The Evolution of Lighting Technology: From Incandescent Lamp

the evolution of lighting technology

Electric light is the conversion of electrical energy into light energy artificial lighting source, its invention completely changed the human “sunrise and farming, sunset and rest” life. It has played a pivotal role in advancing human civilization. To fully understand the evolution of lighting technology, it is essential to examine the three key milestones in lighting technology and its subsequent development across four distinct eras.


(1) The First Milestone and the First Generation of Light Sources:

In 1879, Thomas Edison introduced the world to the practical incandescent carbon filament lamp, marking a monumental shift in human history from reliance on darkness to the widespread availability of artificial light. Over the next 30 years, continuous refinement led to the development of tungsten filament incandescent lamps. However, even today, conventional incandescent lamps, despite their various iterations and power options, convert only 1.5% to 3% of electrical power into light.


(2) The Second Milestone and the Second and Third Generations of Light Sources:

The second milestone came with the invention of gas discharge fluorescent lamps by the General Electric Company in the United States in 1938. This breakthrough surpassed the limitations of tungsten filament incandescent lamps, ushering in an era of gas discharge lighting. The introduction of fluorescent lamps has significantly increased luminous efficiency, providing energy savings of up to 5-8 times higher than incandescent lamps. However, even with advances such as rare earth fluorescent lamps, conversion efficiency remains limited, ranging from 10% to 15% of electrical power.

The third generation of light sources emerged with the invention of high intensity discharge lamps. These lamps, characterized by high power density and luminous flux, proved suitable for both indoor and outdoor lighting applications, addressing some of the shortcomings of fluorescent lamps.


(3) The Third Milestone and Fourth Generation of Light Sources:

In 1993, Shuji Nakamura’s invention of practical blue LEDs marked the beginning of a new era in high-efficiency solid-state electronic lighting. Blue LEDs have provided significant advances in luminous efficacy, with lab-grade chips achieving remarkable levels of efficiency, converting about 45% of electrical power into light. This exceeded the performance of conventional fluorescent lamps and rare earth fluorescent lamps by 4.5 times and 3 times respectively. The invention of blue LEDs also paved the way for intelligent lighting systems, opening new avenues for energy savings and enhanced functionality.


Throughout history, many pioneers and innovators have contributed to the development of lighting technology:

In the year 1821, the celebrated luminary duo of David and Faraday pioneered the creation of the arc lamp; eight years later in 1878, Joseph Swan introduced his groundbreaking carbide incandescent lamp; the first milestone was achieved in 1909 when “the patron saint of tungsten filament lamps”, Coolidge, unveiled the tungsten incandescent bulb, followed by Irving Langmuir, who subsequently revolutionized the field with the invention of the inflatable incandescent lamp.

In 1910, the ingenious Kraut discovered neon; in 1920, the esteemed American physicist Arthur H Compton innovated low-pressure sodium lamps; the second significant advancement occurred in 1957, when “the patriarch of compact fluorescent lamps”, Ed Hammers, engineered fluorescent lamps to be more compact; in 1961, the renowned American company General Electric launched Gilbert Lehring’s metal halide lamps; in 1964, the dedicated staff of the United States General Electric Company designed the inaugural high-pressure sodium lamp; in 1970, the advent of electronic ballasted energy-saving lamps paved the way for the eventual replacement of incandescent lamps.

The birth of LED took place in 1960: British scientist Henry Joseph Rand’s meticulous research led to the development of semiconductor lights; in 1960, “the father of LED”, Nick HeLunYak, identified that the phosphorus gallium arsenide semiconductor emitted red light; in 1962, “the father of the light-emitting diode”, Nick Hollenacker, invented the light-emitting diode; in 1985, “the trailblazer of blue LED”, Japan’s Isamu Akasaki, created the gallium nitride PN junction, enabling the realization of blue LEDs for the first time; the third milestone was marked in 1979 when Chinese scientist Teng Qingyun, conducting research at Kodak, invented the OLED; in 2010, Nakamura Shuji from the University of California, Santa Barbara, successfully developed a blue laser diode based on semipolar gallium nitride, ushering humanity into the realm of solid-state laser lighting; in 2014, U.S. CREE elevated the luminous efficacy of GaN white LED on a silicon carbide substrate to an impressive 303lm/W, achieving an electro-optical conversion efficiency of 44.4%.

From the early inventions of arc lamps and carbonized incandescent lamps to the development of compact fluorescent lamps and metal halide lamps, each has played a vital role in shaping the landscape of modern lighting.

In addition to major milestones, ongoing research and development efforts by lighting professionals worldwide have led to the creation of a diverse array of high-value light sources and lighting products. Together, these contributions have pushed the field of lighting forward, enriching human experiences and advancing sustainable lighting solutions.

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