Thomas Edison and the Electric Lamp, Patented Jan. 27, 1880

By Gene Quinn
January 26, 2014

Thomas Edison, circa 1922.

Benjamin Franklin may be the most famous American inventor, owing to his dual roles as a world famous inventor and also a Founding Father and Statesman, but the most prolific and influential American inventor of all time was undoubtedly Thomas Alva Edison.

On January 27, 1880, Thomas Edison received U.S. Patent No. 223,898, which was simply titled “Electric Lamp.”

Figure 1 from U.S. Patent 223,898.

In addition to be the greatest inventor of his time, Edison also had a way with words and explaining concepts. He is famously reported to have quipped that failure really isn’t failure at all, but a success in disguise, reportedly saying: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” He also famously explained: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, Edison received over one thousand US patents, the first of which was filed on October 13, 1868, when he was the tender age of 21. It is indeed difficult to imagine the modern world without scientific contributions and inventions of Edison. Nevertheless, Edison did have failures, including his failed support of DC power over AC power, but Edison never let failure stand between him and success.

Perhaps Edison’s most famous inventions were the phonograph, motion pictures and the light-bulb. Truth be told, however, Edison didn’t really “invent” the lightbulb, but rather he improved upon the technology by developing a light-bulb that used a lower current electricity, a small carbonized filament, and an improved vacuum inside the globe. Edison’s invention lead to a reliable, long-lasting source of light. Prior to Edison’s invention lightbulbs lasted only a few hours and now they could last 50 to 60 days, making them practical. So it is entirely fair to say that Thomas Edison invented the first commercially useful lightbulb.

Thomas Edison, circa 1878.

The invention of the first usable lightbulb is really emblematic of Edison’s signature as an inventor. He was not interested in inventing for the sake of inventing, but rather he wanted to invent things that were practical, usable and desirable. Edison wanted his inventions to make it into the marketplace. He wanted to be a commercially successful inventor, which he was. Thomas Edison made his money by inventing and then licensing his inventions. Today many would consider Thomas Edison a patent troll, which is both ridiculous and a pathetic commentary about the intellectual honesty of those who so hate the patent system that they feel they need to belittle and ridicule the greatest American inventor of all time. For more see Who is a patent troll?


The sad reality is that “patent reform” is not making a better patent system, it is making a different patent system. Indeed, “patent reform” is creating a patent system that is inferior, which will only benefit infringers, particularly those from outside the United States where manufacturing still exists. I wonder whether Thomas Edison could have thrived under the patent laws of today, where those who invent and license are ridiculed as patent trolls by those who have the ear of Congress and are urging ever more changes to the patent system that will only weaken the rights granted.

I think it is utterly ridiculous to call Thomas Edison a patent troll.  Frankly, it is beyond belief that such a statement even needs to be made. But let’s be honest, if Thomas Edison is a patent troll then we really should want to encourage patent trolls, right? Why in the name of all sanity would you ever want to discourage a brilliant mind like that of Edison?

For more information on Thomas Edison please see these websites:

Please also see these books:

As we celebrate the anniversary of Edison’s patent on the electric lamp let’s also take this opportunity to remember some of his most remarkable innovations.


Select Inventions of Thomas Edison

1868 Edison executed a patent application for his electric vote recorder, for which he later is issued his first patent.
1874 Edison invents the quadruplex telegraph, ownership of which is disputed by Western Union and Jay Gould’s Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company.
1875 Edison invents an “autographic press” kit, to be used to assist businesses in making copies of documents. The kit included an electric pen, a small battery, a press, ink, and supplies.
1877 Edison worked on a telephone transmitter that greatly improved on Alexander Graham Bell’s work with the telephone. His transmitter made it possible for voices to be transmitted at higer volume and with greater clarity over standard telephone lines.
1879 Using lower current electricity, a small carbonized filament, and an improved vacuum inside the globe, Edison was able to produce a reliable, long-lasting source of light.
1880 The commercial production of electric lamps begins at the Edison Lamp Works in Menlo Park.
1881 Edison executes twenty-three patent applications on electric lighting.
1882 During the spring and summer Edison executed fifty-three patent applications covering electric lighting, electric railways, and secondary batteries. An additional thirty-four patent applications covering electric lighting and electric railways were executed by Edison during the fall.
1885 Edison executed seventeen patent applications covering various embodiments of hi telegraph and telephone inventions. He also executes the first of four major patent caveats for the kinetoscope and kinetograph.
1888 Edison executes twenty-two patent applications for phonographs and cylinder records.
1891 Executes patent applications for the kinetoscope and kinetograph.
1896 Edison introduces the Edison Home Phonograph, an inexpensive, spring motor driven phonograph.
1900 Edison executes a patent application on a method of mass producing cylinder phonograph records.
1902 Successfully conducts the first road tests of electric vehicles equipped with Edison storage batteries and initiates production of alkaline
storage battery.
1906 Edison receives a gold medal from the Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden for his inventions in connection with the phonograph and the incandescent light.



