Mon, Dec 11, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Old Edison light bulbs shed new light on invention


If anyone had the audacity, the light bulbs made by Thomas Edison more than 116 years ago ago could be taken from their scruffy box, screwed into a modern light fitting and switched on -- but to historians the experiment would be as blasphemous as using the Holy Grail as a shaving bowl.

The wooden box of samples, assembled for a court case in 1890 which upheld Edison's patent, contains unique surviving examples of early bulbs by Edison and his contemporaries, believed long since lost or destroyed. It was found in the attic of a private house in the US three years ago and was due to go on public display for the first time yesterday at Christie's London auction house.

The box and its extraordinary contents, in perfect condition except the two bulbs broken in court so that their construction could be examined, will be sold on Wednesday when they are expected to fetch up to ?300,000 (US$586,000).

"These bulbs are the scientific equivalent of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, which should have fallen down 500 years ago because the stonework isn't strong enough," said Laurence Fisher, Christie's expert on early electrical equipment.

"The contents of this box mean at least 14 textbooks are going to have to be rewritten," he said.

One of the bulbs proves that Edison invented a working diode 21 years before John Ambrose Fleming patented it.

During the 1870s Edison was one of several engineers working on incandescent filament light bulbs.

Joseph Swan patented his in Britain in 1878, and Edison obtained a US patent for his in 1880. He spent most of the next decade fighting to protect the patent, and the court case -- and the box of bulbs -- eventually destroyed the claim of the most serious challenger, the US Electric Light Co.

His assistant engineer, John Howell, who made many of the bulbs, carried the box into court on July 8, 1890 and declared: "I hereby produce the lamps."

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