It’s hard for us to imagine how dark life would be without the illumination provided by so many different types of light bulbs.
Nights and days are brighter thanks to Thomas Edison’s world-changing light bulb design, but there’s so much more to the story. Join us as we explore the history and evolution of the light bulb and take a look at how its use has shaped society and history. We’ll also put a spotlight on different types of light bulbs so you’ll know how to choose the best option for your lighting needs.
Why Was the Light Bulb Initially Needed and Invented?
First, grab your candelabra and journey back to the 18th century, when homes and factories were poorly lit by candles and oil lamps. The demand for more lavish and safer light coincided with the Industrial Revolution. Let’s begin with several vital inventions that brought about Thomas Edison’s famous light bulb moment.
In 1792 in England, William Murdoch was experimenting with coal and gas lights. He managed to illuminate his house, and by 1798 he lit up his factory. By 1807, London’s Pall Mall was the first street to be illuminated by gas street lights.
That same year, English chemist Sir Humphry Davy developed the first electric light called an electric arc lamp. It produced light by maintaining an arc of electricity between conductors. Today, they are still in use as searchlights, floodlights, and film sets, or anywhere requiring intense and bright light.
In 1840 British scientist Warren de la Rue developed a light bulb with a platinum filament, but platinum’s high cost prevented its adoption. The baton was taken up next by English chemist Joseph Swan who by 1860 had swapped out the platinum for cheaper carbonized paper filaments and patented a working lamp in February 1879.
The world-famous Thomas Edison recognized Swan’s filament expense issue, adding a thinner carbon filament with high electrical resistance to provide a lot of light from little power. Edison demonstrated his bulb in December 1879, and Swan incorporated the upgrade into his design. The two sued and counter-sued before setting up the successful Edison-Swan United company.
A more efficient carbonized bamboo filament was introduced, followed by Edison’s researcher, Lewis Howard Latimer, patenting a more efficient carbon filament manufacturing process in 1882. By 1902, United States chemist Willis R. Whitney invented a filament treatment that let filaments burn brightly without staining the inside of the light bulbs.
The paradigm shift for the electric light bulb came in 1910. U.S. physicist and engineer William David Coolidge mastered the cheap production of tungsten — which has the highest melting point of any element — bringing bright, efficient, and relatively inexpensive light bulbs into the mainstream.
What Gases Are Light Bulbs Filled With?
When you turn on a tungsten filament light bulb, the filament begins to burn, and the tungsten separates from it, weakening it and eventually breaking it. This happens quickly if the bulb is full of “normal” air because of tungsten’s oxygen reaction.
Using different gases can prolong the filament’s lifespan, and most light bulbs are full of one gas. The most common gas used in incandescent light bulbs is argon, which is sometimes mixed with nitrogen. Other gases used include halogen, xenon, and krypton.
Fluorescent light bulbs use mercury power to coat the light bulb’s inside rather than mercury in gas form.
How Long Do Light Bulbs Last?
There are many types of light bulbs, each with varying lifespans, depending on use, positioning, and other variables. A traditional halogen bulb lasts around 1,000 hours; an energy-saving incandescent bulb between 1,000-3,000 hours; an LED some 25,000 hours; and a compact fluorescent bulb around 10,000 hours.
What Are the Different Types of Light Bulbs?
There are several main types of light bulbs available today, according to Energy.gov, but there’s now another “smarter” version thanks to technological advancements.
Incandescent Light Bulbs: This type of light bulb has a glass casing that encloses a tungsten filament through which electricity passes to produce light. These light bulbs have low manufacturing costs, work on alternating or direct current, and are compatible with dimmers, timers, and photosensors. Incandescent bulbs are the least energy-efficient types of light bulbs but are popular because of their versatility. They’re available with Edison screw or Philips bulb bases. Edison bulb bases screw into position while a Philips is pushed into a light casing and twisted so that its protruding spurs hook into place.
Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFL): Also known as compact fluorescent lamps, CFLs are the smaller (and curlier) version of standard fluorescent light bulbs. They are often found in kitchens or garages where white light works well. These energy-efficient bulbs may not be dimmable, so always check instructions and packaging. They’re available with Edison screw or Philips bulb bases.
