Who Actually Invented the Light Bulb: Edison vs Swan vs Tesla

Ask any child, and he will probably tell you that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb.

It’s a good story; one that relies on a popular myth of American individualistic invention. However, it’s definitely not the whole story.

In reality, the incandescent light bulb was the result of contributions from hundreds of inventors across the decades. Each one made certain improvements and refinements until, at last, there was an incandescent light bulb that made bringing electricity into the homes of billions of people possible.

Here is a brief look at some of the individuals who contributed to this effort.

Swan’s Light Bulb

Joseph Swan was just one inventor who made improvements in light bulb technology. He was working as a chemist in England in the middle of the nineteenth century when he began development of a more affordable light bulb. His invention replaced the previously used platinum filaments with carbonized paper filaments.

Unfortunately, for Swan, it turned out that while his carbonized paper filaments worked fairly well for demonstration purposes, they were not practical for everyday use. They simply burned out too quickly

The good news is that other inventors were waiting to make improvements to the light bulb.

Edison’s Light Bulb

We’ve already established that light bulbs were in existence even before Edison was born. One of his innovations was built directly on Joseph Swan’s incandescent light bulb.

Edison made the filaments thinner, giving them greater electrical resistance and ensuring that only a small amount of current was needed to create a glow. In 1879, Edison publicly demonstrated his refinements, which Swan quickly adopted. Swan then established an electrical lighting company in the U.K.

Edison sued, but the claims in Swan’s U.K. patent were strong. The two joined forces, forming Edison-Swan United and eventually becoming one of the largest light bulb manufacturers in the world.

In effect, Edison is credited with buying the patent for an incandescent light bulb. With these rights acquired, he was able to make improvements to the design that made it possible to provide electric light to the general public. Moreover, Edison was the consummate self-promoter, which enabled him to claim that he was solely responsible for the development of the light bulb.

Nonetheless, Edison was confronted with the massive problem of actually bringing electricity into American homes.

Tesla, the Light Bulb and Electric Current

Nikola Tesla was born in Europe in 1856. He emigrated to the U.S., where Edison sought him out in hopes of working together. Tesla helped bring new innovations to Edison’s inventions, but their working relationship didn’t last for long.

It appears that the two men disagreed on any number of topics. However, their most famous point of disagreement related to electric current. Edison was wholeheartedly behind the idea that direct current, or DC, was the way to bring electricity into homes.

Tesla believed that DC was insufficient and weak. Instead, he advocated for alternating current, or AC. With his invented induction motor, Tesla felt that it was possible sustain and regulate higher voltages using AC.

Edison and Tesla became embroiled in a nasty fight to prove the worthiness of their theories. In the end, it was Tesla who would triumph, and his AC system would be used to electrify America.


So, who actually invented the light bulb? The reality is that today’s light bulb is the result of countless hours of testing, trial and error by hundreds of different inventors over the course of more than 100 years.

Whether your invention is as revolutionary and necessary as the light bulb or has limited application within a particular industry, your innovation is worth protecting. Speak with an attorney from Williams IP Law to learn about all of the options that are available to you.

Tesla and now Nasa: Will opening patents revive innovation?

October 14, 2015

Opensource Patents

Last year, electric car manufacturer Tesla announced that it would be making many of its most secret and proprietary intellectual property available to the world by opening its patents. Now NASA has made a similar announcement as it makes more than 1,000 of its patented technologies available for use by startup companies. Have both of these technology giants decided to throw in the towel on innovation?

Actually, the reverse is likely true. NASA, Tesla and other recognized industry leaders have spent decades amassing patent portfolios. More than that, they have employed vast resources in defending those portfolios. Some of these mammoth organizations are starting to wonder if they might actually be able to foster innovation by not being so proprietary with their intellectual property.

Tesla’s Reversal

Tesla cited this reason in 2014 when founder Elon Musk made many of the company’s most exclusive innovations public knowledge. Musk doesn’t believe that the electric cars built by other automotive manufacturers are his competition. Instead, he believes that he is in direct competition with the veritable flood of cars that operate with internal combustion engines. Figuring that letting other car companies get a hold of his exclusive intellectual property might spark some real innovation, Musk took a risky step.

NASA’s Reversal

With a similar goal, NASA recently announced a startup initiative that is aimed at addressing two of the biggest problems faced by new business owners. These problems are a lack of capital and the difficulty of obtaining intellectual property rights. To help resolve these issues, NASA is making a database of some of its most innovative patented ideas available to businesses that have been operating for fewer than three years. The businesses are free to develop and innovate the patented technology any way they wish. If the product they design is eventually offered for sale, they will begin paying NASA a royalty. However, there is no upfront cost associated with use of the patented technology. This makes it easier than ever for a startup to develop some new and highly innovative products that might be of benefit to consumers all over the world.

The About-Face

This trend is a sharp reversal from the usual tendency of large companies when it comes to intellectual property. More frequently, big corporations are known for patent hoarding, or trying to corner the market on certain important technologies, rather than making their innovations available for free to everyone. Patents are intended to slow competition, giving an inventor time to capitalize on their innovation before others can use it as well. However, this strategy by Tesla and NASA may make it easier for novice inventors and entrepreneurs to get into a business that was previously beyond their reach.

If you are interested in obtaining patent protection for an invention, contact the Law Office of Jeff Williams. Jeff is an experienced Texas intellectual property attorney who helps companies and individual inventors protect their intellectual property rights. With his legal knowledge and technical experience Jeff can help you obtain patent protection for your innovation.

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