On January 27, 1880, or 140 years ago today, the US Patent Office issued patent number 223,898, granting to Thomas Alva Edison the patent rights to the incandescent electric-lamp, more commonly referred to in this day and age as the ‘lightbulb’. The patent, thus secured, effectively allowed the inventor of this world changing device to reap the huge financial benefits of his work… right?
‘Patented’ NOT ‘Invented’
Anyone asked to name the inventor of the lightbulb will almost invariably, and usually confidently, reply with ‘Edison, of course’. They will be wrong… The holder of a patent for an invention is not always the inventor of that same invention.
Edison had been doing a lot of work with the lightbulb but he was actually following up on the work of many, many others. The first tentative steps in the technological evolution began over a century before Edison’s patent, and, over 40 years earlier, in 1838, Belgian lithographer Marcellin Jobard invented an incandescent light bulb with a vacuum atmosphere using a carbon filament. Edison, as such, was merely the first to patent the bulb.
Or was he?
The document you see pictured above is an (admittedly horrible) reproduction of a Canadian patent application, which resulted in a grant of patent to two people you have likely never heard of…
On August 3, 1874, a patent for an electric light bulb was granted to Canadians Harry Woodward, a medical student, and his partner, hotel keeper Matthew Evans. The pair subsequently obtained US Patent number 181,613 for their invention but, sadly, did not have the funds to develop it for the market. Accordingly, they sold out their patent rights for the princely sum of $5000, worth a little over $100,000 in today’s money.
The purchaser of the patent? Well, no prizes for guessing this… It was Thomas Edison.
A Final Note
It may (or conceivably may not) interest you to know that this date, January 27th, has another historical significance. Yours truly (drum roll, please) was born exactly 60 years ago today!
Opinions will differ, of course, but possibly, there are some who will not regard this particular event as ushering the same wondrous light into the world as did the incandescent lamp…