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The history of electric lighting


At our annual village quiz night, I caused a bit of a scene. The question was simple enough, ‘Who invented the light bulb?’ The answer, according to the compere, was Edison. ‘Well actually’, I’m afraid I couldn’t resist piping up, ‘electric lighting is much older’. During the 19th century 2 types of electric lamps were developed; the incandescent lamp (light created by passing the current through a filament) and the arc lamp (where the light is created by electricity leaping the gap between electrodes).  

Humphry Davy first demonstrated an arc lamp in 1806 but the blinding light was impractical and could not be powered for more than a few minutes. He was a dazzling speaker and he hosted lectures which became major social events in London. However, it took quite some time for electricity to become a practical form of lighting.

It was Joseph Swan, an inventor from Sunderland, who developed the first practical lamp and led the way in early electrical lighting. Swan supplied arc lamps to light the Picture Gallery at Cragside in Northumberland in 1878, the first house to be lit by electricity, and for Mosely Street in Newcastle, the first electrically lit street in 1879. (1879 was, incidentally the year Edison first demonstrated his own lamp in the USA). In 1881 Swan opened Benwell Lamps, the world’s first light bulb factory.

So if Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, why he is famous for doing so? Well, true to his American roots, he took it to market! He successfully registered patents and tried, but failed, to sue Swan, so then took him as a business partner instead. In 1883 Edison and Swan was formed and created bulbs which were cheaper and lasted longer than anyone else’s. Edison was a highly successful spin doctor and his vision of centralised electricity supply stations was paramount to his success.

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Throughout the Victorian era electricity remained extremely expensive leaving gas as the popular choice for most middle-class households. Wider availability of electricity coincided with the arrival of the Arts and Crafts influence and, from the Edwardian period we begin to see a proliferation of new ‘electroliers’ replacing gas fittings (gasoliers).


It is not until after the First World War that electricity found its way into homes on a large scale. The metal filament lamps had been perfected in 1911 and the Electricity (Supply) Act passed in 1926, led to the establishment of the national grid. We finally had clean, safe lighting at the flick of a switch; no more fumes or bad smells.

So Edison may not have invented the light bulb; Davy can lay rights to that claim. He didn’t even design the first practical light bulb or register the first light bulb patent; that was down to Swan. What Edison does deserve credit for is making electric lighting available. When he saw he was trailing Swan he cleverly joined forces with him (if you can’t beat them, join them!) and developed the supply chain. He owned a power company, later known as General Electric, and, let’s face it, without a source of electricity to light it, a light bulb is just a bulb.

Karen Wallis-Smith, owns Fritz Fryer Antique Lighting who offer an extensive lighting sales, design and consultancy service, specialising in the high quality restoration of period fittings. They also work with private and commercial clients to create sympathetic lighting solutions for period properties and their on-site workshop repair all fittings, by hand, to the highest possible standard.


This is an article from ProjectBook which provides a wide range of information for the conservation, restoration, care and repair of period and listed buildings. Fritz Fryer Antique Lighting is a member of the Heritage Register which contains over 500 vetted craftsmen, contractors and consultants from all over the UK. Updated daily with new content, the website features the heritage register, a products directory, informative articles, current news, events and more. For more information, visit