Halogen Light Bulbs: Halogen incandescents look similar to incandescent light bulbs but have a small capsule inside the glass casing surrounding the filament. The design helps energy efficiency, but there are more efficient light bulbs available. They can get very hot and are useful for outdoor lighting.
Light-Emitting Diode (LED): LEDs are semiconductors that convert electricity into light. LED light bulbs are fast replacing incandescent bulbs thanks to their longevity and energy-saving qualities, which helps to save energy and money spent on fuel bills. (Some countries have even banned the manufacture and general sale of traditional halogen bulbs.) LEDs come in a variety of wattages and colors for use throughout the home, office, and outdoor spaces. They’re also quite versatile and multi-purpose — you can use them for track lighting, table lamps, and task lighting. They’re available with Edison screw or Philips bulb bases.
Standard Fluorescent Light Bulbs: Renowned for longevity, energy efficiency, and low cost, most people will recognize these as the long, fluorescent tubes of commercial settings for indoor or outdoor lighting. These long, tubular lamps work by electricity emitted from cathodes exciting mercury vapor and converting fluorescence into light.
Smart Bulbs: These are a type of LED light bulb. They are Wi-Fi-enabled, meaning you can control them using an app or AI unit like Alexa. They are not a true new light bulb because they are an adaptation of LED light bulbs.
What Are the Best Energy-Saving Light Bulbs?
The best energy-saving light bulbs are LED, light-emitting diode light bulbs. Yes, they are more expensive than halogens. But they use 25%-30% of the energy and last three to 25 times longer than halogen incandescents, making the investment worth it.
LED bulbs use less electricity and can therefore help lower your bills. Tests by Energy.gov revealed these savings, comparing a traditional 60W incandescent light bulb with equivalent energy saving bulbs:
- Traditional, 60W light bulb: $4.80 annual cost, lasts for 1,000 hours.
- 15W CFL light bulb: $1.20 annual cost, lasts for 10,000 hours, uses 75% less energy.
- 12W CFL light bulb: $1 annual cost, lasts for 25,000 hours, uses 75-80% less energy.*
*Based on 2 hours per day of usage and an electricity rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Where Can You Buy Energy-Saving Light Bulbs?
You can buy energy-saving types of light bulbs from many sources including hardware stores, online retailers, supermarkets, and more.
What Are the Best Light Bulbs for Bedrooms?
Warm lighting is best for bedrooms as the soft yellow glow can help GA you relax. LEDs are the most cost-effective long-term option, and they come in suitable colors and brightness. Some manufacturers describe LED light bulbs as warm, cold, or daylight.
When buying your warm LED light bulb, look at its Kelvin rating. This relates to color, and 2,000-3,000 Kelvin or lower matches the warm tones of a traditional light bulb. Warm light bulbs also work well in living rooms and dining rooms.
Also, check the lumens: This is how bright the light bulb is, or the amount of light it emits. The higher the lumens, the brighter the light bulb. For instance, a 1,000 lumen light bulb is similar to a 75-100W traditional light bulb.
You can always buy a soothing night light if you need it even more relaxed in the bedroom.
What Are the Recommended Light Bulbs for Kitchens?
Kitchens need bright lights to help us work safely. A range of lighting can help in the kitchen because we cast shadows as we move around.Kitchens need bright lights to help us work safely. A range of lighting can help in the kitchen because we cast shadows as we move around.
LEDs are recommended for the kitchen, especially those labeled cool light, which have a Kelvin rating of around 3,100-4,500.
Spotlighting under cupboards brings extra light to a kitchen space, too. These are usually small LEDs bulbs, and if you don’t know how to install them, an electrician will advise on the perfect setup for your kitchen.
For lumens, below is an approximate guide when changing traditional incandescent bulbs to energy-saving light bulbs:
- To replace a 100 watt (W) incandescent bulb, choose an energy-saving light bulb of around 1,600 lumens.
- Replace a 75W bulb for approximately 1,100 lumens.
- Replace a 60W bulb for about 800 lumens.
- Replace a 40W bulb for approximately 450 lumens.
What Are the Best Outdoor Light Bulbs for Cold Weather?
Halogen bulbs get very warm once illuminated, so consider one of these for a small outdoor space like a potting shed if you need to work there in cold temps. In very cold temperatures, traditional bulbs may struggle to turn on, and sometimes they can burst.
