Skip to content
Home » Magic of Light: 1900-1920

Magic of Light: 1900-1920

Designers and Makers

The Edison and Swan Electric Light Company continued to play an important role in making electric light bulbs in the early C20th. They continued to champion the carbon filament in their products but without control of the patent they became more exposed to changes in technology happening around them. In 1913, they were forced to sell their Benwell Factory in Newcastle to save costs and transferred all their operations to Ponders End near London. They also failed to invest in research and development and fell behind competitors on continental Europe and in North America. With the advent of new technologies replacing carbon with metal filaments, Edison and Swan had to gain a license for manufacturing the designs of other companies.

Edison General Electric in the United States also continued to produce carbon filament light bulbs well into the C20th, and also invested significantly in automation of the production process. By 1900, they claimed to produce 55,000 lamps daily and 16 million annually. They established the General Electric Laboratory in 1900, although it too focused on improvements to existing designs and manufacturing prior to 1907. In 1903, for example, it introduced a mushroom shaped bulb with a reflecting surface that maximised light in a particular direction. Other makers quickly brought something similar to market.

The General Electric Company of London (G.E.C.) had been registered in August 1889 by Gustav Binswanger (a Swedish emigrant) and fellow investors. By 1900 it had taken over the Incandescent Electric Lamp Company’s patents and production of the Robertson light bulb (named after its inventor, Mr C.J. Robertson), which continued with a carbon filament.

However, in continental Europe new electrical giants were beginning to emerge, now household names, and all founded primarily in development of the light bulb. Scientists in Germany were interested in the properties of metals with high melting points as a replacement for the carbon filament. Professor Walther Nernst introduced the Nernst Lamp in 1902 manufactured by German company, AEG. Another German-based company, Siemens, marketed the first Tantalum Lamp in 1905. In 1907, Osram (also based in Germany) promoted the first light bulb with a tungsten wire filament, although it was brittle and broke easily.

At this moment, Edison General Electric woke up to this technical revolution and spent the next few years improving the tungsten design. In 1910, General Electric quickly placed their new tungsten lamp on the market, using their quality mark ‘Mazda and their British subsidiary, British Thomson Houston of Rugby. General Electrical Company of London (G.E.C.) purchased patent rights and placed their Osram brand lamp on the market in 1911. Siemens introduced their Wotan brand of tungsten lighting at the same time. Philips and Company, based in the Netherlands and founded in 1891, also began to become a player in the light bulb marketplace.


At the beginning of the C20th, most innovation by established makers was taking place in the techniques of manufacture and materials used in carbon filament light bulbs to improve their efficiency and longevity. Innovation was also taking place in the methods of manufacturing the glass bulb itself which exploded the range of possible uses and markets for the humble electric light bulb. In the early days of making light bulbs, for example, the glass bowl had to be blown by hand. In 1883 Wright & Mackie had invented a foot treadle machine for mechanically blowing two bulbs at a time or a longer length of glass tubing required for laboratory work. This eventually increased production from 100 bulbs a day by a skilled glassblower to 500 by a semi-skilled operator. However, most light bulbs were still manufactured by manual blowing glass into moulds. During World War 1 for example, the Lemington Glass Works supplied practically all the bulbs made in Britain. By 1918, however, US factories were fully automated producing 3,000 bulbs per hour, with machines replacing individual departments that had been responsible for manufacturing each of 70 stages in the making of a light bulb. After the war finished, Osram installed 2 American automatic bulb blowing machines at their Brooke Green Hammersmith works, driven by an electric motor and controlled by one man.

Continuous improvement to manufacturing processes combined with the emergence of specialist light bulb manufacturers, such as Cryselco (who produced bulbs made with crystal-cut glass). This led to a rich diversity of light bulb shapes, finishes and sizes being available for the consumer to purchase off the shelf. Pear-shaped, mushroom-shaped, frosted, crystal, coloured glass, opal glass, over-sized and miniature bulbs all lent themselves to new purposes for incandescent light. Edison and Swan for example invented a new highly efficient arc lamp called Pointolite for use in projection, photographic work, and searchlights in 1913/1914. Edison General Electric began producing tramcar headlights and carbon filament saloon lamps for the streetcars/ electric trams appearing in towns and cities.

