Light Bulb Moments in Light Bulb History: The Carbon Arc Lamp

We were born into a world of electric illumination. Incandescent lights, fluorescent lights, halogen, xenon, LEDs. It glows from lamps and televisions, twinkles from nightlights, puts on a show when you rush past it in tunnels, speckles a cityscape at night. We take it for granted, generally speaking. It’s tough to imagine a world in which electric light does not exist. But, when you think about it, electric lamps have only been the norm for a tiny,TINY percentage of the history of human life.

So, I’m starting a blog series on the history of the light bulb to give us some perspective on how the light bulbs that glow all around us have come into being. Who were the geniuses behind the inventions that led us to today’s energy-efficient LED light bulbs? What struggles did they encounter as they sought to further technological progress?

Let’s go in order. Today, it’s all about the carbon arc lamp, recognized to be the first electric lamp. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s why I want to talk about it. The carbon arc lamp was invented in the early 19th c. and predates the incandescent lamp. It’s a too-little recognized game changer in the history of lighting.

If you have a minute and want some fantastic insight into the carbon arc lamp, the first electric light and THE sole lighter of commercial spaces for 100 years, then watch the short video above from Edison Tech. If you’re in a hurry, here are the bullet points for the carbon arc lamp in the history of the light bulb.

  • Arc lamps came first. The invention of the battery in 1800 by Alessandro Volta allowed for invention with electricity. In 1802 the carbon arc was created. Boom. What you think happened happened. By 1876, you have commercially available, working carbon arc lamps that operate off of a single AC system.
  • They were great for industrial lighting and street lighting because they were insanely bright and used relatively little electricity. They remained THE lights for industrial and street lighting purposes until the 1920s in the U.S. and 1970s in England. These lights were our friends for a really long time!
  • They lit normal air – not metallic vapor or weird gasses like other light bulbs.
  • The arc is formed by sending current through two halves of a carbon rod which are then pulled apart slightly with magnetic power. The result is a gap in the carbon rod and an arc of light shooting gloriously from metal to metal. Dope.

What do you think is on deck for the next installment in Light Bulb Moments in Light Bulb History? Here’s a hint:

Tom Sowders

After majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. I live in the Raleigh-Durham area with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.