The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and President & CEO ofIPWatchdog, Inc.. Gene founded in 1999. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and Of Counsel to the law firm of Berenato & White, LLC. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 31 Comments comments.

  1. Paul Cole January 26, 2014 5:03 pm

    Let us also remember Lemuel Wright Serrell who wrote the patent for Edison and produced a compelling and readable document. He is mentioned in Kara Swanson’s article about the emergence of the patent profession in the US

    which is well worth a read. Mr Serrell was the son of a patent attorney as his obituary notice records, see below:

  2. Benny January 27, 2014 7:53 am

    Joseph Swann is credited with the invention of the lightbulb.
    Here is a quote from a biography –

    “Thomas Edison had been working on a more efficient version of the light bulb based largely on an 1875 patent he bought from Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans and the patents of Joseph Swan. Edison was granted an American patent for an incandescent light bulb in 1879 that was a fairly direct copy of Swan’s bulb. Swan took Edison to court over patent infringement and won…”

    Form your own conclusions.

  3. Anon January 27, 2014 8:27 am

    Benny asks us to “form our own conclusions”

    Maybe he thinks that Edison was a Troll and the world would have been better off without his presence.

  4. EG January 27, 2014 8:35 am


    Thanks for bringing to our attention Serrell. You comment about Serrell reminds me of another great patent attorney: Harry Aubrey Toulmin, Sr., who wrote the patent (US821393) for the Wright Brothers. What Toulmin realized was that powered flight wasn’t the most significant contribution by the Wright brothers to flight, but the ability to control flight in all 3 axes: roll, pitch, and yaw. And that’s what Toulmin wrote and claimed in US821393 which then became the great airplane patent war between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss.

  5. EG January 27, 2014 8:36 am


    Great article on Thomas Edison. Will provide a nice “Segway” to mine on Granville T. Woods, the “Black Edison.”

  6. Benny January 27, 2014 8:39 am

    I didn’t ask you to form conclusions about my conclusions. I don’t think Edison was a troll. I do think – based on reports of his technical achievements – that he claimed to be sole inventor of work carried out by his subordinates, a practice which in some companies (including mine) continues to this day, despite its’ questionable legality.

    My conclusion? That we err in crediting Edison with inventions which are not his own.

  7. step back January 27, 2014 4:21 pm

    I so wish people would stop using the T-word.
    It is a pejorative and a school yard bullying word.
    Like the N-word, it should be recognized as a hate crime …
    against an insular minority in need of protection, namely, inventors.

    If a T-word is going to be used, it should be Modern-Day Thomas-es like Edison.

  8. Gene Quinn January 27, 2014 10:36 pm


    Edison never claimed to be the sole inventor. He was extraordinarily open about the fact that the improved inventions.

    As long as you want to be perfectly honest then let’s just tell the truth, shall we? The best lightbulb that predated Edison lasted for maybe 6 to 8 hours before it burned out. Edison’s improvement made it possible for the lightbulb to last for upwards of 60 days. That means he turned an invention that existed but was commercially unusable into something that worked extraordinarily well, was commercially feasible and desired by everyone. Apparently in the Edison Museum one of his early prototype lightbulbs still remains functional.

    Nothing in this article says that Edison was the first inventor of the lightbulb. It quite clearly explains that Edison invented the first usable lightbulb, which is of course true.

    I don’t know why you feel the need to set up a Straw man argument only to knock it down, but what you say is utterly ridiculous and unrelated to the article written. If you don’t think Edison was a great inventor then fine, but you are in an extremely small minority of individuals. I prefer to acknowledge what Edison really did.


  9. Gene Quinn January 27, 2014 10:39 pm


    I use the T word on purpose, and frankly I wish more people would use it. That is the only way that we can regain the high ground. The term troll is thrown about but no one ever stops to consider what that means and who would be characterized as a troll based on the definitions. So I use the word and then ask… do you really think Thomas Edison was a troll? If not then that definition has to be incorrect. You don’t really think Universities that work on life saving and fundamentally important basic science are trolls, do you? So why then would the definition of the tech elite define them as trolls? This is what will make Joe Average understand, as well as Member of Congress who gets calls from Joe Average.


