Over time, a series of scientists and engineers in different countries contributed to the idea of the fluorescent light bulb. Some of them made discoveries accidentally, perhaps while working on another project, that ultimately helped move the fluorescent lamp forward. Others devoted their time to making the fluorescent lamp a viable finished product, and although they failed, made major breakthroughs on the way. These scientists hailed from France, England, Holland, Germany and Belgium. Prior to 1933, workers in America played a very small role. Fluorescence technology, while not viable, was largely a European pursuit.
By the end of the twenties, the idea of a fluorescent lamp had been around for decades. All of the individual parts had already become well known, but they had not been combined in such a fashion to make the fluorescent lamp viable. The fluorescent lamp remained to be perfected and produced. Although one might think the fluorescent lamp would be developed in Europe, given that the technological breakthroughs occurred there, it was actually in America where engineers first perfected and marketed the technology.1
Fluorescent Lighting Prior to the 18th Century
The fluorescent light bulb was commercially introduced in 1939; however, it had been developed over time for nearly 80 years before that time, and the idea of using fluorescence as a lighting source had existed for even longer. It is easy to understand the appeal of fluorescence as a light source. Probably the first person that noticed that certain materials emitted light long after sunlight fell on them was struck with the idea of using this phenomenon as the basis of a light source.2
The first scientist to document this urge to develop the phenomena into a light source was the French astronomer Jean Picard. In 1676, he noted a faint glow emanating from his mercury barometer when he moved the instrument back and forth. Picard was unable to explain the phenomena. It was not until forty years later that English scientific instrument-maker Francis Hauksbee explained that liquid mercury rubbing against glass produces a static charge causing the mercury vapor to glow. This scientific reaction is the basis of modern fluorescent lighting.3
19th Century Fluorescent Technology
Sir Humphry Davy, a noted English scientist, discovered the concept behind the arc-light in 1801. The arc-light would eventually form the basis for all fluorescent lighting; however, Davy’s arc-light lacked a reliable means of generating a steady current supply.4
The next major development came from a German expatriate, Charles P. Steinmentz, a German who fled to the U.S. when his socialistic views got him in trouble in Germany. He began as a day-laborer on a farm and worked his way up to chief engineer of General Electric. He became one of the greatest experts in electricity and developed the magnetite, or the luminous arc. Steinmentz used magnetite instead of carbon, creating virtually the only lighting technology of his age that now survives in modern technology.5
Edmond Becquerel was one of the first to work with a lamp close to the modern fluorescent lamp. Becquerel was a French scientist who worked with low-pressure discharge tubes containing luminescent fragments and powders. He published his work on these tubes in 1867, and the theoretical design was not much different than the modern fluorescent lamp (in principle). However, this particular tube version did not function to illuminate in any useful ways.6
A French engineer from Paris, Jablochkoff, was the first to truly demonstrate the capability of fluorescent lighting. In 1876 Jablochkoff perfected a crude arc-lamp, called the electric candle in its day, that he used to light the Avenue de L’Opéra. Each of Jablochkoff’s lights equaled several hundred candles. A contemporary of Jablochkoff visiting Paris, professor Silliman of Yale, remarked, “The effect is magnificent, and at this moment there exists nothing in this city of splendid effects to compare with the magical scene… the effect [is] incomparably finer than any show of artificial illumination ever before seen.”7
Around the same time, an American engineer named Charles Brush was also designing innovative and progressive arc-lights.8 Brush’s chief innovation was the use of carbon in rods touched together and separated to produce the brilliant arc of light. Brush actually baked the rods in his own stove.9
Early 20th Century Fluorescent Technology
