The fluorescent light bulb has had a major development on the way we light up the world. Office buildings, schools and increasingly homes are lit by fluorescent lighting technology derived from General Electric’s 1938 invention. The fluorescent light bulb is increasingly seen as a replacement for less environmentally friendly alternatives, including the still used incandescent / tungsten rival.1 By the 1950s more light was produced in North America by fluorescent lights than by incandescent bulbs.2 The most important direct descendant of the 1938 fluorescent light bulb is the compact fluorescent light bulb, invented by General Electric’s Ed Hammer in response to the 1970s energy crisis.3

[Fig 1]

There is a debate to be had over whether fluorescent lights should entirely replace incandescent bulbs:

Drawbacks of Fluorescent Lighting

Fluorescent lighting has three main drawbacks. First, fluorescent lights are slow to start and often flicker. Second, many people prefer the light produced by incandescent lights, and find fluorescent lighting discomforting or unattractive. These problems, while not insurmountable, limit the sales growth of the fluorescent industry.4 The third problem is possible health effects. Critics of fluorescent lighting argue that the lighting can cause electro-sensitivity and skin irritation, as well as damage to the environment from Mercury.5

Advantages of Fluorescent Lighting

Advocates of fluorescent lighting counter with its high efficiency and ability to create significant energy savings. Fluorescent lights produce more illumination for less energy and they last longer.6 Advocates counter the claims about damage to the environment by arguing that energy savings more than offset any minimal damage done by mercury by reducing the risk of climate change. They also argue that negative health effects are unlikely and not proven.7

Regardless of whether one believes fluorescent lights should replace incandescent bulbs, co-exist with them, or not be used altogether, it is clear that the rise of fluorescent lighting has had a significant effect not just on how well the world is illuminated, but also what that world looks like.


1. Joe Schwarcz, “Fluorescent bulbs out-green tungsten rivals,” (Montreal) The Gazette, January 25, 2009, (accessed February 11, 2009).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. William Elmer Forsythe and Elliot Q. Adams, Fluorescent and Other Gaseous Discharge Lamps, (New York: Murray Hill Books, Inc., 1948), 170.

5. Schwarcz.

6. Forsythe and Adams, 170.

7. Schwarcz.

[Fig 1] This shows Ed Hammer with his invention, the first compact fluorescent light bulb.

Source: Covington, Edward J. “Edward E. Hammer – Inventor of the Compact Helical Fluorescent Lamp.” (accessed February 11, 2009).

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