  10. Gene Quinn January 27, 2014 10:39 pm


    I’m looking forward to running your article at the beginning of next week to kick our celebration of Black History month.


  11. Benny January 28, 2014 12:58 am

    You mention, correctly, that Edison improved an invention to the point where it was commercially viable – and, in fact, useful. That makes him a great engineer, less so a great inventor. Thomas Edison is often portrayed as the inventor of the lightbulb, and many other devices in which he was active in the development, but this does not paint an accurate picture.
    I was not actually aware that Edison is considered, by some, to be a patent troll.

  12. step back January 28, 2014 4:40 am

    That’s right Benny.

    Thomas Edison picked up on the abstract idea of making a light bulb last longer.
    And then he merely said, “apply it”.

    Then again, some judges sitting on the Fed. Cir. bench or Scotus
    picked up on the abstract ideas of arrogance, hubris and ignorance.
    And then they merely said, “we embody it”.

    /end sarcasm for those who don’t know it when they see it.

  13. American Cowboy January 28, 2014 10:56 am

    A decade or so ago, the press was extolling the virtues of the likes of Texas Instruments for rooting through their archives of patents that they were not using and licensing them to others to boost TI’s bottom line. The book Rembrandts in the Attic encouraged all companies to do that.

    Those sound like NPE/troll behavior to me.

  14. MarkG January 28, 2014 12:38 pm


    I think an interesting follow-up article would be to show how the invention claimed in U.S. Patent No. 223,898 would today likely be rejected as being unpatentable based on holdings of the KSR (obvious to try standard) and the Prometheus case (see for example step back’s sarcastic (but sadly dead-on) comments above with respect to Prometheus).

  15. Ken January 28, 2014 8:14 pm

    “That makes him a great engineer, less so a great inventor.”

    Engineering and inventing are hardly mutually exclusive, and in fact overlap quite heavily. BOTH can involve either totally new innovations or improvements upon existing ideas, and our patent system explicitly exalts both types of inventions.

    There is some room to debate the precise boundaries of the definition of engineering (and a few credible competing theories on the matter…), but the definition of inventing is actually dictated by our patent law – which undoubtedly includes the things that you concede that Edison did.

  16. Anon January 29, 2014 7:08 am


    Many can take serious issue with your statement of “our patent system explicitly exalts both types of inventions

    Perhaps better said is that our system explicitly exalts neither of them (35 USC 103). “Not negated by” is hardly a brilliant exaltation.

    What our system in fact does (in part due to KSR and other Court jurisprudence), is to cut the legs from under your typical engineer. A colorable argument can be made that all that engineering is can be sequestered into the Breyer-land of “just apply it.” Engineering only involves the “just apply it” as that is what engineers do.

  17. Anon January 29, 2014 7:09 am

    Post caught in filter – please release

  18. Gene Quinn January 29, 2014 10:13 am


    You say: “That makes him a great engineer, less so a great inventor.”

    That is perhaps one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever read. As if being an engineer makes one incapable of being an inventor. That is extraordinarily naive both in reference to Thomas Edison, and in terms of being an absolute statement about engineers. Engineers are those that make the science theory a reality and by definition are inventors.

    Why you continue to find it necessary to pretend that Edison was not a great inventor is curious. What exactly is your agenda here? Obviously facts, truth and honesty are not on the agenda for you when it comes to Edison. Why?


  19. Gene Quinn January 29, 2014 10:16 am


    That could be an interesting article. I guess it all depends on how you define “finite.”

    On another matter, the pharmaceutical industry will at some point wind up not being able to get any patents unless the law of obviousness changes. As computer software continues to facilitate lead drug choices and research the software, which may or may not wind up patentable itself, will be doing the work to determine the lead compound and handing to the humans a finite number of possible alternatives.


  20. Anon January 29, 2014 12:16 pm


    Myself not being one to be gentle with Benny and his posts, I think that your post at 18 may be overly harsh.

    That being said, I do agree that engineers should be more cherished – I just think that our fine Justices don’t share that opinion and have attempted to reduce the items belonging in the patent sphere by whatever creative means that they can think up.

  21. Ron Katznelson January 29, 2014 1:38 pm

    Benny said: “Form your own conclusions.” … “My conclusion? That we err in crediting Edison with inventions which are not his own.”

