He was convinced, however, that the greatest field of lighting lay in the illumination of houses and other comparatively enclosed areas, to replace the ordinary gas light, rather than in the illumination of streets and other outdoor places by lights of great volume and brilliancy. Dismissing from his mind quickly the commercial impossibility of using arc lights for general indoor illumination, he arrived at the conclusion that an electric lamp giving light by incandescence was the solution of the problem.
Edison was familiar with the numerous but impracticable and commercially unsuccessful efforts that had been previously made by other inventors and investigators to produce electric light by incandescence, and at the time that he began his experiments, in 1877, almost the whole scientific world had pronounced such an idea as impossible of fulfilment. The leading electricians, physicists, and experts of the period had been studying the subject for more than a quarter of a century, and with but one known exception had proven mathematically and by close reasoning that the "Subdivision of the Electric Light," as it was then termed, was practically beyond attainment. Opinions of this nature have ever been but a stimulus to Edison when he has given deep thought to a subject, and has become impressed with strong convictions of possibility, and in this particular case he was satisfied that the subdivision of the electric light--or, more correctly, the subdivision of the electric current--was not only possible but entirely practicable.
It will have been perceived from the foregoing chapters that from the time of boyhood, when he first began to rub against the world, his commercial instincts were alert and predominated in almost all of the enterprises that he set in motion. This characteristic trait had grown stronger as he matured, having received, as it did, fresh impetus and strength from his one lapse in the case of his first patented invention, the vote-recorder. The lesson he then learned was to devote his inventive faculties only to things for which there was a real, genuine demand, and that would subserve the actual necessities of humanity; and it was probably a fortunate circumstance that this lesson was learned at the outset of his career as an inventor. He has never assumed to be a philosopher or "pure scientist."
In order that the reader may grasp an adequate idea of the magnitude and importance of Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp, it will be necessary to review briefly the "state of the art" at the time he began his experiments on that line. After the invention of the voltaic battery, early in the last century, experiments were made which determined that heat could be produced by the passage of the electric current through wires of platinum and other metals, and through pieces of carbon, as noted al- ready, and it was, of course, also observed that if sufficient current were passed through these conductors they could be brought from the lower stage of redness up to the brilliant white heat of incandescence. As early as 1845 the results of these experiments were taken advantage of when Starr, a talented American who died at the early age of twenty-five, suggested, in his English patent of that year, two forms of small incandescent electric lamps, one having a burner made from platinum foil placed under a glass cover without excluding the air; and the other composed of a thin plate or pencil of carbon enclosed in a Torricellian vacuum. These suggestions of young Starr were followed by many other experimenters, whose improvements consisted principally in devices to increase the compactness and portability of the lamp, in the sealing of the lamp chamber to prevent the admission of air, and in means for renewing the carbon burner when it had been consumed. Thus Roberts, in 1852, proposed to cement the neck of the glass globe into a metallic cup, and to provide it with a tube or stop-cock for exhaustion by means of a hand-pump. Lodyguine, Konn, Kosloff, and Khotinsky, between 1872 and 1877, proposed various ingenious devices for perfecting the joint between the metal base and the glass globe, and also provided their lamps with several short carbon pencils, which were automatically brought into circuit successively as the pencils were consumed. In 1876 or 1877, Bouliguine proposed the employment of a long carbon pencil, a short section only of which was in circuit at any one time and formed the burner, the lamp being provided with a mechanism for automatically pushing other sections of the pencil into position between the contacts to renew the burner. Sawyer and Man proposed, in 1878, to make the bottom plate of glass instead of metal, and provided ingenious arrangements for charging the lamp chamber with an atmosphere of pure nitrogen gas which does not support combustion.
These lamps and many others of similar character, ingenious as they were, failed to become of any commercial value, due, among other things, to the brief life of the carbon burner. Even under the best conditions it was found that the carbon members were subject to a rapid disintegration or evaporation, which experimenters assumed was due to the disrupting action of the electric current; and hence the conclusion that carbon contained in itself the elements of its own destruction, and was not a suitable material for the burner of an incandescent lamp. On the other hand, platinum, although found to be the best of all materials for the purpose, aside from its great expense, and not combining with oxygen at high temperatures as does carbon, required to be brought so near the melting-point in order to give light, that a very slight increase in the temperature resulted in its destruction. It was assumed that the difficulty lay in the material of the burner itself, and not in its environment.
It was not realized up to such a comparatively recent date as 1879 that the solution of the great problem of subdivision of the electric current would not, however, be found merely in the production of a durable incandescent electric lamp--even if any of the lamps above referred to had fulfilled that requirement. The other principal features necessary to subdivide the electric current successfully were: the burning of an indefinite number of lights on the same circuit; each light to give a useful and economical degree of illumination; and each light to be independent of all the others in regard to its operation and extinguishment.
The opinions of scientific men of the period on the subject are well represented by the two following extracts--the first, from a lecture at the Royal United Service Institution, about February, 1879, by Mr. (Sir) W. H. Preece, one of the most eminent electricians in England, who, after discussing the question mathematically, said: "Hence the sub-division of the light is an absolute ignis fatuus." The other extract is from a book written by Paget Higgs, LL.D., D.Sc., published in London in 1879, in which he says: "Much nonsense has been talked in relation to this subject. Some inventors have claimed the power to `indefinitely divide' the electric current, not knowing or forgetting that such a statement is incompatible with the well-proven law of conservation of energy."
"Some inventors," in the last sentence just quoted, probably--indeed, we think undoubtedly--refers to Edison, whose earlier work in electric lighting (1878) had been announced in this country and abroad, and who had then stated boldly his conviction of the practicability of the subdivision of the electrical current. The above extracts are good illustrations, however, of scientific opinions up to the end of 1879, when Mr. Edison's epoch-making invention rendered them entirely untenable. The eminent scientist, John Tyndall, while not sharing these precise views, at least as late as January 17, 1879, delivered a lecture before the Royal Institution on "The Electric Light," when, after pointing out the development of the art up to Edison's work, and showing the apparent hopelessness of the problem, he said: "Knowing something of the intricacy of the practical problem, I should certainly prefer seeing it in Edison's hands to having it in mine."