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What if… Edison hadn’t invented the light bulb

5 May 2008

My son, about to enter high school, asked me an interesting question this evening: what if Edison hadn’t invented the light bulb. I answered, of course, that someone else would have come up with the light bulb if Edison hadn’t done it.

But, taking the question in the spirit it was asked, I wondered what life would be like if incandescence hadn’t panned out. Most homes had kerosene lamps, candles, or maybe gas lamps. Obviously, those technologies would have continued to be used. And, in recent years, we have LEDs, which could mean that the night life we now enjoy could have been a recent development in this alternate timeline.

We talked for a time about what would be different without incandescents, the largest consequence he came up with was lack of night-time driving, which really shrinks our horizons. Many of our extracurricular activities simply would not happen in such a world. But, thinking about computers led to cathode ray tube monitors, which led me to phosphorescence, which made me quickly realize that fluorescent lights must be an old technology.

Sure enough, the primitive green fluorescent glow of Geissler tubes pre-dated Edison’s incandescent light bulb by some 50 years. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Edison himself played with Geissler tubes, but lost interest when his incandescent experiments become promising. So, in this alternate incandescence-free timeline, Thomas Edison or Nicola Tesla might be credited with the invention of the compact fluorescent bulb (compact here being a relative term), and history goes on pretty much as normal.

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