitive marketplace. So, once the basic design principles were proven, and patented, by Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison, inventors turned their attention to detailed improvements that significantly enhanced performance and therefore commerciality of their product. A battle of the patents ensued with designs being registered for detailed changes in filament type and design, methods of introducing electric current into the bulb, and methods of finishing the bulb and sealing its internal environment.

Both Swan and Edison started by experimenting with carbonised paper filaments in their early work. Carbon in the form of graphite is an excellent conductor of electricity. However, though effective over very short periods carbon-rich cellulose-based paper did not last long. Swan and Edison began to explore other more robust sources of ‘cellulose’ and turned their attention to plant material. Both introduced readily available carbonised cotton thread as filaments into their research with much success; it illuminated strongly and lasted much longer. Swan was the first to patent this technology and produce it as a commercially viable bulb. Edison had to abandon the cotton option for a while because of this and sent out researchers across the world to investigate other plant sources. He eventually discovered the properties of particular types of bamboo plant grown by farmers in Japan and China, which he sourced, patented, and used to make his first commercial light bulbs.

Swan, Edison, and others continued experimenting with new forms of carbonised cellulose-based filament throughout the rest of the C19th with a mission of continuous performance improvement. They started playing with increasing the surface area of the filament while keeping the size of glass bulbs the same. This was achieved by adding curls or coils into the filaments, allowing them to turn up the pressure (or voltage) of the electric current, resulting in more energy released and a brighter glow.

Of course, filaments were not the only area of innovation in the manufacture of C19th light bulbs. The most significant additional invention making the commercial light bulb possible was created by a German chemist, Hermann Sprengel. While working in London in 1865, he found a method of extracting air from within glass bulbs using mercury droplets to trap air and stop it returning into the bulb after it had been removed by a pump. This proved to be so effective it could be used in light bulb factories to evacuate air from several glass bulbs simultaneously. If air had been left inside the glass bulb the filament would be less effective and react with oxygen in the air. This air evacuation took place towards the end of the light bulb construction process creating a vacuum inside the bulb.  To retain the vacuum also required a seal where the electric wiring carrying current entered the bulb. The first bulbs used plaster of paris, a convenient substance readily available at the time, but it was brittle and if damaged broke the vacuum. A durable innovation in the form of moulded vitrite (a glass-like substance) was invented and in regular use by light bulb makers at the end of the C19th.

Finally, means of passing an electric current through the bulb had to be invented. This often meant attaching to a large battery that generated the current which passed through metal wires until it reached the bulb. The bulb would be fitted to this system via either a bayonet cap or screw cap, the latter invented by Thomas Edison inspired by the screw thread on petrol can caps, and both still used today. Two contacts in the bulb seal would connect with this external system and carry the current through platinum wires until it reached the carbon filament, where electrons became excited creating light and heat energy. Platinum’s chemical structure holds its electrons in a way that allows it to conduct electrical current to the filament without the release of heat and light energy. It also expanded at about the same rate as glass when a current passed through, allowing the vacuum in the bulb to be preserved. Its disadvantage was its expense and rarity, with a worldwide platinum shortage in the 1890s resulting in the stockpiling of this material by light bulb manufacturers internationally.


The nation’s rapid population growth coupled with urban expansion throughout the 19th century increased demand for light, domestically, commercially and industrially. Coal-gas, comparatively simple to provide, had become part of the urban construction landscape from the early/mid 19th century. The story of the substantial research, invention, refinement and adoption of electricity in Britain, Europe and North America is set against the backdrop of the wider search for a better light and power source than gas, coal and steam. Obtaining light of the appropriate brightness and colour shade, unlike dimmer yellow-red gas or eye-wateringly strong arc lighting, was a long-sought goal. Early experimenters such as Joseph Swan began seeking durable filament material for electric light as early as the 1840s, finding success at the end of the 1870s (simultaneously with Edison).

There were some lessons learnt from the rise of gas. With laissez-faire capitalism ascendant, the large number of competing gas suppliers, little urban planning and few consumer protections frequently resulted in uneven quality and inconstancy of provision, business misrepresentation and failed investment. There was continual urban disruption resulted as competitors laid new dedicated lines within the same locales. These experiences combined with burgeoning civic pride and the desire to deter unbridled urbanisation and new technologies’ less attractive outcomes for the wider public welfare.

The Electric Lighting Act 1882 was in part designed to improve controls on the UK’s multiplying electrical companies’ consumer and civic relationships. For example, it enabled council involvement or takeover after a certain number of years following initial commercial investment in electrical product and power supply provision to the public. An unintended consequence of this Act, whilst virtuously avoiding the sins of the past, meant that electrical lighting investment, the impetus for technological innovation, and customer enthusiasm was stifled for a few years at a (retrospectively) critical development and commercial control period. The potential to lead international development in electric lighting eluded the UK, despite the strong flurry of interest and investment in the early 1880s. Adding to this the difficulties of retrofitting the built environment, ensuring return on investment, socially potent class perspectives, and cannily negative information campaigns from gas suppliers meant electrical lighting was not met by all with enthusiasm. Although electrical lighting’s adoption was somewhat slower than it might have been, when it did increase throughout the 1890s users and investors benefited from accessing the more advanced second wave of electrical lighting and power technology.


