The Debunker: Did Thomas Edison Invent the Light Bulb?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 is Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets…all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Did Thomas Edison Invent the Light Bulb?

Thomas Edison’s lifetime count of 2,332 patents worldwide still stands as a record for an American inventor. But this achievement, and Edison’s lasting fame, are in large part a result of his skill not as a scientist, but as a mythmaker.

America loved the idea of the lonely “Wizard of Menlo Park” tinkering alone in his lab late into the night, cranking out invention after invention with his tireless mind. In reality, though, Edison produced his inventions the same way that Steve Jobs did: by hiring the best engineers he could find. Edison had a staff of men he called “muckers” toiling away on his payroll, but (again, much like in Jobs’ case) the company was most successful when the top man himself took credit for all the best innovations. Edison’s famous 1888 movie camera, for example, was mostly the work of an Edison employee named William Kennedy Dickson.

In the case of the incandescent light bulb, the story we learn in school has Edison personally combing the world for different fibers, trying 10,000 different filaments before settling on carbonized bamboo. But in reality, he wasn’t the father of electric light at all. (And no, nerds, hold on to your fedoras: your precious Tesla didn’t have anything to do with it either.) British scientists like Sir Humphry Davy had been demonstrating electricity as a lighting source since 1802, forty-five years before Edison was even born! Twenty other inventors had produced incandescent lamps prior to Edison, including Joseph Swan, whose bulbs began to light London homes and theaters in 1880, completely independently of Edison’s work. Swan later sued Edison for patent infringement, and won.

So did Thomas Edison and his anonymous “muckers” do anything to help us see the light? Sure. There’s a reason why Edison’s bulbs caught on where his predecessors’ hadn’t: they burned longer and more efficiently, due to better filaments and vacuums. Edison’s business-savvy vertical integration helped too: if you wanted electric light in your building, his company could provide not just bulbs but also generators and wiring and so on. But if a light bulb went off over Edison’s head in 1878, that bulb would have been a design that Joseph Swan and others had been working on for almost thirty years.

Quick Quiz: Today, incandescent light bulb filaments are no longer made of carbon, but of what element with chemical symbol W?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings. Image of Thomas Edison via Wikipedia.