Aha, the bulb over your head!

Most cartoons depict that sudden brainwave that one gets; that "aha" factor, by showing a lit bulb hovering over one's head. This article is a small whack on the side of the head about the bulb itself. Before Edison came up with the idea of the bulb, the sources of light were candles, etc. … I need not get into those. What is interesting is that all those sources critically depended on the presence of oxygen. A simple experiment where an inverted glass is put over a burning candle needs no detailed explanation: Gradually the candle flame would die, demonstrating that the flame needs oxygen for it to survive. Therefore before Edison came along, a light was almost synonymous with a flame. When Edison hit upon the idea of generating light by passing electricity through a conducting medium, he tried many filaments — including carbonized bamboo. Unfortunately, most of them burnt off. Till he got that brainwave, that aha factor which changed all of mankind forever. He put the filament inside a glass container and removed the air from it and in 1879 the bulb as we now know it was born. Philosophically, the act of removal of the air is significant and revolutionary. Till that date, it was the presence of air which played a key role in illumination, and from the invention of Edison's bulb onwards it would be absence of air which would play a key role.

There is more to the story: It turns out that Edison was not the first who thought about removing air from the bulb. The invention of the light bulb was much anticipated during those days and there were several people who had similar ideas. So probably it didnt look too abrupt to people then the way it looks to us now. Edison purchased the patent from someone else and improved on the design. It took him several years with a lot of people working secretively at Menlo Park. But there is a lesson there too: Just because an idea took a few years to be fully demonstrable, it does not mean that one needs to be tired of it and give up on it or think that it was only a gradual phasing out of the old and bringing in of the new. (Undoubtedly, there would be people caught up in the thick of things as it happens who would believe that to be true.) The light bulb is a remarkable invention, and the time period taken to get it up and running is very small compared to the history of civilization. I believe this to be an important lesson. If we study the history of design innovations, it has always been such whacks on the side of our head that has kept society bumping from one quantum level to the next quantum level of progress. Therefore, if we plot the progress of society we will not get a smooth curve, but instead there would be some kinks (discontinuities) which marks the different phases of mankind. Architecture being a more intricate design subject than a bulb, it may be difficult to demonstrate such succinct inflexions. But if we look carefully, they are there alright. They are definitely there in the theory, if not in the practice.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License