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The lightbulb

The lightbulb is the symbol of invention. In part this is due to the metaphor of a light switching on, but also because of the far-reaching consequences of the invention of the first commercially useable lightbulbs and the fierce patent war that ensued. IP Leads looks at the history and goes in search of the story behind important inventions and IP.

Three inventors

The lightbulb ushered in the era of electricity at home. In around 1870, science and technology had progressed so far that it was in principle possible to replace gas lighting by electric lamps. A lot of experiments had already been carried out with lightbulbs, but a commercially useable lightbulb with a sufficient working life was still proving elusive. The breakthrough came in 1878 through a combination of the choice of a carbonised wire for the filament and an improved manufacturing process in which the filament was preheated in a rarefied hydrocarbon gas. This also required the discovery that a carbonised filament needed to be heated when evacuating the lamp to avoid rapid degradation of the filament and to achieve the high electrical resistance that made it feasible to connect the lamps in parallel. Various inventors applied for a patent. The Englishman Swan was the first person to create a commercially feasible lightbulb. However, the best known inventor was the American Edison. His presentation of a working lightbulb enthused the public.

A drawing of a lightbulb in Edison’s patent US 223898 (1879)

Patent war

In England and the USA, a patent war broke out in 1885 between the companies that held the rights to the various patents. A merger of Edison’s and Swan’s companies won in England. That set in motion an exodus of England lighting technicians to better business opportunities in continental Europe. During the 1890s, a lightbulb cartel was formed that avoided any further patent wars and with the patents up its sleeve it shared out the European market and prices stabilised. The lightbulbs were a part of the services provided by the electricity companies and they had to send their orders to the cartel office in Berlin. Only later, in the twentieth century was anti-cartel legislation seen as necessary.

Philips and the missing patent law

Lightbulb manufacture also began in the Netherlands. The newcomers in the Netherlands did not have any difficulties with patents, as the granting of patents had been suspended since 1870 by law. The Dutch manufacturers also successfully exported to other countries on the continent. In 1891, shortly before the expiry of the English basic patents (1894), Philips’ Lightbulb factories also entered the market. The outcome is well known, and the company would grow into a market leader. The founder of Philips, engineer Gerard Philips, had seen the developments in England at close quarters and invented a new process for making lightbulb filaments. However, the company’s later success was mainly down to the international commercial talent of Gerard’s brother Anton Philips.

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