By 1920, however, the manufacture of carbon filament lamps was seriously on the decline, with only a few factories in Britain – GEC Robertson for example – continuing their production. Tungsten wire filament light bulbs began to dominate. These had a melting point of around 3,500 degrees centigrade, much superior to carbon which burnt up in temperatures exceeding 1,500 degrees centigrade.  Tungsten metal was relatively available as a material (mined in North America) and could be drawn thinly enough while remaining flexible and strong. During World War 1, carbon filaments became less easily available as imports from continental Europe dried up and the use of coal was prioritised for the war effort. The use of expensive platinum in light bulbs also declined with the invention of a new type of metallic material made of two metals (nickel and copper) called Dumet. This was designed by Edison General Electric Research Laboratory to expand at a similar rate to glass but be much cheaper than platinum. It was introduced for general use after 1913, and to keep costs down was only used in the ‘pinch’ between cap and glass bulb, with copper being used in the cap and nickel inside the bulb attached to the filament.


The so-called ‘second industrial revolution’ focused on new discoveries and applications for electricity and chemistry. The early 20th century was marked by an escalation of demand, chicken-and-egg with the building of power stations and technological improvements in generation and delivery systems. These however continued to be concentrated in dense urban areas as electricity could not be easily stored, and had to be used as soon as generated over a limited distance. Coal-burning stations produced the most electricity, although hydroelectric power was used on a smaller scale where it could be found naturally or more easily created (the countryside, or Norway). Constant upkeep by scarce skilled technicians was required, and the electrical-power industry required huge capital outlay.

An array of private companies and municipal councils were the electrical suppliers, resulting in a plethora of suppliers close together and sometimes with incompatible systems. It was unfeasible and uneconomical for these suppliers to run miles of transmission lines to rural areas. Early twentieth lighting and electrification was essentially limited to urban areas, where it brought more and better street lighting, illuminated restaurants and clubs, inspired new or much improved domestic inventions, enhanced public transport such as electric tram lines (introduced to London in 1901), and contributed toward the general atmosphere of Edwardian progress.

Advertising also took note of electricity’s potential: the first permanent incandescent illuminated advert in Piccadilly Circus appeared in 1908, for Perrier. Although the first electric train line was opened in Brighton in 1883, the early twentieth century saw increasing train electrification.

Gas lighting continued in use, having been given a further lease of life via the late 19th century improvement of the Welsbach incandescent gas mantle. Nevertheless, new urban buildings and factories increasingly turned to electricity where they could after 1900. Developments in machinery and production required more and more power and bright, safe, consistent lighting, preferably without the chemical reaction by-products, colour affect, oxygen reduction, and building fabric impairment resulting from burning gas.

The years of the First World War (1914-1918) accelerated electricity’s widening industrial application. Demand for munitions and war materiel necessitated continual production efforts, far beyond daylight hours. Electric lighting was used on ships, to communicate with allies or spot enemy ships in the darkness. Telephone lines, and later radios, were used to communicate between trenches, headquarters, hospitals, and artillery stations. British cities used lights to spot and try to blind zeppelins and their pilots. Modern industry and commerce were becoming reliant on electricity.


Better lamps (bulbs) and spreading electrical provision in urban areas aided the rise of electricity and its impact on the home. Electricity was hailed as clean, modern and aspirational. More appliances were developed, but wall-sockets were not yet customary and most appliances required attaching to a light socket. Some domestic inventions were rather fanciful, such as an electric tablecloth. Others were continued refinements on earlier inventions, like the toaster (e.g. pop-up timer, 1919).

