[Fig 1]

Invention of a Competitive Fluorescent Light Bulb

Despite Andrew’s predictions of doom for the fluorescent lamp, work started up again in the late 1920s to develop a competitive light bulb.1 In 1926, Jacques Risler, a French engineer, solved the unattractive color problem of fluorescent lighting. Risler invented a coating applied to the inside of fluorescent tubes that absorbed ultra-violet light and re-emitted it as visible light, pleasing to the eye.2

The 1935 Cincinnati meeting of the Illuminating Engineering Society featured the first public exhibition of the fluorescent lamp, catching the eye of lightening engineers across the U.S. Engineers responsible for setting up the World’s Fairs became interested in featuring the technology. The timing of the introduction of the fluorescent lamp to the market can be directly attributed to the 1939 New York and 1940 San Francisco World’s Fairs. The Fairs functioned as extensive proving grounds for the fluorescent light bulb.3 Lighting engineers at the fairs knew fluorescent technology was on the way, and insisted that the fairs have the technology showcased. Thus, the fluorescent lamp was introduced to the market in 1938.4

General Electric and Westinghouse were not sure of the technology, and would have preferred to have more time to perfect the design, but the World’s Fairs created a public demand and confluence of forces that releasing the lamp in 1938 became a perceived necessity for the industry. However, up until that point, the industry worked pretty much at its own pace. Most of the research for the fluorescent lamp was done by General Electric.5

Three companies had the brainpower and economic power to be in a position to develop the fluorescent lamp: General Electric, Westinghouse, and Sylvania. Sylvania was significantly smaller compared to the next two, and played a proportionally smaller role in the development process. Westinghouse worked cooperatively with General Electric on the basic technology, although playing a much minor role. No other company had the ability to compete in the development process, given that vapor lamps were much more complicated than the simple incandescent lamps.6 In addition, some of the other companies that might have otherwise had the ability to enter production after General Electric’s original model were under duress from the early war economy.7

Given that European scientists engineered most of the breakthroughs in fluorescent technology, one might reasonably expect that the fluorescent lamp was originally created in Europe. However, the advantages of fluorescent technology were not particularly suited to Europe’s electric and lighting systems, and European engineers were pursuing and studying other options.8

In 1933, the manager of development and engineering for the lamp department of General Electric attended a conference in Paris and saw “fluorescent coatings in neon-type tubing.”9 When he returned to America, he talked with several engineers at General Electric about what he had witnessed. They decided that the European model was flawed: instead, a uniform, easily replaceable lamp was required.10

Still, even after this General Electric largely tabled the idea of a fluorescent lamp. A few scientists worked on the idea haphazardly, but there was no company initiative. Then, in 1935 General Electric finally assigned a single engineer to the project.  The project experienced rapid results, and within six weeks a lamp with much improved efficiency had been designed. As the success grew, so did the number of engineers assigned to the product.11

Until 1938, the General Electric engineers worked at their own pace. They had no competitive pressure, as no other company had the resources to compete with G.E. They also had no public pressure: there was no demand for a new lighting source, the public was satisfied with incandescent lighting.12 It was not until the World’s Fair when demand for the fluorescent light bulb materialized, and the product began to sell itself. As soon as the lamp became available, the public began to buy fluorescent lamps as fast as they could be made.13


1.William Elmer Forsythe and Elliot Q. Adams, Fluorescent and Other Gaseous Discharge Lamps, (New York: Murray Hill Books, Inc., 1948), 75.

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

3. Forsythe and Adams, 94

4. 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): 439, (accessed February 2, 2009).

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 447.

7. Ibid., 438.

8. Ibid., 437.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid, 438.

12. Ibid., 447.

13. Ibid., 439.

[Fig 1] This sketch shows a standard construction of a modern fluorescent light bulb.

Source: Covington, Edward J. “The Story Behind This Account of Fluorescent Lamp Development.” (accessed February 11, 2009).

Leave a Reply