Lighting History: What Came Before the LED Bulb?

by | Sep 3, 2020 | News | 0 comments

Before there were LED bulbs, less-efficient incandescent and fluorescent lights were the mainstays of both commercial and residential lighting. Today, LED technology is advancing more quickly than any type of light bulb before it. 

Thanks to LED innovations, electricity usage can be greatly reduced, helping the planet while helping companies reduce overhead costs. 

So, where did it all begin?

History of the First Light Bulb

Why was the light bulb invented? Edison wanted to create a light bulb that would provide consistent, even light, accessible to ordinary people. 

But the light bulb timeline began almost 80 years before Edison patented his carbon filament in 1880. He built on existing research, including Sir Humphrey Davy’s platinum filament—the first ever incandescent light—from 1802, and James Lindsay’s longer-lasting incandescent light from 1835.

The existing versions were too expensive for personal or home use, even for the very wealthy. Edison solved this problem by experimenting with filament materials, breaking through with a bamboo filament that lasted 1,200 hours, the longest lasting bulb to date.

Edison didn’t stop there. He invented numerous technologies that made widespread use of light bulbs more practical for society. For example, he invented conduits, which allow electricity to be distributed from a centrally-located generator. 

While Edison’s technological innovations were incredible for their time, by the 1950s, incandescent bulbs still wasted about 90% of their energy as heat. Researchers began to look for solutions.

Compact Fluorescent Lights

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla both experimented with fluorescent lamps in the 1890s, but early versions of fluorescent technology were too inefficient for commercial production. 

In the early 1900s, Peter Cooper Hewitt created a fluorescent light that was more efficient than incandescent bulbs, but was not suitable for many uses due to its blue-green color. 

Finally, in 1973, lighting engineers were pushed by an energy shortage to create a fluorescent bulb that was practical for widespread use. Edward Hammer at General Electric built on research from Sylvania to bend a fluorescent tube into a spiral, creating the first compact fluorescent light.

At first, these bulbs were too expensive for widespread use. But by the 1990s, CFLs became slimmer, more affordable, and more efficient. Today, CFL bulbs are 50-75% more efficient than modern incandescents, and last about ten times longer. 

History of the LED Bulb

Robert Biard and Gary Pittman invented an infra-red LED light in 1961 while working at Texas Instruments. Due to its microscopic size, it did not have practical everyday use.

The next year, in 1962, Nick Holonyak, Jr. (the “Father of the Light-Emitting Diode”) invented the first LED that produced visible, red light while working at General Electric.

Throughout the 1960s, researchers and engineers continued experimenting with semiconductors with the goal of producing more efficient LEDs. As they experimented with different chemical substrates, bright red and orange LEDs came into production.

Then, in 1972, M. George Craford, while working at Monsanto, used one red and one green diode to create a pale yellow light. Craford also invented an LED that was about ten times brighter than Holonyak’s. Monsanto became the first company to mass produce LED lights.

LED Innovation 

Scientists continued to experiment with substrate materials, producing bright green, orange-red, orange, and yellow LEDs by the early 1990s. In 1994, Shuji Nakamura invented the ultra-bright blue LEDs that served as the foundation for today’s common commercial LEDs. Read What is Blue Lights? to learn more about blue lights.

Scientists then created white LEDs by coating the blue LEDs with fluorescent phosphors. This excited the U.S. Department of Energy, which encouraged further development of white LEDs for commercial and residential use. 

LED Lights Today: How Have LED Lights Improved?

LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are the most energy efficient lighting option available. To produce the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb, an LED light only uses 10 watts. This is because LEDs use almost all of their energy as light, whereas incandescents give off most of their energy as heat. 

Like early versions of incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, they were once expensive and available in limited colors. However, rapidly advancing technology has made them available at accessible prices, in a wide range of color temperatures, and with excellent (CRIs) color rendering indexes.


LED Color Temperatures

The earliest commercial LEDs were only available in blue-white light. Today, LEDs are available in warm, golden color temperatures (2700K-3000K) as well as crisp, blue-ish white (5000K).

Soft white (2700K) is ideal for lobbies, guest spaces, and residential living areas.

Bright white (4000K) is preferred for workspaces, like kitchens, garages, and warehouses.

Daylight (5000K) encourages productivity and is great for reading, working, and any spaces that require attentiveness and high energy.


Color Rendering Index

The higher the Color Rendering Index (CRI), the better. A high CRI helps your eye differentiate between colors. CRI is measured on a scale of 0-100, with a perfect score of 100 indicating colors appear as they would in natural sunlight.

Lights with CRI ratings of eighty or above are considered acceptable for most applications.

Lights with CRI ratings of ninety or above are considered high, and are ideal for situations where color accuracy is crucial.

Custom LED Lights from TCP

With over two decades of lighting experience, TCP understands the importance of quality when it comes to lighting design, manufacturing, and installation. If you need lights, we’ll create a high-quality custom solution to fit your exact needs. 

Contact the lighting experts at TCP to learn about custom LEDs and bulb prototyping. 

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