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The Flat Cap on ... Light Bulbs

The Flat Cap occasionally likes to spend his evening reading. As it began to go dark yesterday he switched on his reading lamp only to find the bulb had gone. After replacing it with one from the supply that he keeps in one of his kitchen drawers The Flat Cap began to think what a great invention the electric light bulb was and he resolved to find out more.

Before the advent of light bulbs if you wanted to read a book at bedtime you had to do so by candlelight. This was clearly unsatisfactory. If you held the book or newspaper you were reading too close to the candle you risked setting the pages alight. Lean in too near to the flame and you could end up singing your eyebrows or setting your clothes alight. History doesn’t record the number of accidental fires caused by people reading by candlelight but it’s a fair bet they were far more than they are now. Today the number of work days lost due to candle incidents are far less and schoolchildren are far more likely to attend hospital after falling off their bicycles than they are from setting themselves alight with household candles. Nowadays candles are pretty much for birthday cakes and churches. It’s only during power cuts that you’d really find a ‘proper’ use for one at home. Mostly candles are for show.

The world’s first electric light was invented by a chemist from Cornwall called Humphry Davy. Known as the Electric Arc lamp it wasn’t very practical and the light it produced didn’t last very long. That was in 1802. Three years earlier Davy was happier experimenting with nitrous oxide and it is was he who named the compound “laughing gas”. One matter that wasn’t anything to laugh about was the number of miners being killed by explosions deep underground so in 1815 Humphry invented the Davy Lamp. The lamp greatly reduced the risk of flames igniting methane underground and doubtless saved many lives. There is a big Davy Lamp statue outside Sunderland football club in recognition of the man’s work. When he wasn’t inventing things Davy was busy discovering metals and giving them names; examples include barium, calcium, strontium and magnesium. Two years later he gave chlorine its name. Davy lived dangerously and in one experiment blinded himself when messing about with nitrogen trichloride. He eventually recovered his sight but in the meantime relied on his co-worker Michael Faraday to write up his scientific notes and shopping lists.

Further light bulbs were invented during the mid nineteenth century but none had any commercial applications. In England there was a physicist called Joseph Swan who tried, but like Davy before him his designs didn’t give off light for very long. In Canada a couple of chaps called Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans patented their lamps but without enough money to develop their invention they sold the patents to an American called Thomas Edison. It was Edison who developed the incandescent light bulb in 1879, and by the following year he had set up the Edison Electric Light Company to market his new product. Convinced that his invention would be a success Edison was quoted as saying, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles”. This was of course before deregulation of the UK energy market and the vast profits to be made from selling on electricity.

As well as the light bulb Edison also invented the phonograph, which was the earliest form of record player. Today musicians like the Canadian rapper and record producer Drake are only able to make millions of dollars because Edison thought to invent the phonograph and fans have something to play his records on. Drake is the singer’s middle name and in order to look like his hero, Elizabethan sea captain Sir Francis Drake, he sometimes grows a beard.

Early Edison light bulbs had a lifetime of up to 1,200 hours and it wasn’t until 1904 that the next major advance came along with the tungsten filament that improved their brightness and lifespan. Fluorescent light bulbs followed and most recently we have seen the development of light-emitting diode (or LED) light bulbs. It’s all about energy efficiency and the environment; LED bulbs are 90% more efficient than their halogen equivalents and last fifty times longer than incandescent bulbs. All The Flat Cap knows is that anything that doesn’t need replacing for ages has to be a good thing. There is nothing worse than a bulb going at a most awkward time; like when you wake up in the night to pay a call of nature and can’t find your way to the toilet.

The Flat Cap sometimes buys his light bulbs from his local branch of B&M Bargains and it was whilst he was looking for a GU10 light bulb that he met fellow shopper and retired electrician Ken who shared the following light bulb related facts:

  • A moment of sudden realisation or enlightenment is known as a light bulb moment

  • In 1896 Thomas Edison became the first person to project a motion picture. The event took place at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City

  • At any one time there are more than thirty billion light bulbs illuminating the world

  • The Davy lunar crater is named after Humphry Davy. Lots of people have had lunar craters named after them but so far nobody whose surname begins with “Q” has had one name after them

  • The fluorescent tanning lamp was invented in the 1930s

  • Lumens are used to measure the visible light emitted from a source (such as a light bulb). It is also the name of a village in Belgium whose market day is Thursday

  • African Americans Garrett Augustus Morgan and Lewis Howard Latimer respectively invented early forms of traffic lights and carbon filaments used in light bulbs. In 1874 Latimer also co patented an early toilet system for use in railway carriages and his family home was coincidentally in a place called Flushing, New York

  • Most of the energy in an incandescent light bulb is converted into heat rather than light

  • Leaving a 100 watt light bulb on for thirty minutes will create enough carbon dioxide to fill a modest sized party balloon

  • During his lifetime Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents in his name

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