Types of Light Bulbs: A Brief History and Buying Guide

Types of Light Bulbs: A Brief History and Buying Guide

by | Educational

What’s considered to be the most valuable invention since human-made fire? The electric light bulb, of course! This significant development impacted the Industrial Revolution, allowing for longer working hours, safer evening travel conditions, and social order after dark.   

If you’re looking for information about light bulbs, this detailed guide is for you. From their storied history to the best types of light bulbs to use in different situations, we’ll answer all of your bulb-related questions and more. You may even learn some helpful tidbits you wish you knew before today. 

A Brief History Lesson on the Invention of Light Bulbs 

Did Thomas Edison Invent the Light Bulb?

Thomas Edison | Inventor of Light BulbSource

Although we’re taught in history that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, the truth is that this invention was a complicated process involving many inventors across the globe for around 150 years. The first artificial light sources date back to the 1700s.   

The original electric light was then created in 1802 by Sir Humphrey Davy of England. Although Davy’s light was not yet practical for commercial use, it started something life-changing. Here we’ll cover a few more of the notable names and events that led up to Edison’s fame.  

Frederick de Moleyns: 1841 

Fast-forward through a slew of adaptations and other inventors to 1841 when Frederick de Moleyns received the first patent given for an incandescent lamp with a glass bulb in England.  

Unfortunately, the lamp wasn’t quite right. The bulb’s poor design only included a partial vacuum causing it to heat up too quickly. The air inside resulted in blackened burn marks on the glass bulb and rapid burnout.  

Hermann Sprengel: 1865 

Twenty-four years later, in 1865, Hermann Sprengel, a German chemist, made a discovery. He removed the air from inside the electric bulbs, preserving the filament and eliminating the blackening problem. His mercury vacuum pump system was such a success that it carries his name to this day. It’s known as the Sprengel Pump 

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Mathew Evans and Henry Woodward: 1874 

Pressing forward to 1874, we introduce two men, Mathew Evans and Henry Woodward. These men filed a patent in the United States and Canada for incandescent light bulbs with carbon filaments. Their light bulbs worked well but just weren’t selling. Five years later, the Evans-Woodward duo gave up and sold their patent to Edison. 

Edison and the Muckers vs. Sir Joseph Wilson Swan: 1879 – 1911 

Edison Light BulbsSource

This brings us to 1879. Now, Edison was inspired to replace gas lights by creating an inexpensive, reliable, and safe incandescent light bulb in a six-week timeframe. He put together a team of 14 men called “the muckers” to help him out, and they got to work. However, Edison and his team had competition.   

From England, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was also working on creating an incandescent light bulb. He independently received a patent in the U.K. On New Year’s Eve of 1879, Edison presented his team’s latest light bulb invention. The calendar clicked to 1880, and Swan presented a working lamp. Both Edison’s invention and Swan’s invention were functional, but neither was ready for commercial use.   

Both men continued to improve their inventions. Edison received two U.S. patents for his now commercially viable light bulbs and established the Edison Electric Company. Swan’s light bulbs developed adequately as well, and the following year, in 1881, The Swan Electric Light Company was established.   

Edison sued Swan after they mutually accused each other of patent infringement. Edison lost the fight, leading to the 1883 merge of the Edison Electric Company and the Swan Electric Company. Together, they became the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company, Ltd  

A few years later, Edison bought Swan out of their company, known as Ediswan. Edison’s light bulb design took off, and eventually he adapted it to make it practical for daily use. It became widely used and wasn’t changed again until 1911 when William D. Coolidge changed the carbon filaments to tungsten, resulting in a longer-lasting and brighter bulb.   

So, was Edison the sole inventor of the light bulb like he is given credit for? Absolutely not. But he did play a tremendously crucial role in the practical and commercial development of the incandescent bulb.   

Subsequently, screw-based light bulbs are now referred to as Edison light bulbs and occasionally marked on the light bulb packaging with an “E” and a number to show the sizing. For example, E12 signifies a screw-based (Edison) light bulb with a 12-inch bulb base diameter. 

What Are the Different Types of Light Bulbs? 

