The iconic shape of the light bulb has become the universal symbol for bright ideas ever since Thomas Edison patented the first one 135 years ago. But nothing lasts forever.
“Legislation phased out the incandescent light bulb last year, and its replacement, the compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL, has its days numbered,” says Tom Boyle, chief innovation manager for consumer light at GE Lighting. “Efficient LEDs are the next big thing and there’s no reason for them to be shaped like the lamps they replaced.”
Top: The usual suspects: The shape of the common light bulb stopped evolving almost a century ago. Image credit: GE Lighting Above: LED lights can be made in many shapes. Here a cylinder-shaped GE LED Bright Stik illuminates a work bench. Image credit: GE Lighting
Boyle says the classic pear – or “A-line” shape – of the light bulb was first handcrafted as a result of the glass blowing technique used to form the transparent shell. “Our first LED bulbs had that pear shape, too, but it was mainly for psychological reasons,” Boyle says. “People were used to it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t better alternatives.”
The company just released a new LED light called “Bright Stik” designed to replace 60-watt CFLs. The slender bulb looks like a white oversize lipstick with a silver Edison screw base attached to the bottom. A pack of three will retail at Home Depot for less than $10.
“There are some 4 billion sockets in the U.S. and less than one-tenth have an LED screwed inside,” Boyle says. “This is a huge business opportunity. We believe that percentage will grow to 50 percent by the end of the decade.”
Glass blowers making early light bulbs. Image credit: GE Lighting
Engineer Nick Holonyak (below) invented the LED that emitted visible light in GE labs in 1963. The technology has seen some big advances over the last five years. Boyle says that LED efficiency increased by as much as 7 percent year over year for the past several years, allowing designers to shrink the bulb and shed large features like heat sinks and cooling fins. New technologies also helped cut the price tenfold since 2011, from $50 for a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb to less than $5 today.
GE says the bright stick was designed to last 15,000 hours, or 14 years if used for 3 hours per day. It needs 80 percent less energy than CFLs, gets bright instantly and doesn’t contain any mercury, a toxic heavy metal that requires special recycling.
Boyle says that GE tested 5 different designs for the new bulb before it settled on the stick. “We wanted something elegant and simple and there’s now no reason why you need to stick with the A-line,” he says. “The light distribution from both designs is basically identical and the stick is much easier to ship and store.”
Edison filed his patent application for a light bulb in 1879. It was granted in January 1880. Image credit: GE Lighting
The one thing that won’t change, though, is the Edison screw base at the bottom of the bulb. Edison invented it in his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., when he realized that in order to grow his light bulb business, he needed a simple and cost-effective way to replace bulbs. One evening in 1900, after a few failed attempts, he found inspiration inside the lid for a can of kerosene in his office. “This certainly can make a bang-up socket for the lamp, as well as the base,” he reportedly said.
That socket will soon be all that remains of his light bulb moment that changed the way we live a century ago.
Thomas Edison (right) invented many things, but the light bulb still shines the brightest. Image credit: GE Lighting