However, the LED reigns supreme once more. LED bulbs work very well in cold temperatures, turning on almost immediately, and can withstand extreme outside temperatures. The flexible setup means you can choose practically any lighting configuration you wish.
Why Are LEDs Better Than Incandescent Bulbs?
LED light bulbs work in extreme conditions, cost less to run, and last longer than traditional incandescent light bulbs. Their reliability, long life, and energy-saving qualities mark them out as better than incandescent light bulbs.
What Is a Motion-Activated Light Bulb?
In short, a motion-activated light bulb turns on when triggered by movement, either a human, a pet, or some other object passing nearby. The light bulb has a motion sensor to enable this feature.
The light bulb stays on for a predetermined time or until no more movement is detected. Many public buildings, bars, and hotels use motion-activated lighting in corridors, restrooms, offices, and more. It’s the light bulb that has the sensor.
Outdoor motion sensor lights are large and have small radar generators to detect large objects approaching a wide area. These zones can be pre-selected.
Do Motion-Sensor Lights Need Special Bulbs?
A motion-sensor light is a LED type light with a motion sensor built in. A motion-sensor light can also be a light that turns on when a separate motion sensor activates.
Some motion systems work by wiring in a separate motion sensor between the light switch and the light bulb. In this scenario, a triggered motion sensor “turns” the light bulb on for a predetermined time. These motion sensors can work with LED, incandescent, and fluorescent light bulbs because it is the sensor that triggers the light to turn on and not the light bulb itself.
How Do Motion Detection Bulbs Work?
Motion-detection bulbs use sensors to detect movement or heat. If your detection bulb detects movement, the sensor turns the light on if someone or something moves within its radar range. If your detection bulb detects heat through a Passive Infrared System (PIR), it detects temperature changes. It turns on when someone steps into its range.
How Do You Trick a Motion Sensor?
You can trick a motion sensor by:
- Throwing objects into its field to work out its range. Once established, move past it by not interfering with its motion range.
- Moving very slowly to avoid tripping its sensor.
- Using objects to cover your route — e.g., hiding behind trees or ducking behind sofas.
- Blocking the sensor by slowly putting cardboard or paper over the sensor without triggering it.
Can You Cover a Motion Sensor?
Yes, you can try to cover a motion sensor. Slowly slide a piece of paper or cardboard over the sensor until it’s covered. Once covered, tape the paper down, and the sensor cannot detect you.
How Do You Get a Broken Light Bulb Out?
Getting a broken light bulb out is a potentially hazardous operation. If you have any doubt about your ability to perform the task, call a qualified electrician.
- First, put on some eye protectors and gloves.
- Turn off the light switch that connects to the affected bulb. If unsure, check the light fixture’s bulb base with a non-contact voltage detector.
- Once you’re sure the switch is off, use needle-nose pliers to grab the bulb base and unscrew it counterclockwise. If that fails, grab a potato.
- Peel the head of the potato, and taper it to fit in the light bulb socket.
- Jab the potato into the socket, pushing down, and twist to remove the light bulb. Don’t worry about breaking the light bulb; the potato should absorb the glass and debris.
- Use the needle-nose pliers to grab the bulb base and unscrew it. Avoid damaging the lamp holder.
There are broken bulb extractor kits available from stores, too.
How Can You Change Light Bulbs in High Places?
If you have a large ladder, a helper, and are confident at working in high places, a tall ladder is one way to reach light bulbs in elevated areas.
There’s also a tool called a bulb grabber. This is an extendable, telescopic pole that will help you reach high places.
Suppose you are changing many bulbs on something like a chandelier. In that case, scaffolding may be the most secure way to reach the desired height safely. Never work alone, and consult the experts if necessary.
Can Light Bulbs Cause Skin Cancer?
Some halogen and fluorescent light bulbs emit low levels of UV radiation, and emissions from all light bulbs and lamps decrease rapidly with distance. An Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency study concluded that no halogen lamp produced sufficient UV radiation to be considered hazardous, even from a 10-centimeter (4-inch) range.
If you use a SAD winter lightbox — a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light to help people cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — make sure it’s a medically-approved one.
Sunbeds feature UV emitting lamps. Sunbeds that emit UV increase your risk of developing skin cancer, both malignant melanoma, and non-melanoma.