While the light bulb invention may be considered one of the most valuable creations in our history, its design timeline didn’t end in 1911. There was still an incredible amount of room for improvement and adaptation. In fact, new innovative types of light bulbs continue to emerge to this day. Here’s a look at the most popular light bulb types and how we use them.  

1. Incandescent Bulbs 

Incandescent Bulbs photoSource

Traditional incandescent light bulbs are still widely used but they’re controversial due to their lack of efficiency. These bulbs waste around 90% of the energy they use as heat. That means they only convert 10% of that electric power into visible light. This wasted energy leads to unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, negatively impacting the environment.   

Newer, more popular light bulbs use about 25%-80% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. If every U.S. household replaced just one of their incandescent light bulbs with an ENERGY STAR label Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) bulb, we would save the amount of energy necessary to light over 3 million homes in as little as one year. That amount of energy is also equivalent to preventing 800,000 cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions.   

Another shortcoming of incandescent light bulbs: On average, they tend to only last around one year before having to be replaced, which is substantially less than other bulb types. They are dimmable, though, and come in a vast range of sizes, voltages, and wattages.  

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Where Are Incandescent Light Bulbs Commonly Used? 

Although they aren’t energy efficient, the upfront cost of incandescent bulbs is low, which draws consumers. However, in the big picture, they are much more costly for your pocketbook and the environment. If you have any incandescent light bulbs left in your home, it’s time to swap them out.   

Here’s what we most commonly use these bulbs for today:  

  • Decorative light fixtures and table lamps in living rooms 
  • Candelabras and chandeliers in dining rooms 
  • Traditional table lamps and nightlights in bedrooms 

How Do You Dispose of Incandescent Bulbs? 

Incandescent light bulbs are made from non-toxic materials, which means it’s acceptable to dispose of them with your garbage. Although many areas won’t accept them for recycling, some do. Always check for recycling options before tossing them in the trash. When throwing your old bulbs away, place them inside other materials in case the glass breaks. 

2. Halogen Bulbs  

Halogen Bulbs Types photoSource

Introduced in 1959, the halogen bulb, an adaptation of the incandescent bulb, was the first real step towards creating an energy-efficient bulb. The bulbs, filled with halogen gas instead of inert gas, have an increased lifespan by two to three times the standard incandescent light bulb length. 

What Are Halogen Light Bulbs Commonly Used For? 

Halogen bulbs can produce brighter white light while using less energy than their predecessors. They can be tiny, but they do get quite hot. Common uses for halogen bulbs are:  

  • Outdoor and indoor floodlights 
  • Car headlights 
  • Pendant lights 
  • ​Track lighting 
  • Projectors  

We also use halogen lights as the heating element in halogen ovens. Plus, we use them almost exclusively for ellipsoidal reflector spotlights and many other studio lighting fixtures in theatre and television production.  

How Do You Dispose of Halogen Bulbs? 

Since they use halogen gas to hold their filament, these bulbs are also non-toxic. Just like with incandescent light bulbs, if you’re unable to find a recycling program to take your old halogen bulbs, it’s safe to throw them away in the trash. Just remember to put them in something padded in case the glass breaks.  

3. Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs)

Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs)Source

 Fluorescent lamps became a thing in the 1930s for commercial and industrial lighting. Still, it wasn’t until 1976 that an engineer named Edward E. Hammer bent a fluorescent tube into a spiral shape. The very first compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) was born and became commercialized in the mid-1980s.  

 The first CFLs to hit the market were very pricey, subpar in quality, and too big for many light fixtures. Since improved, they are now one of the more energy-efficient and low-cost light bulb types available. Compact fluorescent lamps use 25%-35% of the energy that standard incandescent lamps use, produce a similar amount of light, and last as much as 15 times longer (6,000–15,000 hours). 

Where Are CFL Light Bulbs Best Used? 

