On this day in 1880, the United States Patent Office granted patent #223,898 to Thomas Edison, for “an electric lamp for giving light by incandescence.”
As Edison toiled in his Menlo Park workshop, numerous inventors were also hard at work trying to create incandescent light. While Edison was not the first, his light bulb offered something the others did not: practicality. His bulbs stayed lit long after those of his competitors has burned out.
Edison had powerful connections in industry, including the profoundly wealthy J.P. Morgan, whose home was the first to be equipped with electric light.
Soon after, Edison spearheaded the electrical wiring of several blocks in New York City, in a bid to gain the public’s trust for this strange new innovation. (It is said that President Benjamin Harrison refused to touch the light switches in the White House after electricity was installed during his term.)
The buzz over electricity sparked a rivalry between Edison, still backed by Morgan, and his brilliant former employee Nikola Tesla, himself financed by George Westinghouse. The two inventors disagreed on the better current for transporting electricity: AC (Tesla) or DC (Edison).
Their feud came to a head at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, an unparalleled showcase in which to demonstrate the glory of electric light. Both men bid for the contract to provide lighting for the fair. Tesla and Westinghouse ultimately won the contract.
The rivalry between Edison and Tesla continued for many more years, fueled by their financiers, Morgan and Westinghouse. Finally, facing an insurmountable debt, Westinghouse pressured Tesla in 1907 to back off his claim for royalties tied to AC power generation. In his frustration, Tesla tore up the contract altogether, allowing Westinghouse to continue implementing AC power without the burden of having to pay royalties.
In the end, Tesla’s AC technology won, but Edison’s business sense prevailed. Both men are recognized today for their contributions to the modern age.
Whether you side with Team Edison or Team Tesla, this was certainly a notch in the timeline of human invention.