Thomas Edison wields his new light bulb with wizard-like power. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

New Light-Bulb Battle a Breeze Compared With Edison's: Echoes

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By Linda Simon

Environmentalists are increasingly pressuring us to give up incandescent lighting in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs and light-emitting diodes. The public is resisting, talk-radio hosts have rebelled, and Congressmen have claimed that the government has no right to tell people how to light their homes and offices.

This will probably be a long battle. But the transition away from incandescence will surely be quicker and easier than what occurred when the incandescent bulb first became available.

For many reasons -- health and aesthetics were just two -- people resisted light bulbs for decades.

By 1910, more than 30 years after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in 1879, only about 10 percent of American homes had been wired. Even in the glittering Roaring Twenties, only about 20 percent of homes had electricity -- not because of a lack of electrical contractors, but because of a lack of consumer enthusiasm.

Advertisers proclaimed that homes with electricity would be brighter, cozier and happier, but the public wasn't buying.

Homeowners without wiring could buy battery-powered lamps, but these were expensive and unreliable: 16-candle bulbs cost about $1.50 each, and they burned out quickly. A lamp stand with shade cost $5, and a socket added an additional $0.25. For most people, the cost of the battery was prohibitive: $12 for one that would last about an hour and a half. Only the very rich could afford such a luxury.

Besides the cost, consumers just weren't convinced that this new technology was safe. Light bulbs seemed so glaringly bright compared with the soft glow of gaslight. Rumor had it that you could go blind reading by incandescent light. In fact, doctors identified a new disease (later debunked): photo-electric ophthalmia, which caused pain and excessive tearing.

Women preferred the way their skin looked in gaslight, and some were convinced that electric light caused freckles. The greatest fear was of electricity itself, emitted by batteries, bulbs and wires: Surely all that artificially produced electricity couldn't be good for the human body.

One of the problems in marketing incandescent bulbs was the then-common association of electricity with animal "life force." In the late 18th century, the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, a professor of anatomy and obstetrics, conducted experiments on frogs to investigate muscle contraction. Galvani concluded that animal electricity, stored in the muscles, caused movement. More startling, he maintained that artificial electricity, stimulating the muscles, caused the same movement.

Simply put, Galvani’s claims led many to believe that electricity coursing through the body was no different from electricity created to power a machine or light a lamp. If all electricity was essentially the same vital force, then batteries and lamps might upset the balance of energy in the natural world. Tampering with nature seemed foolhardy; it’s no wonder that Edison was often depicted in cartoons as a wizard with almost god-like powers.

Galvani's vitalism gave rise to the idea that the spirit, or soul, was electrical, too, and such phenomena as mental telepathy, hypnotism and even ghosts could be explained by the out-of-body presence of electricity.

Vitalism also made its way into medicine. In the late 19th century, at the same time the incandescent bulb was being touted, physicians offered mild forms of electrotherapy as cures for a variety of ailments: insomnia, anxiety, depression, fatigue. A popular diagnosis of the time, neurasthenia, or nerve weakness, was often treated by low doses of electricity in the form of massages, baths in mildly electrified water or stimulation by belts that contained batteries.

If we look at current reasons for resistance to alternative forms of lighting, we find that some ideas persist. This time, the light is too dull, not too glaring; the bulbs are still too expensive; and no one knows the health impact of fluorescence or diodes.

Anyway, we’re just used to what we have. Incandescent bulbs have been with us forever.

(Linda Simon teaches at Skidmore College and is the author of "Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From the Telegraph to the X-Ray." The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this post: Linda Simon at

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-0- Jan/27/2012 15:19 GMT