Why Are Incandescent Light Bulbs Bad for the Environment?
A study funded by the U.S. Energy Department looked at the environmental impact of the manufacture, transport, and disposal of incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulbs.
It found that: “LEDs have less negative environmental impacts than incandescent bulbs and a slight edge over CFLs.” In other words, incandescent light bulbs are the least environmentally-friendly light bulbs.
Incandescent light bulbs are less energy-efficient than CFL and LED light bulbs, using more energy to run. Generating electricity from oil, gas, or nuclear power harms the environment, too, with greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide released during electricity creation.
Incandescent light bulbs release almost four times more mercury into the environment through extra electricity generation than a CFL light bulb. They need replacing more often, too, adding to the environmental footprint.
Can You Throw Away Light Bulbs? Where? How?
Old-style incandescent light bulbs and halogen light bulbs cannot be recycled easily but are not considered hazardous waste. You can throw them in the regular garbage, just be sure to wrap them in newspaper as the bulbs are fragile and may break. The newspaper will protect workers from any slivers of glass and released gas. Also, don’t put incandescent light bulbs and halogen light bulbs with regular glass recycling items — not only do they contain different types of glass but they also contain bits of metal.
Some recycling centers recycle LED lights for the copper, nickel, and lead they contain. Check search.earth.911com for your local recycling center.
Fluorescent bulbs and compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) should always be disposed of through a recycling facility as they contain mercury and need to be disposed of properly. Some states require recycling by law.
If possible, replace old halogen and incandescent light bulbs with LED light bulbs to reduce your environmental footprint.
Can You Recycle Light Bulbs?
You can recycle light bulbs, although it depends on the types of light bulbs and if you have a suitable recycling center near you. You cannot recycle incandescent and halogen light bulbs because they contain different types of glass than those we usually recycle as well as bits of metal.
Fluorescent bulbs and compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) must be recycled because they contain mercury. Almost all parts of a fluorescent bulb are recyclable. Some specialist recycling centers recycle LED bulbs, too. Check search.earth.911com for recycling centers.
Where Can You Recycle Light Bulbs?
You can recycle light bulbs at specific recycling centers as well as hardware stores and other retailers that offer in-house recycling. Check search.earth.911com for recycling centers across the United States.
Some bulb manufacturers and other organizations sell pre-labeled recycling kits that allow you to mail used bulbs to recycling centers. You need to fill up a box with old bulbs and then send it to the relevant supplier. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website lists manufacturers offering recycling services.
Where to Recycle Halogen Light Bulbs?
You cannot recycle halogen light bulbs because they contain different types of glass than those that are usually recycled, plus they have bits of metal. It often requires more energy to salvage halogen bulb materials, too. Wrap them in newspaper and throw them in the regular waste.
Where to Recycle Mercury Bulbs?
Fluorescent bulbs and compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) contain mercury, and you must recycle them. Almost all parts of a fluorescent bulb are recyclable. Visit search.earth.911com for a list of recycling centers in the United States.
What to Do With Old Light Bulbs?
Wrap halogen and incandescent light bulbs in newspaper and throw them in the regular waste.
Recycle fluorescent bulbs and compact fluorescent lights (CFLs); they contain mercury, and some states require recycling by law.
You can recycle LED light bulbs, too. Head to search.earth.911com for a list of suitable recycling centers in the United States.
Several light bulb manufacturers offer a postal return service for old light bulbs. Check the United States Environmental Protection Agency website for a list of manufacturers offering this service.
How Should You Dispose of LED Bulbs?
Do not throw LED light bulbs into the regular waste; they are recyclable. If you live in the United States, please visit search.earth.911com for a list of suitable recycling centers for LED light bulbs. Some hardware and other retail stores allow you to bring recyclables, so be sure to ask if that’s an option.
Light Bulbs That Make a Difference
From the first electric arc bulb to the modern, all-purpose LED light bulb, we’ve seen that many different types of light bulbs serve us in many ways.
It’s been a long journey from Sir Humphry Davy’s first tentative steps to illuminate the world. The next challenge is to switch everyone to the most environmentally friendly light bulbs possible, so we can continue to light up our lives without it costing the planet.
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