Thomas Edison was a genius! George Inman was just a bright scientist when he developed the first practical fluorescent lamp in 1938. And depending on who you speak with, Nick Holonyak Jr. was just another smart guy, someone in the right place at the right time when he developed the first practical visible spectrum LED in 1962. Neither lamp technology has captured the public imagination and led to such a quick and major change in the way we light our homes and businesses as did Edison’s incandescent light bulb. Like moths, people are attracted to the warm glow of a fire. Perhaps that is just in our human genetic makeup. Over the years we have changed the way we light our homes, from a warm glow of an open fireplace to candles, oil lamps and then to gas lamps.
In 1879, Edison figured out how to take that nice warm glow of fire and capture it in a safe, clean, convenient and modern technology called incandescent lighting. He could have just stopped there, but he also figured out and implemented the system for generating and delivering the electricity to power the light bulbs in our homes. Edison also figured out how to mass produce light bulbs and bring them into general distribution across the country. And then there are all his other life-changing inventions. Without question, Thomas Edison was a genius.
When fluorescent lighting was introduced in 1938, it was a good lamp technology for applications that required large areas of evenly lit space. The lamp also had a long life span and used less electricity then incandescent lamps. The fluorescent lamp took off in schools, offices and factories. For home use, fluorescent lighting was not a lamp technology that consumers “warmed up to.” Whereas incandescent lighting reminds us of the golden “warmth” of a fire, the fluorescent lamp reminds us of institutional lighting in offices, the Department of Motor Vehicles, bus stations and McDonald’s. Add in humming-buzzing ballasts, the flicker-flicker starting routines of many of the older fluorescent fixtures and the really poor color rendering of cheaper fluorescent lamps, and you can understand why people ran from the thought of putting these lamps in their homes.
Shift to the first decade of 2000s, when consumers’ finally began to accept energy-savings cars, appliances and light bulbs. Well, what was their real choice? The spiral twist compact fluorescent bulb was the face of energy efficiency. It was widely available, relatively inexpensive and geniuinely saved energy. The problems with buzzing, slow start, color rendering, and even dimming (to a small degree) had been solved. Unfortunately, CFLs still lacked consumer enthusiasm and commitment to make this change in their home. The perception with this new generation of CFLs still carried the stigma of the old generation of fluorescent tube technology. Many U.S. homeowners didn’t really “embrace this technology” but rather “grudgingly accepted” the CFL.
Enter LED technology late in the decade. Most consumers have heard about this wondrous new “high tech” light source. They’ve seen LEDs being used in traffic lights, car brake lights and inside their flat screen TVs. Unfortunately, the way this technology works is still a mystery to all but the most engineering literate of us. Even so, many in our industry believe this technological marvel is going to change our lives and the way we light our homes and businesses.
That’s just what consumers wanted to hear. They were really not enamored with CFLs in their homes in the first place, and now manufacturers are making all sorts of claims that the LED technology will solve their dilemma of trying to saving energy at home with a lamp source that is cutting edge, “cool,” and something that everyone is going to want. It isn’t hard to sell Americans that new technology is always the best solution.
The romanticized story of Edison changing our lives with his new light bulb invention is not really apparent during this new LED lighting “revolution.” The name of the “Father of LED”, Nick Holonyak Jr., is rarely mentioned in the press. The image of the glass light bulb with the glowing filament inside is the universal image of the incandescent lamp. To date there is no commonly agreed upon image what an LED “light bulb” looks like.
Consumers are really hoping that this LED technology works out. So far, aside from some niche commercial lighting applications and a few higher end (and higher priced) consumer lighting products, consumers have not really seen what this lighting technology looks like. Utilities do not have the “one big thing” to promote, and Energy Star doesn’t have anything consumers can rally around. Manufacturers have yet to figure out how to put this technology in a viable, cost effective and generally available form that will encourage a wide-spread consumer change-over to LED lighting.
Until we can change all the LED marketing hype into cost competitive real lighting that we can use in our homes, I doubt we will see the mass migration to LED. Although I’m a big proponent of this new technology, it’s probably good we still have a few years to stock up on our favorite incandescent light bulbs before the onslaught of the LED revolution. After more than 130 years, I still think Edison is a genius.