Hitting the Books: Why nobody knows Hiram Maxim, inventor of the incandescent lightbulb

Developing the first electric illumination took teamwork -- and some light industrial espionage.

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One detail that's often omitted from modern founders myths is whether or not said scion of capitalist success actually invented the thing they're famous for inventing. Just like Elon Musk didn't invent electric vehicles so much as be the first to successfully market them to the American public, Thomas Edison's contributions to the advent of electrified lighting too might be overstated. In the excerpt below from his latest book, The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans, Dr. Bill Hammack, YouTube's "The Engineer Guy," recounts the tale of Hiram Maxim, an irrepressible engineer and inventor whose novel filament production method would have made him a household name — had Edison not reportedly made "a clean steal" of his revolutionary technology.

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Excerpted from The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans by Bill Hammack, PhD. © 2023 by Bill Hammack, PhD. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.

In November 1880, the reading room of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, located in the basement of one of the first skyscrapers, glowed with the light of a four-bulb chandelier and six bulbs in fixtures spaced along the walls. An observer characterized this electric light as “very much like that of a first-class oil lamp, steadier than gas, and of a yellow, clear pleasant quality” — nothing like the “ghastly blue” of a “flickering” arc light, nor was there the odor of burning gas; instead, the room’s atmosphere “remain[ed] perfectly cool and sweet.” His only complaint was that the bulbs flickered slightly with every stroke of the engine that powered the generator. This first commercial installation, a spectacular achievement, featured no bulbs manufactured by Thomas Edison, although he had proudly announced his invention of the light bulb only a few months earlier to great press attention. The bulbs at the Mercantile Company were those of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, a company driven forward by their irrepressible and energetic engineer, Hiram Maxim. Edison called Maxim’s bulb “a clean steal” of his lamp. Yet Maxim had seventeen patents on incandescent lamps, and his company controlled the patents of several other inventors, also contemporary to Edison. Maxim thought of himself as the inventor of the commercial light bulb. “Every time I put up a light,” he complained, “a crowd would gather, everyone asking, ‘Is it Edison’s?’” This so irritated Maxim, who noted that Edison at the time “had never made a lamp,” that he considering killing “on the spot” the next person to ask him “Is it Edison’s?”

That the first commercialized light bulbs were not Edison’s surprises because we love stories of sole inventors whose spark of inspiration revolutionized the world. They give us narratives that are neat, tidy, and digestible but incomplete. These stories hide the engineering method; they bury the creativity of engineers, smooth over struggles, and sanitize choices that reflect cultural norms. Perhaps no story persists more than Edison and his light bulb, yet Edison was the tail end of a long list of light bulb innovators in a process of invention similar to that of the steam turbine in the next century.

In the forty years before Edison’s first successful prototype, at least twenty people presented, patented, and demonstrated incandescent lamps—using electricity to heat a filament until it glowed. The first recorded attempt was in 1838 (almost a decade before Edison’s birth) by a Belgian inventor whose bulb used a strip of carbon as a filament. A fair assessment of history would call these men inventors of the light bulb comparable to Edison, especially in a world where Edison, the so-called inventor of the incandescent light bulb, was forty years late to the idea of incandescent lighting. But unlike with Edison, we don’t remember the names of these men, because most of their bulbs burned for only a few seconds. They had the necessary but thankless job of creating links in a chain of incremental advances that didn’t yet produce an applicable or reproducible solution to the problem of darkness, which so far could only be dispelled with fire, until Edison created one of the links that did, transforming from method into narrative. Although Edison and his bulb end that length of the chain of innovators, his link was no more an exercise or example of the engineering method than those that came before; it only overcame a circumstantial threshold of usefulness.

In 1878, Edison focused the energy of his staff at the bustling Menlo Park Research Laboratory on finding a long-lasting filament for the incandescent light bulb. The staff worked to the rhythms of Edison, “the central originating and guiding mind and personality,” as one worker noted, describing work there as “a strenuous but joyful life for all physically, mentally, and emotionally.” Edison set the tone with long work hours into the night. He often napped on the workbenches in Menlo Park and ate sparingly in increments of small snacks he thought were better for digestion, although for his workers, he had brought in, often at midnight, hamper baskets loaded with hot dinners of meat, vegetables, dessert, and coffee. But when Edison stood, stretched, hitched up his waistband, and sauntered away, all knew that dinner was over and work should resume.

In the late 1870s, Edison and his staff produced bulbs that looked much like a modern bulb: a glass envelope fastened to a wooden base covered with copper strips, and, at its center, a thin, long, delicate spiral of platinum. Yet these bulbs failed. Some yielded light as bright as a small bundle of today’s Christmas lights for a few hours, but most burned out quickly. As Edison learned, the temperature for the incandescence of platinum wire was near that of its melting point—any fluctuations in the current and the platinum would melt. Edison and his team tested an astonishing array of materials, by some count sixteen hundred types. They tested metals like platinum, iridium, ruthenium, chromium, aluminum, tungsten, molybdenum, palladium, manganese, and titanium; elements that sometimes behaved like metals, including silicon and boron; then a grab bag of materials—cork, wax, celluloid, and the hair from his employees’ beards. After these, his team moved to slivers of wood, broom corn, and paper. Tissue paper covered with lampblack and tar and rolled into a rod glowed astonishingly well and for a good amount of time. Edison refined this idea by “carbonizing” cotton thread, heating it without oxygen until the length of thread was blackened throughout. From this thread, he formed a long filament. On October 21, 1879, a bulb with a filament of this thread, with all the air removed from the glass enclosure, burned for more than half a day. They were approaching the beginning of the commercial light bulb.

