When we think of living today, it is likely inarguable that electricity is a fundamental of modernity. Pondering about what we would miss most if we were thrust into the past, we might quickly think that we would most miss our smartphones, laptops, or tablets. I argue that what we would miss the most is electric lights. During an occasional power failure this is brought home again and again.
This belief struck me as I watched the movie The Current War: Director’s Cut. This movie is about the technical and business battle between Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison as to whether AC current (Tesla) or DC current (Edison) would prevail. I thought it was a great movie, and it did relatively well on Rotten Tomatoes. The main focus of the movie was related to the struggles of both Tesla and Edison to get their version of electric power to be the winner for the nascent power grids being developed more than a century ago; however, the incandescent light played a prominent role in the movie as lighting was the driver for the need for an electric power grid.
In researching for this post, I was unaware of how many people worked on and developed incandescent lights. Scores of people, decades before Edison, developed prototypes of electric lights, but none lasted more than a few hours. In the movie, Edison commented that if an electric light bulb could last at least 13 hours it could be a commercial success. I found this statement stunning, only 13 hours! Anyway, he and his team quickly developed bulbs that lasted much longer.
We are currently experiencing a new striking breakthrough in electric lighting: the gallium nitride LED. Incandescent lights could more appropriately be called heat bulbs as 95% of the power they consume produces heat, only about 5% produces light. LED bulbs are about 10 times more efficient, only requiring 6 watts of power to produce the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent light. Considering that 10% of the electricity consumed in the US is used for lighting, the efficiency improvement in LED bulbs is indeed significant.
Who knows, maybe in future generations there will be a movie about gallium nitride LEDs replacing incandescent lights!