Posted: 23 Dec 2010 11:00 AM PST
In 1882, the look of the holiday season changed forever.
Instead of decorating a Christmas tree with candles, Edward H. Johnson, inventor and vice president of Thomas Edison's booming electric company, strung 80 red, white and blue light bulbs on his scrawny evergreen. The whole thing rotated six times per minute on an electric crank.
"I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight — one can hardly imagine anything prettier," wrote a reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune.
More than a century later, those 80 bulbs have multiplied into hundreds of millions of tiny electric lights — perhaps billions — decorating American homes and roughly 40 million live trees each year.
From those first simple strings of bulbs to computer-controlled LED light displays, we retrace the curious evolution of the holiday light bulb.
Before the advent of the modern incandescent light bulb, chemist Humphry Davy tinkered with high-voltage arc lights. The devices allowed electricity to jump between two carbon rods, emitting a super-bright point of light.
The design wasn't long-lasting or safe, however, pushing inventors to create self-contained incandescent lights.
The first incandescent lights came out of Sir Joseph Wilson Swan's workshop as early as 1850. Swan filed a patent for the design in 1861, but the bulb's carbon filaments burned out quickly in the presence of oxygen.
Thomas Edison was working on his own version and eventually wooed Swan into his company, effectively gaining rights to Swan's light-bulb patents. Edison knew the secret to success was a better carbon filament (tungsten versions came years later), so his shop tested thousands of plant fibers looking for the best material.
Cotton fibers, which could stay lit for more than 1,500 hours, were found to be the best natural filament in 1880. Edison's company continued to work on supporting technologies to make the device commonplace, including the parallel circuit, more durable glass bulbs, better dynamos, reliable voltage supplies, fuses, insulation, sockets and even light switches.
Electric Christmas Tree
In 1882, two years after the first reliable incandescent light bulb was born, Johnson lit up his New York City home off Fifth Avenue with a string of 80 "dainty glass eggs."
By the end of 1890, Annas Hummel of Pennsylvania had filed a patent for an artificial Christmas tree. Later patents built on it and Johnson's rotating base, but were too expensive to be commercially viable for several decades.
White House Gets an Edison-ified Tree
Edison Electric Company began selling small, pear-shaped Christmas light bulbs for trees, as well as tree stands, by 1895. The bulbs initially came only in clear but later in red, green and an assortment of other colors.
During Grover Cleveland's watch, the White House erected a Christmas tree "decorated with gold angels, gold and silver sleds, lots of tinsel, and the first electric lights to be put on a Christmas tree in the White House," according to The History of the Christmas Figural Bulb.
The publicity stunt is widely recognized as the birth of the electrically illuminated Christmas tree, despite Johnson's display more than a decade earlier.
Magazines such as the New York Post and Scientific American began running advertisements for the rental of stringed Christmas lights in 1899 and 1900, and department stores began using electrically lit trees as window displays around 1901. But at a cost of roughly $2,000 in today's currency, the pre-decorated trees were too expensive for most people to afford.
The displays and advertising, however, pushed development of low-cost technologies to bring electric lights within reach of consumers.
The American Eveready Company (known today for its batteries) sold the first pre-wired, socket-ready Christmas light set in 1903, and 1907 saw further miniaturization of bulbs. Ralph E. Morris forewent plugs in 1908 and attached lights to electrified telephone wires to avoid using candles on his Christmas tree.
Rise of NOMA
Legend has it that 15-year-old Albert Sadacca saw a home burned to the ground because of Christmas tree candles, leading him to pursue safer lighting fixtures when he got older.
Sadacca and his brothers developed strings of small, colored light bulbs in the 1910s that were a hit among shoppers. The family eventually founded the NOMA Electric Company in 1925 based on their success, and it held the title as the largest manufacturer of Christmas lights for the next four decades.
Inventors filed blinking-bulb patents in droves during the 1920s, some more mechanically complex than others, but most relying on a simple thermostat.
When electricity heated a strip of metal inside the bulb, it bent and broke the circuit. As it cooled, it bent backward to reconnect the circuit and create an intermittent blinking or "winking" effect, as some patents describe it. The same design is still used in modern red-tipped blinker bulbs.
The bubbling light was created in 1935 by Carl Otis, and his later patents improved the design over the years. The lights worked by heating a vial of low-boiling liquid (lightweight oil, in early versions) with a hidden incandescent bulb. Modern lights use dichloromethane as the fluid, but the design remains essentially unchanged.
NOMA bought Otis' designs but wasn't able to market the whimsical lights until after World War II, first seeing sales success in 1947.
To ensure the safety of lights, NOMA developed and marketed tiny fuses in 1951 that could be easily replaced. The small, vial-like devices are common to almost all decorative lights today.
Inventors later filed patents for smoke- and heat-detecting ornaments in 1976.
Standard incandescent bulbs, even blinking ones, were soon no longer exciting to the public. Inventors answered the call by modulating lights in other ways.
In 1965, for example, Arthur and Gustavo Cardenas filed a patent for a ringing-light ornament based on the same thermostat technology found in blinking bulbs. When the light blinked back on, an electromagnet rang a bell.
One of the first patents to modulate light intensity by sound was called, "audio amplitude-responsive lighting display," was filed in 1977. It fluctuated light intensity based on the frequency of sounds piped into a microphone. And in 1979, Harold J. Weber filed a patent for a flickering flame light. It used a semiconductor to control the frequency of an alternating current to switch between filaments.
Computer-controlled lighting took off in the 1990s, including a fully programmable lighting system patented in 1995. Newer inventions use software and wireless networks to create elaborate lighting displays that change based on the music pumped through the system.
One of the most famous examples is Carson Williams' home in Mason, Ohio. In 2004, Williams used Light-O-Rama equipment and a Trans-Siberian Orchestra track to control 16,000 lights with 88 different channels. A video posted to YouTube in 2005 (below) quickly became an internet sensation.
When electricity flows through some semiconductors, electrons in the material get excited and emit light at highly specific wavelengths. Henry Joseph discovered the trick in 1907, but it wasn't until the late 1960s that the semiconductor market matured and materials to make LEDs became more affordable.
Even then, it took decades to discover semiconductor alloys able to reproduce most of the colors of light, including white light. LED holiday lights first appeared in the late 1990s, and have been rising in popularity and dropping in price ever since.
The LED lights are clearly the future of holiday lighting, in part due to their robust design (they're completely encased in plastic) but also because of their efficiency — some colors consuming about eight times less power than incandescent bulbs.
Video: Carson Williams' 2004 lighting display that later made for an internet sensation. YouTube/houseofboyd
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