Seven months after that bit of carbonized thread showed promise, they tried a piece of bamboo: a six-inch strip burned for three hours and twenty-four minutes at seventy-one candlepower (about the brightness of a standard sixty-watt bulb today). “The best lamp ever yet made,” an Edison associate noted, “here from vegetable Carbon.” From there, Edison’s team tested two hundred species of bamboo until they found a variety that was the best for manufacturing carbon filaments, grown near Yawata, Japan, where Edison is still celebrated with a street named “Edison-dori,” a bust of Edison in the town center, and, near a shrine, a large monument dedicated to Edison. With his specialized bamboo supply and method of manufacturing in place, Edison was ready to light the world, but Hiram Maxim beat him out of the gate.

Maxim’s bulbs, installed at the Equitable Life Building, out-classed Edison’s. “They have a rich golden tint, resembling that of a wax taper,” said one reporter. Another noted that Maxim “has invented a lamp which surpasses, I believe, even Edison’s dreams.” When comparing the lamps, reporters noted that Edison’s had lower brightness than Maxim's, or, when of the same intensity as Maxim’s, they burned out in only a few hours. By Maxim’s own estimate, the filaments in his bulbs could last forty days. The dimness and shorter life of Edison’s bulbs were the same thing: Edison’s bulbs could not tolerate as much current as Maxim’s, so if run at the same current, Edison’s bulbs would burn out quickly, and to make them last longer, Edison’s were run at a lower current and thus were dimmer.

That Maxim could achieve this was unbelievable to Edison’s staff—an outraged member of the Menlo Park staff ranted that it must be apparent to “any sane person that” Maxim’s bulb must be “but a copy” of Edison’s. Surely, thought Edison’s employees, only a well-oiled machine like that of Menlo Park could produce a light bulb. Inside Menlo Park, glassblowers, machinists, engineers, chemists, and physicists churned out inventions like appliances on an assembly line, while Maxim’s ham-handed U.S. Electric Lighting Company struggled to find enough resources to survive; employees thought it likely to shut at any minute, and even its own president described it as “helpless.” Their technical expertise was so low that they could not figure out, as one employee later noted, what “size wire would carry a certain number of lamps without overheating,” adding that “a number of mysterious fires about this time were probably the fruits of our ignorance.” Compared with Edison’s factory-line Menlo Park model, Maxim’s method of invention seemed scattershot.

Maxim was the classic American tinkerer, once describing himself as a “chronic inventor.” Although self-taught—one biographer describes him as “semiliterate”—over his lifetime, he invented an astonishing array of tools and toys. Maxim developed methods to separate metals from their ores, instruments to measure wind velocities, vacuum cleaners, novelty items that produced “illusionary effects”—a rotating sphere with concave paraboloidal floor, mirrors, and a bicycle track, presumably to create the illusion of riding a bike long distances—gear to prevent the rolling of ships, riveting machines, feed water check valves, steam generators, wheels for railroads and tramways, an inhaler to treat bronchitis, boot and shoe heel protectors, hair curling irons, a method for demagnetizing watches, a type of pneumatic tire, a coffee substitute, a method for extinguishing fires in theaters, and most surprising of all, new advertising methods—a rotating sign that works “even in very light airs.” And near the end of his life, he invented the world’s first successful machine gun.

Maxim’s contribution to the light bulb was to improve the manufacture of filaments. Filaments, whether of bamboo or cardboard, as in Maxim’s case, were converted to carbon by heating at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen until the cellulose in the material broke down, leaving a hard carbon skeleton, but uneven carbonization caused thinner sections to become much hotter when lit with an electrical current and burn out more quickly. Maxim’s insight was to place a carbonized filament into a hydrocarbon atmosphere, then pass through it an electrical current that heated the filament to a bright red. The thinner and hotter parts of the filament would break down the vaporous hydrocarbon surrounding them and deposit pure carbon on the filament, building up layers of carbon on the thinner parts and resulting in a filament of uniform thickness and greater life span. As Maxim gloated, “it is absolutely impossible by mechanical means to make a carbon filament that is of uniform resistance” without his patented method, adding that Edison “had to use my process or give up the job.”

Maxim’s attitude was prompted by the rivalry that burned between the many engineers competing in a world eager for the magic of electrical lighting, but it also shows us the problem with crediting any individual with the complete “invention” of any technology. We tend to tell the stories of inventors who, through their unique intellect and drive, produce an equally unique marvel at the climax of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. That is often how this book has told it, out of deference to individual humans’ need to relate to the stories of other individual humans. But the engineering method is uninterested in this “great men” historical framework. It cares only about the accumulated knowledge, heuristics, rules of thumb, intuition, and anything else that drives problems in the direction of solutions as fast as possible, the sum of which, even for a single solution, is beyond unthinkable for a lone person to create themselves. This web of information is so vast, incomprehensibly vast, so we make it comprehensible and moving by telling the stories of individual inventors, even if this distorts the unknowable true web of invention.

Maxim is likely unrecognized as an inventor today because he lacked Edison’s agile self-promotion and because, in a sense, Edison “won” and thus told the story of the light bulb’s invention. But did Edison “invent” a light bulb when his company produced a brilliantly glowing but short-lived electric light? Perhaps. When we think of an invented technology, we typically imply technology that not only exists but is reproducible in a way that can fulfill the needs of those whose problem it solves. That is, it can be manufactured or mass-produced. A handful of working light bulbs in the late 1800s is a marvel, but it doesn’t light the world. In this sense, the invention of the light bulb was a decades-long process of incremental changes to create a filament that can be manufactured reliably and extended beyond Edison and Maxim alone. To tell only a “great man” story hides the contributions of others who were essential to a technology’s development. We can see that in the evolution of the manufacturing techniques of Maxim’s light bulbs: he had on staff an artistic draftsman turned engineer whose contributions to reliable manufacturing have long been overlooked.