Lights out for the incandescent bulb

1880 - 2014: Beloved for its soft glow, the bulb was also a notorious energy hog

Michael Flippo/Alamy/GetStock

The incandescent light bulb was born on Jan. 27, 1880, when U.S. inventor Thomas Edison famously patented his “electric lamp.” Others had paved the way, including Canadians Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, whose 1874 light bulb patent was bought by Edison. But it was the latter who perfected and would commercialize the technology.

The light bulb—in which an electric current passes through a filament that heats up and glows inside a glass bulb—yanked North America into the electric age. Before then, “all street lamps were gas,” says Anna Adamek, who curates the energy collection at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which includes about 2,000 light bulbs. “Wealthy people could afford gas lamps for interior lighting, but most would use kerosene, oil, or candles.” In 1882, the Canada Cotton Co., in Cornwall, Ont., became the first Canadian company to install electric lights. “Edison personally supervised the installation,” she says. In 1884, the lights went on in the Parliament buildings and, by 1905, the lighting of Canadian cities was well under way. Electric light changed the way people spent their evenings, and the way businesses operated—allowing people to work around the clock. Once electric wiring was installed, manufacturers were spurred to make all sorts of new gadgets and appliances for the home, from electric irons to refrigerators.

Meanwhile, other types of lighting began to emerge. In the early 1900s, American electrical engineer Peter Cooper Hewitt passed an electric current through mercury vapour, creating a precursor to the fluorescent lamp. It was the 1973 oil crisis that spurred the creation of an efficient fluorescent bulb for domestic use. In 1976, an engineer at General Electric devised a way to coil a fluorescent tube, creating the first compact fluorescent light (CFL). By the mid-1980s, CFLs‚ which gave off a cold bluish light, were selling for $25 or $35 apiece.

But the old-fashioned incandescent light bulb remained the most common type of lighting: cheap (at less than a dollar a bulb) and versatile (coming in various wattages and sizes). Their familiar shape became the universal symbol for a good idea, and their simplicity provided the basis for one of the world’s most famous jokes: “How many [insert target here] does it take to screw in a light bulb?” They were also prized for the colour they cast. “Incandescent produces a warm, comfortable light,” says Ottawa architectural designer Michael Simon. “It’s one step away from candlelight.”

The incandescent bulb’s weakness was its inefficiency—it uses up to 90 per cent of the electricity it consumes as heat—along with its relatively short lifespan of about 900 hours, compared to a CFL’s 10,000. The newer light-emitting diode (LED), does even better, at 25,000 hours.

By the 1990s, environmental worries and fears of global warming made energy efficiency more important. For governments, the lowly light bulb became an obvious target—the “low-hanging fruit,” says Tyler Bryant of the David Suzuki Foundation. In 2007, Canada announced a plan to restrict the import and interprovincial sale of inefficient incandescent light bulbs by 2012, later pushed back until 2014, partly due to consumer concerns. (In October, restrictions were eased somewhat to permit incandescent halogen bulbs, which are more efficient than traditional incandescents.) Other jurisdictions, such as the U.S. and the European Union, have enacted bans, too.

As the ban approached, many fretted over the cost of replacing their household lights with CFLs and LEDs, as well as the small amount of mercury inside fluorescents—not to mention the loss of pleasant-coloured lighting at home. Traditionalists have responded by stockpiling their beloved bulbs. In the U.K., the Daily Mail carried a story of a 62-year-old pensioner, who hoarded enough to see her “into the grave.” Riffing on the old joke, Freedom Light Bulb, a U.S. blog, asked: “How many politicians or bureaucrats should it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “None.” On Jan. 1, 2014, Canada’s new regulations will be phased in. Stores will sell through existing inventory; not long after, that warm familiar glow will be gone for good.

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