Who invented the lightbulb? Here’s a question that will certainly spark discussion! (pun intended).
In addressing this question, historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve and a high resistance that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.
Amongst the 22 inventors, one of the most interesting and unique histories is that of the Russian Alexander Nikolayevich Lodygin.
Lodygin was born in the Tambov Governorate on October 18, 1847. His parents were of a very old and noble family (descendants of Andrei Kobyla like Romanovs), but of very moderate means. He studied in military schools and served in the 71st Belev regiment, but after graduating from the Moscow Infantry School in 1868 he retired from the military and worked as a worker at the Tula weapons factory for four years.
In 1872 he decided to go to Saint Petersburg to attend lectures at Saint Petersburg Institute of Technology and to start working on, of all things, an electrical helicopter (yes, in 1872!). This machine would have needed some sort of artificial lighting that would have had to be electrical. He therefore decided to start his helicopter work by developing a source of electrical light for it.
The very same year he applied for a Russian patent for his filament lamp (he used a very thin carbon rod, placed under a bell-glass). He also patented this invention in Austria, Britain, France, and Belgium. In august of 1873 he demonstrated prototypes of his electric filament lamp in the physics lecture hall of the Saint Petersburg Institute of Technology.
For the next couple of years he conducted experiments with electric lighting on ships, city streets, and so on, until he was finally granted the Russian patent (patent number 1619) for his invention on July 11, 1874. In 1874, the Petersburg Academy of Sciences awarded him with a Lomonosov Prize for his invention of the filament lamp and Lodygin established the Electric Lighting Company, A.N. Lodygin and Co
In 1875 he became very interested in the socialist ideas of the Narodniks, which will prove NOT to be the most fruitful connection to have a short five years later, when Narodniks killed Emperor Alexander II of Russia. The obvious repressions against their organization that immediately followed forced Lodygin to emigrate to France, first, and then to the United States.
In the 1890s he invented a few types of lamps with metallic filaments. He was very likely the first scientist to use a tungsten filament, as he got yet another a patent for that (US Patent No. 575,002 Illuminant for Incandescent Lamps, Application on January 4, 1893). He later sold his patent to General Electric in 1906, the very company that began the first industrial production of such lamps.
Ironically, without a doubt, Lodygin invented an incandescent light bulb before Thomas Edison, but it was not commercially profitable. The lamp with a tungsten filament is indeed the only design used now, but in 1906 they were too expensive.
Several Lodygin’s ideas were implemented much later, even after his death.
In 1871 Lodygin proposed an autonomous diving apparatus that consisted of a steel mask, natural rubber costume, accumulator battery and a special apparatus for electrolysis of water. The diver was supposed to breathe the oxygen-hydrogen mix obtained by electrolysis of water. The invented diving apparatus was very similar to modern scuba equipment!
Now, isn’t that a pretty incredible and unique story?
P.S. In case you were wondering, the feature picture of this post is the photograph of a very modern, retro-looking, incandescent light bulb that is becoming very trendy, especially in hip places, here in Russia. I took the picture in a beer house on the top floor of a building in the center of Moscow, because I liked how the round glass reflected the view from the panoramic windows, against the backdrop of a black wall.