Protesters of the Incandescent Light Bulb

There has been some public resistance to EISA 2007 (also known as the “incandescent phase out”) and what it means for light bulbs.

This is arguably the first monumental shift in the way people will light their homes since the early 1900’s, when Edison’s invention replaced gas lamps. It got me to thinking – what was it like when Edison’s incandescent light bulb first hit the market?

I came across an interesting article in Bloomberg and found out that 100 years ago the general public was very reluctant to start using those new fangled incandescent light bulbs in their homes.

In 1910, thirty years after the incandescent light bulb became available, 90 percent of American households were still using gas lamps – and it wasn’t because electrical contractors weren’t available.

The main protests from consumers in the early 20th century were safety, aesthetics, and cost.

The safety concerns in Edison’s time revolved around electricity. An Italian scientist named Luigi Galvani studying muscle contraction in the late 18th century had concluded that “animal electricity” stored in the muscles was the same as the electricity used to power a lamp. Therefore, he claimed adding artificial electricity to your home would have detrimental physical effects. Women wondered if the lights would bring on freckles. There was an idea that the spirit had electrical properties, so people thought that ghosts, hypnotism, and telepathy were all the result of electricity outside of the body.

As far as aesthetics, people complained that incandescent light was glaringly bright. They preferred the soft, warm glow of gaslight. They even worried incandescent lighting was so bright it would cause them to go blind. Doctors wrote about a new disease called photo-electric ophthalmia in 1889 which was caused by continual electrical light being exposed to the eyes. (It was eventually debunked, thank goodness).

In addition to all of those concerns, electricity in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was just plain expensive. When Edison’s electric lamps were first advertised for home use, they were largely battery-operated, as only three towns at the time had signed contracts with Edison’s agents to wire a central station. (Those were Roselle, NJ; Sunbury, PA; and Brockston, MA, if you’re curious).

For all the parts of a battery-powered electric lamp, you would have paid:

  • $1.50 for each light bulb, which had the light output of 8 to 16 candles; but would burn out very quickly
  • $5 for a lamp stand with a shade
  • $0.25 for a socket
  • $12 for a battery that would provide power for about an hour and a half

To put it into perspective, Edison’s workers earned upwards of $800 a year, and they could barely afford it!

Of course, incandescent light is now the most familiar light source out there to the general public. Isn’t it interesting to look back on a time when it wasn’t so popular?

Emily Widle

Emily graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism. She enjoys scouring the news to report on the latest in the lighting industry as well as bringing valuable remodeling tips and exemplar home projects to light.

One thought to “Protesters of the Incandescent Light Bulb”

  1. That was very interesting, thanks!
    Certainly there can be reluctance to change at all times.

    Those who support the phase out of “old obsolescent” bulbs,
    similarly point to wariness about motor cars replacing horse and buggy and so on.

    But gaslights, candles, horse and buggy were not banned just because more “modern” alternatives came along.
    That is the big difference today
    (and yes, it is effectively a ban on incandescent technology for ordinary lamps given the EISA 2007 45 lumen per watt end regulation, as commented before).
    Bans only make sense if it is what people want to buy.
    No point banning unpopular products!
    All lighting – candles, gaslight, incandescents, CFLs LEDs – have their advantages.
    The overall marginal savings (a fraction of 1% of US energy use) is hardly justified on the basis of any shortage of future electricity sources with whatever environmental mandate is desired, and which consumers, not politicians, pay for.

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