The Fluorescent Light Bulb


Since the dawn of time humanity has searched for new and better ways to bring light to the darkness. Torches, wax candles, rushlights, gas lamps, the incandescent bulb and the fluorescent light were all innovations by humanity to  create superior illumination.

This blog is dedicated to presenting research on the fluorescent light bulb. Each of the pages of this blog addresses one aspect of the fluorescent light bulb, from the background (including antecedents), invention, adoption, and impacts of fluorescent technology. A bibliography section is provided to ensure credit to original work and provide further resources on the history of the fluorescent light bulb. This page introduces the history of the quest for superior illumination and the basic idea of what fluorescent lighting is.

[Fig 1]

A Brief History of Early Artificial Illumination

One of the first forms of lighting was the rushlight. A early development of the torch, the rushlight was formed when humans learned that splinters of certain woods burned without smoke, and then soaked these splinters in the oils and waxes from animals and berries. Rushlights became picturesque symbols of Shakespearean plays, as they were used to illuminate the theaters of the day.1

The Phoenicians invented the wax candle which became the leading source of light for centuries. The racks on which they were placed were called candle-bearers, or chandeliers, a name that “still clings to such fixtures now employed for gas and electricity.”2 George Washington was received in Philadelphia in a ceremonial hall lighted with 2,000 candles, but as massive a display as that was for the times, the lighting was still dim compared with just a modern store.3

The oil lamp had existed nearly as long as the candle. The oil lamp is as old as Moses, Confucius and Caesar.4 At first, the oil lamp was fueled by vegetable oils and grease.  Over time, Coastal cities realized the oil harvested from the carcasses of beached whales functioned as a better fuel. A great demand for whale-oils was created, and ships were equiped to pursue the great mammals. The demand was so intense 18th century fishers brought the gray whale to the brink of extinction.5

However, the oil lamp was no more satisfactory than the candle.  For centuries, families clung to the candle. Even the best lamps were smokey and produced a disagreeable odor due to the rankness of the liquids burned. They also produced a constant danger of explosions.6 Eventually, improvements in the lamp removed or reduced these problems. Aimé Argand, a student of chemistry and physics born in 1755, produced a flame with more heat that consumes the sooty particles before they dispersed into the atmosphere. The Argand lamp, invented in approximately 1782, had a circular burner and a lamp chimney that funneled more oxygen into the flame creating greater temperatures.7

The next major innovation in lighting was the introduction of gas-lighting. Many important innovations were made in gas lighting by persons such as Thomas Shirely, John Clayton and Van Helmont (a Dutch scientist who coined the term that the word gas evolved from).  However, until William Murdock, there was no practical application for the knowledge they produced. Murdock, a Scottish mechanic, managed to provide an entire house using gas- a scale not previously imaginable.8

Gas lighting was initially opposed by the public, and even scientists and credible persons. Sir Walter Scott wrote of gas lighting: “there is a madman proposing to light the streets of London – with what do you suppose – smoke!”9 It took an incredible salesperson to convince the public of the merits of gas lighting. Friedrich Winsor, “the original gas-showman,” held a series of public expositions in 1803 and 1804 at which he eloqeuntly touted gas lighting.10  By 1816, London was lit by gas. By 1820, Paris. Eventually, the technology crossed the Atlantic and Baltimore and New York led the U.S. into a world of gas lighting.11

A New Era of Lighting

Each of these predecessors to the modern light were spurred on by a search for a more complete and fulfilling illumination. Eventually, they would come to be replaced by one of two lighting sources: the incandescent and the fluorescent lamps. The Background page of this blog will examine the evolution of the fluorescent lamp from its earliest predecessors.  The Invention section will examine how the fluorescent lamp was finally created and how it competed with incandescent lighting.

Fluorescent Technology – What is It

Fluorescent lighting is based on discharge of electricity through a gas or vapor.12 Electrically, the fluorescent reaction is a “discharge through mercury vapor at a low-pressure mixed with argon.”13 The discharge in mercury yields ultraviolent light, as well as visible light. The inside of the glass of a fluorescent lamp is coated with materials (phosphors) that absorb ultraviolent light and emit visible light. The color of a fluorescent lamp can be controlled by choosing the appropriate phosphors.14


1. Waldemar Kaempffert, ed., A Popular History of American Invention, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), 529.

2. Ibid., 539-540.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 541.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 542.

7. Ibid., 543.

8. Ibid., 544.

9. Ibid., 546-7.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 551.

12. William Elmer Forsythe and Elliot Q. Adams, Fluorescent and Other Gaseous Discharge Lamps, (New York: Murray Hill Books, Inc., 1948), vii.

13. Ibid, 134.

14. Trevor Williams, ed., A History of Technology, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 1085-1086.

[Fig 1] The image above shows the selection of fluorescent light bulbs available within a decade of their introduction to the market.

Source: William Elmer Forsythe and Elliot Q. Adams, Fluorescent and Other Gaseous Discharge Lamps, (New York: Murray Hill Books, Inc., 1948), 173.

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