The above table shows the production data for the United States just before the introduction of the fluorescent lamp in 1938.1
Incandescent lamps with tungsten filament comprise the majority of the market share, however there are other light bulbs for specialty uses. Fluorescent lamps competed with tungsten-filament lamps for general illumination. They were developed and made by the same manufacturers of the large tungsten lamps. General Electric Company and the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company were predominant, producing 78 percent of large lamps sold in the country.2
Just a few years later in 1943 Arthur Bright and Rupert Maclaurin, professors of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper in The Journal of Political Economy analyzing the “Economics of Technological Change” as it related to fluorescent lamps. They note the 1940s as a major year for the fluorescent lamp. According to Bright and Maclaurin, from a 1943 perspective, the 1940s would see the introduction of the fluorescent not in addition to incandescent lighting, but as a replacement or substitute.1
Their thinking at the time demonstrates both remarkable foresight and what a major change the fluourescent lamp offered. “After several years of experience in the use of fluorescent and remarkable improvements in its performance,” they note, “the lighting industry as a whole is coming to realize that fluorescent may be not a minor addition to incandescent lighting but rather a substitute for a substantial part of it.”2
What did the fluorescent lamp have to offer to cause such a big change during those six years? The fluorescent lamp was inherently superior at efficiently producing light than the incandescent lamp. In 1943, a 40-watt fluorescent lamp produced 52 lumens per watt and burned for an average of 1,000 hours. In contrast, a 40-watt incandescent lamp burned for 1,000 hours but only produced 11.7 lumens per watt.3
Clearly, part of why the fluorescent lamp was adopted as a technological artifact was its comparative efficiency. Another reason is industries believed the efficiency of the fluorescent light bulb would increase exponentially over time. They had good reason to think so: the efficiency of the 40 watt fluorescent lamp increased 50 percent from 1938 to 1948. Economists at the time believed the rapid improvements in fluorescent technology were bound to continue, while advancements in incandescent technology would peter off.4
This is not to say the fluorescent light bulb was universally hailed. While some argued “advantages of fluorescent are its superior color quality, reduction of glare, and coolness,” others disagreed, and pointed out that fluorescent lamps were incapable of providing a beam of light. This initially limited fluorescent lamps suitability for all purposes. Fluorescent lamps were also more expensive than incandescent lamps. Fluorescent lamps were priced from 5 to 15 times higher than incandescent lights, making it difficult for shoppers to afford them. Thus, businesses began to integrate fluorescent lamps far quicker than any other group.5
1. Arthur Bright and Rupert Maclaurin, “Economic Factors Influencing the Development and Introduction of the Fluorescent Lamp,” The Journal of Political Economy 51, no. 5 (Oct 1943): 433, http://jstor.org/ (accessed February 2, 2009).