If necessity is the mother of invention, could competition be the father? Thomas Edison is often criticized for shamelessly capitalizing on the work of others, namely Nicola Tesla. The truth is that the light bulb itself was a collective invention. The light bulb as we know it today was Edison’s.
Mark Twain may have put it best: “The last man gets the credit and we forget the others.”
The spirit of competition may indeed thrive in the frustration of that dictum, and may be a primary motivation in the most creative minds.
The wave and the wireless
Necessity and competition have certainly spurred the makers of traditional light bulbs into inventing new ways of controlling lights in the home. Sensors embedded in a household wall activate lights when a hand is waved before them. The sensors are almost invisible, camouflaged, and detectable by a discrete circle on the wall.
Home lighting has also been rendered completely wireless. One can dim, time, and even change colors remotely, all with just a couple of taps on a smart phone. Edison had a constant eye on the household when it came to marketing this sort of practicality.
Centennial bulbs, LEDs, and the value of planned obsolescence
Light emitting diodes, or LEDs, are solid-state semiconductors that emit light when a current is passed through them. Having no filaments to burn out, no moving parts, and being relatively cheap and easily produced, LEDs seem a novel replacement for the incandescent bulb. A single LED burning eight hours a day can last up to 17 years.
Planned obsolescence, the bane of the careful consumer, isn’t so evil a practice when one considers that innovation itself, not just business, would slow to a snail’s pace were it not for planned obsolescence’s constant clearing of the board for fresh ideas and products. It’s easy to see why hundred-year bulbs aren’t the norm and never were. And it’s easy to see how LEDs have the potential to go their way.
Perhaps Edison understood this concept even before there was a word for it. What’s more likely is Edison’s tendency to rush headlong into the next idea prevented him from spending time improving on his last one. Whatever the case, one can speculate on Edison’s reaction to the LED: practical in application, impractical in execution.
Bottle bulbs and SociaLites
A one-liter plastic bottle is filled with a mixture of water and bleach. Set into a hole in the roof, the solution disperses sunlight to the tune of somewhere between 50 and 60 watts. Sustainable and cheap, the lamp will never burn out. It is a fine example of how true necessity—in this case, that of the Third World—can spawn simple invention.
When a professor at Cooper Union in New York challenged his students to respond to the needs of the Third World with a renewable source of light that could be powered in remote areas, run without a charge, and cost under ten dollars, they came up with the SociaLite, an invention that did all that and more.
Several statements made by Thomas Edison hint at an ethical stance defined, at least in part, by a need to rebel against the baser natures of humanity. Therefore, it’s likely Edison would have approved of projects like the ones mentioned above. It is just as likely that he would also have found ways to improve upon them. According to Twain’s dictum, perhaps we would be using the Edison bottle bulb or the Edison SociaLite today.
If nothing else, the man was sheer brilliance in useful doses.
Nicole is a blogger for the engineering industry. She loves writing about anything to do with engineering; including everything from manufacturing products to the best lighting towers on the market.