The most significant innovation in fluorescent technology came from Peter Cooper-Hewitt. Cooper-Hewitt was born into immense wealth and high social position. His grandfather was a very successful businessman in the glue industry and his father was a major figure in the iron industry and at one time mayor of New York. After a stint in the manufacturing industry Cooper-Hewitt followed his ambitions to become an electrical engineer and bought space in the tower of Madison Square Garden to create a laboratory.10
It was in this space Cooper-Hewitt slaved over his inventions and eventually created the mercury vapor-lamp. The mercury vapor-lamp was a long glass tube in with a little loose mercury. The tube is sealed at both sides, and the air is pumped out. A current supplies power through wires on both sides, and when the current is turned on, the tube is tilted causing the mercury to run into a thread and break, forming an arc and causing the whole tube to glow.11
According to Andre Mohammed, who presents primary resources on Cooper Hewitt through the Cooper Archives in the Cooper Union Institute in Manhattan, Cooper Hewitt was driven to develop the mercury-vapor lamp because he viewed (correctly) lamps in his time as very wasteful. The 1890s lamps used only 5% of the energy and converted the rest into heat. For Cooper-Hewitt, the mercury-vapor lamp was a solution to this problem.12
This innovation formed the basis for all future fluorescent technology. Until Peter Cooper-Hewitt, it was not technologically feasible for discharge lamps to compete with incandescent lights. According to William Forsythe and Elliot Adams, physicists at General Electric, the mercury arc-lamp changed everything.13 Still, it was not enough that the technology existed.14 Although Hewitt’s tubes were more efficient, they were not yet competitive with the incandescent light bulb and they produced a blue-green light that was viewed as unattractive and unmarketable.15
Two other important inventors were working on fluorescent technology at the beginning of the 20th century. William Syme Andrews was working at the General Electric lab in Schenectady. He made a fluorescent lamp of low efficiency by using a specialized coating on the inside of a mercury discharge tube. Andrews was the first to do this, but Thomas Edison and his team were moving in a similar direction. Both Andrews and Edison used fluorescent material on the inside of a mercury discharge tube, and both failed to produce a commercially feasible lamp.16
Edison’s lab eventually turned against the fluorescent light bulb. Electrical engineer Daniel MacFarlan Moore, an Edison employee, spent too much time working on the discharge tube project, evoking Edison’s ire. When Edison asked Moore what he had against the incandescent light bulb Moore replied, “It’s too small, too hot and too red.”17 The exchange went sour and Moore left to start his own company to produce fluorescent light bulbs. Unfortunately, Moore’s project failed because the technology had not yet been developed to make the fluorescent light bulb competitive.18 By the mid-1920s, Andrews, Edison and Moore had all practically given up on the fluorescent light bulb. In fact, Andrews, one of the most dedicated scientists working on the fluorescent project, said in 1925, “There is little to be said of photoluminescence outside of its interesting scientific application.”19 The next page will discuss the events of the next decade that stimulated the unpredictable development of a competitive fluorescent lamp.
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): 436, http://jstor.org/ (accessed February 2, 2009).
2. William Elmer Forsythe and Elliot Q. Adams, Fluorescent and Other Gaseous Discharge Lamps, (New York: Murray Hill Books, Inc., 1948), 74.
3. Joe Schwarcz, “Fluorescent bulbs out-green tungsten rivals,” (Montreal) The Gazette, January 25, 2009, http://www.lexisnexis.com (accessed February 11, 2009).
4. Waldemar Kaempffert, ed., A Popular History of American Invention, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), 562.
5. Ibid., 563.
6. Arthur Bright and Rupert Maclaurin.
7. Kaempffert, 563.
8. Forsythe and Adams, vii.
9. Kaempffert, 564.
10. Ibid., 565.
11. Ibid., 567.
12. Andre Mohammed, “Peter Cooper Hewitt,” http://www.ringwoodmanor.com/peo/ch/pch/pch.htm (accessed April 15, 2009).
13. Forsythe and Adams, 1.
14. Trevor Williams, ed., A History of Technology, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 1085-1086.
16. Forsythe and Adams, 74-75.
19. Forsythe and Adams, 74.
[Fig 1] This photo shows a later version of Hewitt’s mercury-vapor lamp. Source: Andre Mohammed, “Peter Cooper Hewitt,” http://www.ringwoodmanor.com/peo/ch/pch/pch.htm (accessed April 15, 2009).