    However, to form one’s “own conclusions,” one must look at the true technical information – not speculation based on folklore biographies written by those who do not really understand how Edison succeeded where Swan failed. These biographies are written in a naïve effort to claim for the UK “its rightful place in history” – not as an objective account of technological developments.

    Electric incandescent lamps with carbon illuminants were known 30 years prior to Edison’s invention. As Gene points out, Edison did not “invent the light bulb” but his invention of a thin carbon filament of high resistance in a practical electrical illumination system manifested critical advantages over the prior art of electric lamps, all made with thick carbon rods as illuminants. It was these advantages that heralded a viable commercial system of electric lighting. First, the filament’s draw of small currents enabled sufficiently thin supply copper wires to be deployed at low cost, and enabled networks of many lamps to be electrically connected in parallel rather than in series, making the continuous operation of each lamp independent of the others when they burned. Second, a collateral advantage not immediately appreciated by Edison’s contemporaries, was that the low current drawn by Edison’s high-resistance filaments placed much less critical demands on the conductive interface and contact integrity of the bond between the carbon filament and the platinum leading-in wires. This was critical for filament longevity.

    The practical significance of these advantages was missed by other lamp developers even well after Edison’s patent issued. Joseph W. Swan, whose work and demonstrations in Great Britain is said to have preceded Edison’s invention, filed his first patent application more than 5 months after Edison applied for his patent and 2½ months after Edison’s patent issued. Swan’s incandescent lamp invention, described in a U.S. Patent ( ), employed five relatively wide carbon strips connected in parallel through internal terminals. This had the effect of substantially reducing the lamp’s filament resistance, a continued basic deviation from Edison’s teaching. For nearly two years after Edison’s patent issued, others persisted in futile attempts to solve problems inherent only in low electrical resistance, thick carbon incandescent rods that drew high currents and incurred high rate of incandescent erosion.

    Edison’s main invention was grounded not merely in using a carbon strip in vacuum, which was known in the art, but that an extremely thin filament (seven thousands of an inch) of high electrical resistance can be made to survive (but only in practically perfect vacuum), while serving as a bright illuminant. Swan, Sawyer, and other Edison’s contemporaries, simply did not get this concept – they did not even seek what they believed are non-survivable filaments; they were not motivated to even attempt making hair-thin filaments. It was Edison that unlocked the field of electric lighting. Benny’s statement that this “makes him a great engineer, less so a great inventor” demonstrates fundamental misapprehension of what constitutes invention.

    See the full account of these technological events with detailed primary source material at (Section 4).

  22. Paul Cole January 29, 2014 1:59 pm

    The interesting questions were who was first in US law, Edison or Swann and if Swann was first what Edison contributed. A subject for detailed study, I think, but the patent says that high electrical resistance was key, also the area of radiant surface. It appears that Swann was able to light the Savoy Theatre in London without help from Edison. Probably food for a student problem next year.

  23. American Cowboy January 29, 2014 2:10 pm

    Anon, engineers get dissed by society in general. Engineers at companies make much less than salesmen and financial types.

    And they wonder why kids don’t want to go into STEM fields!

  24. Gene Quinn January 29, 2014 2:49 pm


    This really is an important issue. There is a mistaken belief that it is the initial breakthrough that is the innovation. This belief manifests itself when people say that Universities can just supplant for-profit companies and take drugs to market, for example, because the government has already funded the invention and why hand it over to a greedy for-profit company. We in the industry know that there are many, many stages between conception, basic research breakthrough and any product going to market. That work in many, if not most cases, is done by engineers.

    The truth is also for every breakthrough innovation there are roughly 4 additional inventions that stem from that breakthrough that are made during the scaling and manufacturing processes. This is a point made by Hank Notthaft in “Great Again.” When we give up on manufacturing and have China, Vietnam or Mexico manufacture they are the owners of that follow-on innovation that is critical to the success in the market. By failing to understand the invention lifecycle we are forfeiting our future.

    It strikes me that saying that Edison is not a great inventor because he was an engineer misses the point completely. Edison was a great inventor precisely because he was a great engineer. He took inventions that didn’t work, or didn’t work well, or which were commercially non-viable and turned them into things that worked. Edison created jobs, improved lives through his innovation and the fact that large non-innovative companies would vilify what he did as the work of a patent troll is astonishing.

    Perhaps I was too harsh, and if I was I apologize Benny. In my opinion this Edison issue strikes at the very heart of what is wrong with the way so many view the invention and patent communities.


