Light bulbs: How These Bright Things Are Made

A glowing light bulb resting on a wooden floor
A lovely light bulb.

Ever been kept awake at night wondering just how they make those gosh darn incandescent light bulbs? We sure have. Really.

Endless hours of brain-spinning madness—is it warlocks, is it giant space weevils, or is it those pesky Donkey Invaders that plague our thoughts so? We’re here to answer the question!

The History of Incandescent Light Bulbs

It’s fair to say these household items are now so ubiquitous with modern life, you don’t give them much thought.

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) was responsible for the likes of the:

  • Gramophone
  • Film (check out Le Pétomane for weird insights there)
  • Mimeograph
  • Kinetoscope
  • Vitascope
  • Movie camera

And also the incandescent light bulb. Apparently. Arguably his most famous invention.

Although around 22 inventors had the concept for incandescent lamps before Joseph Swan and Edison. But the latter duo simply had a much better concept.

Their ideas also made the power distribution into light bulbs an economically viable solution. Bad news for candles.

That was in 1879. Although English scientist Ebenezer Kinnersley had demonstrated as early as 1791 that electric light was a possibility.

Kinnersley did this through an arc lamp, heating a wire to incandescence.

But, hey ho, Edison was the one who went and turned this into a proper big deal. So, kudos to him and his invention.

Thomas Edison's carbon filament lamps

He patented the things in 1880 and you can see a bunch of them above. Bulbous!

Since 1880 these things may not have changed much by design, but their efficiency has gone through the roof.

Just remember to fit your home with power-efficient light bulbs! You’ll save money and help the environment.

How Incandescent Light Bulbs are Made

Light bulbs may look simplistic, but they’re packed out with all sorts of technical wizardry.

In the early days, each one was made rather laboriously by hand. That was surely a terrible job, no doubt.

At least three workers had to blow the bulbs into wooden/cast-iron molds and then take it from there.

But into 1910 a device called a Westlake machine came into being. This was created by the company Libbey Glass.

One of the main bits of a light bulb is the filament. To make this, you have to mix tungsten and binder. This is then drawn as a fine wire around steel.

Here’s what’s going on within your humble bulb:

  • The overall outline of the glass bulb
  • Low-pressure inert gas within the bulb
  • Tungsten filament Contact wire (goes out of stem)
  • Contact wire (goes into stem)
  • Support wires (one end embedded in stem—conduct no current)
  • Stem (glass mount)
  • Contact wire (goes out of stem)
  • Cap (sleeve)
  • Insulation (vitrite)
  • Electrical contact

Makes sense, right? These things can get bloody hot, as you’ll be well aware, with some capable of hitting a pretty worrying 260 °C.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview. Well worth checking out more YouTube videos for a more in-depth look at how to make these things.

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