How Did the Light Bulb Change the World?

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The light bulb changed the world by facilitating the creation of large power grids and changing the social and economic structure of society. It also brought electricity and electric appliances into the home.

First invented by Thomas Edison in 1879, the light bulb ushered in a new era of society. These changes began on U.S. soil and later expanded to include a significant portion of the world. Although many inventors had experimented with incandescent light bulbs prior to 1879, it was Edison's version that became the first widely distributed model.

The light bulb initially had the greatest impact on infrastructure because it spurred the desire for a widespread electrical-distribution system. The world's first large-scale power station was built at Niagara Falls in 1895. Initially, electrical power was distributed locally, but later, the electrical grid was extended to also supply power to Buffalo, New York, where it was used to power streetlights and streetcars.

Long-distance transmission of electricity to Buffalo was both successful and efficient. Government and private entities had enough evidence to support additional expansion to a national system of large, interconnected power stations, starting with the original and iconic Pearl Station. The need for power poles, wiring and sales became a new, booming industry within the Industrial Revolution, creating jobs all across the United States.

After the construction of Pearl Station, just over 80 customers opted to utilize the system with in-house light bulbs. Most of these buyers were factories and businesses, rather than homes, as the technology remained prohibitively expensive for the first few years after invention. Installing light bulbs allowed businesses to work longer and later into the night, making it easier to hire shift workers rather than shutting down at sunset, as was traditional at the time. Industry sectors like manufacturing, shipping and processing became much more efficient, increasing profits and contributing to improved local employment by demanding more workers to cover later shifts.

Electrical innovation and inventions from people other than Edison and his partner, General Electric, eventually lowered the price of electricity, making it more accessible and reasonable for the average American home. As people began to purchase, install and utilize light bulbs, there was an immediate impact on both sociological behavior and quality of life. People no longer relied on candles, lanterns and other limited forms of light to remain awake later into the evening, improving safety and lowering fire risks. The ability to work or remain awake late into the evening also changed the structure of society, allowing activities to extend into the night. Electric lighting also let cities stay active into the night, which changed the natural rhythm of society.

After the light bulb, innovators began to research and create in-home appliances that utilized electricity rather than fossil fuels or non-renewable resources. Homes with electric lights already had electric wiring, making it easy to install these new appliances with just a simple rewiring job. The role of the electrician became much more than a military or research role; instead, electricians frequently serviced homemakers who wished to install toasters, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuums and air conditioning systems.

The invention of the light bulb continued to spur change for decades. In many ways, it is the predecessor to nearly all of the electric conveniences people use today, including electric heat, electric hot water heaters, ovens and even computers. That's why many experts consider Edison's light bulb to be one of the most important inventions in American history.