  25. step back January 29, 2014 2:50 pm

    Ron @21

    Thank you for that “illuminating” piece of history about Edison versus Swan 🙂

  26. step back January 29, 2014 2:56 pm

    Edison was a great inventor precisely because he was a great engineer. He took inventions that didn’t work, or didn’t work well, or which were commercially non-viable and turned them into things that worked. Edison created jobs, improved lives through his innovation and the fact that large non-innovative companies would vilify what he did as the work of a patent [T-word] is astonishing.

    Gene: WELL SAID

  27. Ron Katznelson January 29, 2014 4:07 pm

    This is not a question of who was first – it is a question of who invented and claimed what. Swan was first to use carbonated fibrous strips (cardboard) as filaments, but never used extremely thin carbon fiber as filament, nor achieved the near-perfect vacuum uniquely required in order to protect extremely thin filaments (even after Edison’s invention). Edison’s invention included the only practical approach at the time for long-term maintenance of the near-perfect vacuum – by using a single-piece glass vessel fused around the leading-in wires. Swan’s approach of having glass vessel surface discontinuities with holes plugged with metal caps around the leading-in wires could not maintain the near absolute vacuum needed only to protect very thin fibers. It was this feature as recited in Claim 2 of Edison’s patent – not the recitation of high resistance in Claim 1 – that ultimately protected indirectly Edison’s invention of the use of high resistance thin filaments. Swan’s claims were never directed at Edison’s invention and he never made such claims. Swan tinkered and demonstrated working lamps before Edison but these had never “taken off” commercially for the reason explained in my post above.

    All too often we encounter misconceptions about what was invented because many of these arise due to ignorance of the actual claimed invention. For example, those who argued that the Langley flyer was the “earliest invention of an airplane,” have done so solely based on the fact that Langley worked and experimented with his flyer before the Wright Brothers’ invention. However, these assertions neglect to acknowledge that Langley’s “invention” never involved a “warped-wing” stabilization system – the claimed invention of the Wright Brothers – and neglect to mention that the Langley flyer’s flights all ended up in crashes. The Langley flyer had never “taken off”; the Wright’s invention unlocked the field.

  28. step back January 29, 2014 4:19 pm

    Ron @27

    I have heard similar complaints about the debate over who invented the integrated circuit, Kilby or Noyce?

    Apparently Kilby did not have a workable embodiment because he picked Germanium as his substrate material.

    On the other hand, Noyce picked a magical substance known as Silicon.

    What is magical about Silicon?
    1) It oxidizes to become an excellent insulator, SiO2
    2) Aluminum adheres well to both Si and SiO2 surfaces.

    That’s why a certain valley in California became Silicon Valley
    And a certain gulch in Texas did not become Germanium Gardens.

  29. Anon January 29, 2014 4:32 pm


    I completely agree with your post at 24 (and with the great poss by Ron at 21 and 27). I do not have the source with me today, but some light reading I was doing last fall had a mock debate on who was more important to innovation: the scientist (representing the initial breakthrough) or the engineer (representing the “just” apply it). I believe that my (and your) views align more with Schumpeter and the larger picture of value of innovation from the full cycle of effort and much more than just that initial breakthrough.

    My point was not that engineers should be held in low regard, but that they are – and in part because there is rampant misconceptions abounding. My post at 16 indicates that even the legal field contributes to the misconceptions.

    I have taken Benny to task for several of his misconceptions. If I could take the Justices to task for theirs, I surely would.

  30. Ron Katznelson January 29, 2014 4:39 pm

    Step Back @ 28
    Good observations. A third point I would have added to your list of Si advantages of Ge is that as a semiconductor, Si has a band-gap of 1.14 eV compared to only 0.67 eV for Ge. This means lower intrinsic currents at high temperatures and better isolation in switching devices.

  31. Paul Cole January 30, 2014 7:54 am


    According to Wikipedia although the patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including “cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways”, it was not until several months after the patent was granted that Edison and his team discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that could last over 1,200 hours. The idea of using this particular raw material originated from Edison’s recalling his examination of a few threads from a bamboo fishing pole while relaxing on the shore of Battle Lake in the present-day state of Wyoming, where he and other members of a scientific team had traveled so that they could clearly observe a total eclipse of the sun on July 29, 1878. The discovery of carbonised bamboo was the result of a large programme of empirical work undertaken by Edison which in described in the Illuminating Lamp case which came before the US Supreme Court. I am not sure what filament Swann used, but it seems he had a practical lamp as he installed over 1000 such lamps in the Savoy Theatre.