For many, the spiral shape of these light bulbs isn’t exactly appealing. Plus, they take a bit of time to warm up. Because of this, most people won’t use CFL bulbs in a statement light fixture, such as a chandelier. While CFLs don’t typically work with dimmer switches, they are suitable for use in spaces where you frequently read or do projects, making them a commonly used light bulb in the following locations:  

  • Concealed household fixtures where the lights stay on for extended periods 
  • Spaces needing a large area of light, such as kitchens and bathrooms 
  • Offices and hallways that have recessed can lighting 
  • Reading and table lamps 
  • Outdoor floodlights 

Linear fluorescent bulbs are another type of light bulb in the fluorescent family. They are tubular and come in various color temperatures, diameters, lengths, and wattages. Fluorescent tube bulbs are common for task lighting, like what you find in garages and under-cabinet fixtures. 

How Do You Dispose of CFL and Other Fluorescent Bulbs? 

Unfortunately, CFLs and other fluorescent light bulbs contain small amounts of mercury vapor. This means we need to recycle all CFLs properly for safety reasons. Many local retail and hardware stores will recycle these bulbs for you. Or, you can contact your local service provider to ask about their policy. The third option for CFL and fluorescent bulb recycling is to look into a mail-back service.   

Find out your available options with a quick search on Earth911.com. Keep your family and the environment safe from any potential mercury leaks by keeping these bulbs out of the garbage. 

 The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a complete guide on proper cleanup measures for a broken CFL or fluorescent light bulb. A few of the most important tips include keeping children and pets away, opening windows, and not vacuuming to avoid spreading the mercury vapor into the air. 

It’s also relevant to note here that many have questioned whether CFL light bulbs cause cancer. Although it’s not entirely clear, the EPA reports that no current data ties human mercury exposure to cancer. Some rats and mice have formed tumors after exposure to extremely high doses of certain forms of mercury. However, the study concluded that inorganic mercury’s environmental exposures are an unlikely cause of cancer in humans based on EPA guidelines.  

4. Light-Emitting Diode (LED)   

Light-Emitting Diode (LED) TypesSource

Light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs first entered the market in 2008. By 2011, Philips Lighting North America perfected the design with a prize-winning 60-watt LED light bulb. At the time, the bulbs sold for $40 each and had a lifespan of over 27 years.  

Since their inception in 2008, LED light bulbs have dropped in price by more than 85%. They’re now an affordable choice that uses 80% less electricity than your old incandescent bulbs. LED bulbs add to that wow factor by lasting up to 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs do.  

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What Are LEDs Best Used For? 

When discussing light bulb uses, you can pretty much fulfill all of your lighting needs with LED bulbs. However, there are some areas where these bulbs are most beneficial. The places where you have dimmable fixtures or would like to control the brightness should be a top priority, especially dining rooms and bedrooms.   

Here are some additional areas that LEDs shine brightest:  

  • Garages and outdoor lighting, especially in cold weather 
  • Recessed lighting and downlight applications 
  • Under cabinet fixtures 
  • Night lights 
  • Flashlights 

How Do You Dispose of LED Bulbs? 

There are no dangerous chemicals in LED bulbs, which means you can follow the same guidelines as the incandescent bulbs and halogen bulbs layout. However, most LED bulbs are made from recyclable materials. This means you’ll likely be able to include them with your other recyclable materials. Just give your recycling provider a quick call first to confirm that they accept them. Another option, look online for LED light bulb recycling options. 

What Are the Best Overall Types of Light Bulbs? 

What Are the Best Energy-Saving Light Bulbs?

LED light bulbs currently top the energy efficiency charts and are the best types of light bulbs overall. While incandescent and halogen bulbs only have a projected lifespan of around 1,000-2,000 hours and CFLs are rated to last closer to 10,000 hours on average, the LED lifespan blows the competition away with an average estimated lifespan of 25,000 hours or more. This lifespan results in enormous savings for bulb replacement, but it also results in less waste.  

Here’s what else makes them so great:  

  • These bright lights are dimmable. 
  • ​LED lamps are incredibly durable, shatterproof, and shock-resistant. 
  • Unlike their strongest competitor, CFLs, LEDs don’t use mercury vapor or any other dangerous chemicals. 
  • LED bulbs rated for outdoor use perform incredibly well in cold and moist environments. 
  • These bulbs don’t create heat, which means they aren’t battling against your air conditioner. 

Is the Color Temperature of a Light Bulb Important?   