The First World War slowed the extension of electricity’s domestic use whilst accelerating its industrial and military application. The telegraph and the telephone’s 20th century improvements (although originally both of the 19th century) greatly aided direct military communication between headquarters, hospitals and front lines. This enhanced communication ease carried on to the home as the telegram became a common part of the domestic experience of the war front, bringing good news and bad. Other daily-life aspects for civilians or former civilians involved electricity. Battleships made strong use of it, from turning gun turrets to signalling lamps. Telephone usage at the front was partially supplanted in later war years by radio (being wireless its cables were not destroyed by shelling). This electrical wartime experience helped set electricity usage’s post-War domestic permeation. Returning soldiers, sailors and medical staff brought home their understanding of its new capabilities. Radio especially was shortly to be domestically transformative in the coming decades.


The electric light bulb, and the electricity system on which it depended, began to have a noticeable impact on jobs and work. The electric industry itself expanded in scale with more factories appearing to satisfy growing demand. However these factories were also becoming increasingly automated so jobs became less about making light bulbs and more about building and maintaining machinery used for manufacture. There was also a new emphasis on sales and promotion. The British Carbon Lamp Association had been founded in 1905 for example to promote and protect the interests of manufacturers and maintain high retail prices. In 1912 it was replaced by the Tungsten Lamp Association, with General Electric Company, British Thomson-Houston, Siemens, Edison Swan, Philips and others pooling their patent rights, licensing other makers and fixing selling prices. This Association also arranged advertising and new jobs were created to support aggressive marketing and sales. The significant emphasis on design innovation also created scientific electrical engineering roles and early electricians enabled a growing demand for fitting electric lighting systems into houses, offices, factories, leisure outlets, and military assets.

As electric light became reliable and affordable in different work environments, work spaces could be readily operated at all hours of day, and retail outlets could experiment with decorative lighting to help attract customers. New industries that were reliant on the electric light bulb to succeed came into their own, including photography, film-making, cinemas, and an early motor vehicle/ tramcar industry.


Electricity became associated with leisure time glamour as well as with modernity. Restaurants and cafes, drawing in both men and women, had expanded in the late 19th century. These were part of the steps to greater liberty taken by women outside the home, and provided new opportunities for men and women to mingle. Conceptually imported from North America around the time of the later years of the First World War, and adapted for British tastes, nightclubs used external modern lighting effects to entice. Within they were artistically lit, particularly for performers, and became excitingly louche (on a sliding scale) places to see and be seen.

The new motion-picture entertainment artform materialising in the mid/late 1890s went hand in hand with the new lighting and electrification. Progressing from itinerant locations, around 1905 purpose-built cinemas began to appear. Some drew upon traditional theatre architecture but others looked to modern architectural styles befitting this innovative new form. Brightly attractive façade lighting attracted patrons to the building, with lighting bulbs and strips used to spell out the cinema name and create design features. Lighting and lamps became eye-catching commercial advertising in themselves. Inside, film projection required extremely bright light, for which incandescent lighting appropriate for domestic use was insufficient. The older technology of carbon arc lighting was used. Brightness was extremely power-hungry, and at least at the beginning DC power was preferred over AC as better to reduce flicker and consequent eye-strain. Some cinemas combined internal and external gas lighting with electrical features, whilst others became entirely electric and accompanied much public relations parading about the use of electrically-driven fans, heating and carpet vacuums for audience comfort and hygiene.

Film began to have a wider social impact involving leisure. 1911 saw the UK’s first film fan magazine, ‘The Pictures’, a sixteen page illustrated story paper. In the later teens and beyond these magazines developed from fiction papers into highly popular star magazines. Film stars became glamorous ideals, with the desire to imitate their appearance being stimulated in women and men both. The first permanent wave machine for curling women’s hair appeared in 1906 (initially gas-heated, later electric), replacing the hot iron which could burn hair. Because of the electrical equipment required and demand for hairstyle re-creating expertise, hair salons evolved where customers came to the hair expert (like barbershops) rather than the previous reverse.

Although make-up was still not common on ‘respectable’ ordinary women with the lingering nineteenth century emphasis on natural complexions as a reflection of moral virtue, the exposure to the obviously cosmeticised, electrically-lit and alluringly photographed film stars and stage actresses presented in popular press and advertisements began to erode this viewpoint. Women’s clothing continued the trend to glitter and gleam in electric light, with metal thread embroidery, spangles and sequins.

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.