The explosion of Victorian building construction meant gas for lighting was laid into the many middle class houses, who celebrated its modernity and convenience. Poor areas had less gas provision (although some street lighting), as companies considered the installation investment in such areas uneconomic due to doubts people could pay. Gas in upper class homes tended to be limited to the servants’ areas. This was due to the ‘middle class’ associations with gas, and its well-known negative effects – damaged textiles, paint discolouration, and water vapour creation. Colour fidelity perception of valuable objects, decoration and clothing was also dubious, given the reddish-yellow flame colour. But its constancy and relative safety in comparison to open candles or oil lamps appealed, although not in the bedrooms due to safety concerns. Electricity for lighting and other power was an ongoing experiment searching for better results throughout the 19th century.

When the real opportunity for electric domestic lighting arrived in the 1880s and 1890s, there was considerable interest. Capital investment took place, but difficulties with infrastructure, retrofitting buildings, and the higher cost of electricity compared to gas created barriers to use. A lack of standardisation (current, fittings etc ) featured for the first 40 or so years of electrification. Nevertheless electricity’s adoption expanded as its benefits over gas were strong. Proselytising and promoting electricity’s benefits at home and abroad became the subject of books and newspaper articles, decrying gas and demonstrating the hygienic benefits of electricity and its safety. The Electric Light in Our Homes by Peter Hammond (1884; Frederick Warne & Co) is recommended as the classic book of this type.

New technologies bring innovation. The arrival of domestic electricity triggered domestic inventions – the electric toaster made its debut in 1893, with bread placed on bare wires. 1889 saw success with developing the thermionic valve, the mainstay of early 20th century electronics – and thus the roots of radio. Guglielmo Marconi patented the wireless telegraph using radio waves in 1896. The stage was being set for a major domestic transformation in the century to come.


Early commercial light bulb makers took every opportunity presented in the workplace to showcase their wares. Primarily their use was centred on transforming customer experience but in so doing, the experience of workers in certain industries was revolutionised. In 1880 Swan lamps were installed as an experiment in Coxon’s drapery store and Mawson & Swan’s chemist shop in Mosley Street, Newcastle. By 1890 Edison-Swan had developed a range of coloured and other fancy lamps for retailer use. In May 1880 Edison’s paper filament lamps were fitted to the SS Colombia, a new steamer of the Oregon Railway Company. In 1881 Swan installed 1,200 lamps at the Savoy Theatre in London, and in 1883 Edison was commissioned to light the Theatre Royal in Manchester. The following year, he secured a contract at Paris Opera House and in 1887 replaced its entire gas lighting system with 6,000 electric lights. Before electricity, these places had been lit with gas and oil lamps that had an open flame and presented a serious health and safety hazard for customers and workers (although electric lights also had their moments). Jobs started changing too from an industry centred on coal gas and whale oil to one centred on the generation and servicing of electrical current and incandescent light bulbs. Perhaps this is no better illustrated than the installation of a full electric lighting system on London’s Holborn Viaduct by Edison and his company in 1881-82.

Factories and offices were not priority markets for this technology at an early stage, not least because of cost and effectiveness. However, some experiments were undertaken. For example, Edison introduced electric light into the Brooklyn Printing Works in 1881 and Swan tested electric lighting at various collieries including Pleasley Colliery in Mansfield, Risca Colliery in Caerphilly, and Earnock Colliery in Lanarkshire.


19th century population growth and concomitant town and city growth meant an escalation of leisure opportunities as well. Ever more people out and about in the darker hours enhanced the basic desire to more easily see the way to one’s destination. Also, urban poverty and wealth co-existed meant increased safety and security concerns when out in the night streets.

Once electrical lighting became a practical reality, the cost investment in electrical supply and technological R&D required to enable and improve became crucial. Given the history of theatre fires and constant concern about open fire hazards, theatres were often early adopters of electric lighting. In London, the rise of the West End as the leisure destination for men and women alike was aided by electricity. The Savoy Theatre opened in 1881 and was the first building in the world completely electrically lit, but its safety had to be evangelised to its early audiences. Brilliant arc lighting had already been used outside the Gaiety on the Strand as it promoted itself with six rooftop arc lights beaming messages into the sky in 1878. 

Cinema, seen by audiences in tents, halls and temporary shop locations, also became an attraction in the late 1890s and required very bright lighting (usually carbon arc) for its projection on screen. Late Victorian films were very short, around a minute, and usually featured real-life scenes – arriving trains, city traffic, races and so on, all emphasising movement. The novelty of the moving image and its en-masse experience laid the ground for amazing further developments in the next century.

The excitement and modernity of electricity was used by trendsetters in fashion. Battery-powered electric jewellery) was first been seen in the late 1890s, and electrified dresses in the 1880s. These were rarities however, and what took root as simply more practical and scalable was adapting fabrics and clothing to look its glittering best under electric lighting, such as metal thread embroidery and spangles.

Further Reading and References:

Bud, Robert: Nizoil, Simon: Boon, Timothy: Nahum, Andrew. Inventing the Modern World. 2000

Dillon, Maureen. Artificial Sunshine. 2002

Hammond, Robert. Electric Light in Our Homes. 1884.

Hannah, Leslie. Electricity before Nationalisation. 1979.

Nevett, T.R. Advertising in Britain. 1982.

Otten, John. Death of a Lightbulb. 2012.

Parsons, R.H. The Early Days of the Power Station Industry. 1940 (reprint 2015).

Tye, Ray. Rays of Light: A Comprehensive History of the Incandescent Light Bulb. 2014.

Usai, Paolo Cherchi. Silent Cinema. 2019.

Westinghouse. Everything Electrical for Cinemas, Theatres and Public Buildings Generally. 1914.