Color Temperature of a Light Bulb ImportanceSource

Most people are only concerned about the brightness of their light bulbs. Initially, brightness was measured in watts. But since energy-efficient bulbs can produce the same amount of light with less wattage required, the new metric used is lumens. Lumens are the amount of light radiated or the brightness of the light bulb. Brighter bulbs have a higher lumen.  

Lumens aren’t the only thing to consider when selecting your bulbs. You’ll also want to look at the light bulb’s Kelvin rating or color temperature. Kelvin ratings range from 2,700 to 6,500, and are further described with color temperature names.  

  • Soft white bulbs range from 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvins. The color temperature will be warm and yellow. These bulbs give off a cozy vibe which is best for bedrooms, dens, and living rooms. 
  • Warm white bulbs range from 3,000 to 4,000 Kelvins. The color temperature of warm white appears yellowish-white. You’ll be happiest with this color temperature in your bathroom and kitchen.  
  • Bright white bulbs range from 4,000 to 5,000 Kelvins. The color temperature falls between white and blue and gives off an energetic vibe that is best in kitchens, offices, and other workspaces. 
  • Daylight bulbs range from 5,000 to 6,500 Kelvins. The color temperature has a blue tone. The best places to use this color temperature are your vanity and where you read and work.  

Frequently Asked Questions About Light Bulbs

Frequently Asked Questions About Light Bulbs IllustrationSource

 What more could you possibly need to know about light bulbs? We’ve already covered so much! Well, there are a few more tidbits of information you’ll find helpful when it comes to light bulbs.  

What Are Smart Bulbs? 

Smart bulbs are Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs that you control remotely. The technology in these types of light bulbs allows you to save energy and money on your electric bills by having ultimate control over your lighting. Here are a few of the fun features smart bulbs have:  

  • Some smart bulbs have location-based controls that can automatically turn your lights on or off based on your smart device’s location. This feature is called geo-fencing. 
  • Since smart bulbs are remote operated, you’re able to use your smart device to turn your lights on or off regardless of your location. 
  • You can pair your smart bulbs with other smart devices such as security systems and thermostats to coordinate modes and minimize your energy use while away. 
  • They allow you to operate your lights while away for security. 
  • Some smart bulbs are dimmable or color-changing. 

What Is a Motion-Activated Light Bulb?  

As its name suggests, a motion-activated light bulb has sensors that can detect motion triggered by someone (or something) present in the area near the light. While you don’t need to purchase a motion-activated light bulb for your motion sensor lights to work, you can turn some regular lights into a motion-sensor light with smart bulbs that have motion detection capabilities. 

How Do You Get a Broken Light Bulb Out?  

All you need to remove a broken light bulb from its socket is needle nose pliers or raw potato, safety glasses, and work gloves. Then follow these easy steps and watch the video for visual guidance:  

  1. Turn off the electricity. 
  2. Put on safety glasses and work gloves. 
  3. Use needle-nose pliers or a raw potato to unscrew the broken bulb. 
  4. Safely discard the broken bulb according to the recycle or trash guidelines above. 
  5. Put in a new light bulb. 
  6. Turn electricity back on, and you’re good to go. 

Working with electricity can be dangerous. If you’re uncomfortable, consider contacting an electrician for assistance. 

How Do You Change Light Bulbs in High Places? 

If you have high ceilings and are concerned about using a tall ladder to change your light bulbs, several devices are available that can safely assist you with the task. Here are a few different styles you can check out to get an idea of what’s available:  

  • DocaPole Light Bulb Changer Pole 
  • BAYCO Bulb Changer 
  • EVERSPROUT Light Bulb Changer and Extension Pole Combo 

It’s Time To Buy Your Energy-Saving Light Bulbs

Energy-Saving Light Bulbs | Lady changing bulbs photoSource

 Now that you’re a light bulb expert, it’s time to start the replacement process. Luckily, that shouldn’t be too hard. You can find energy-saving light bulbs at almost any hardware or retail store, as well as through online platforms like Amazon. Swapping out your light bulbs is genuinely the easiest way to achieve energy savings. For more energy conservation ideas and other fun energy-related facts, don’t miss our informative guides on the Just Energy blog. 

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