Edison on the Shoulders of Giants

Completely coincidentally (or so she would have us believe) Ashley published her amazing How Many Skeptics Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb post on the actual anniversary of the Edison light bulb. I pointed this out in the comments, not because I knew the date off the top of my head, but because I was asked to draw a comic about the event. Here it is below as reposted from Sci-ə as reposted from the Txchnologist.

Now, let me just set one thing straight. Nikola Tesla is my boy.

But when the Txchnologist asked me to draw a comic about Thomas Edison’s contribution to the quest for electric lighting, how could I resist? See, Friday, October 21st was the 132nd anniversary of the Edison light bulb, and while Humpry Davy may have made the first electric lamp, but Edison made it practical. A veritable “shoulders of giants” story of innovation  and serendipity.

Since I was strapped for space and time ( I actually drew this and last Friday’s comic in the same night. Good times!) I didn’t really get a chance to probe the underlying  wonder of inadvertent discovery. Edison hit dead end after dead end trying to improve Joseph Swan’s variation of the light bulb, and he was sure that a platinum filament was the way to go. This was only after spending weeks trying ever other material he could think of. Amusingly, he had discarded the notion of using carbon filaments sometime before, unsatisfied with their performance. But then opportunity met preparedness.

In order to draw gas bubbles out of the platinum as it burned, Edison decided he needed a better vacuum inside the bulb. He managed to greatly improve upon the vacuum pump by combining the qualities of two existing pumps of his day—the Sprengel and Geissler pumps. Then, realization hit: The problem with carbon filaments was that they burned out too fast. But by sealing them in a vacuum, thereby preventing oxidation from occurring, you could greatly improve the life of the filament.

The subsequent combination of the new vacuum pump and the carbon filament made for a remarkably improved bulb, and we were all spared from having all our precious metals end up in Todd Robbins’ stomach.

This post was brought to you by Bromine(Br).

The more I look at the comic, I see inspiration from the Kate Beaton School of Illustrating History. In fact, if there was a physical school, I would go there. Then after becoming rich, donate tons of money to it.


Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner. He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.

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  1. 1) your design sense frustrates me. stop being so good!
    2) never stop being so good!
    3) Tesla is my boy, too. *tesla gang sign*

  2. “Within the story of evolution is a story far more interesting than any in the bible. It teaches us amazing things…that stars are not important, there is nothing interesting about stars. Street lamps are very important because they’re so rare, as far as we know there’s only a few million of them in the universe, and they were invented by monkeys…” – Terry Pratchett

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