Thursday, August 23, 2007

How badly Jaffe and Lerner misunderstood the light bulb story

Relevant to Innovation and Its Discontents by Jaffe and Lerner, questions have been raised about the understanding by the authors of Edison's work with the light bulb. For example:

Even when some history is presented, the discussion is flawed. Jaffe and Lerner refer to Edison and the light bulb in the following way: Edison was granted the basic patent on incandescent lighting in 1880. Now, surely Edison's invention was about as novel as they get. [p. 49] The actual story of Edison and the light bulb shows that the invention was NOT as novel as they get, with an interference lost by Edison, deliberation at the Supreme Court (unmentioned by Jaffe and Lerner) and rights to earlier patents on light bulbs later bought by Edison.

Much of what Jaffe and Lerner wrote about Edison, and about the Wright Brothers, derives from a paper written by Merges and Nelson [MN], which paper suggested that certain patents might block innovation. Within the MN paper, one can find the text:

No single patent better illustrates this than Edison's U.S. Patent 223,898, issued in 1880. This was "the basic patent in the early American incandescent-lamp industry," covering the use of a carbon filament as the source of light; n191 it proved to have a profound effect on the industry until it expired.

Although the Edison General Electric Company had some difficulty establishing the validity of its basic patent, once it did the industry changed drastically. In 1891, U.S. Patent No. 223,898 was held valid and infringed by a competing design. n192 General Electric officials then quickly obtained a series of injunctions that shut down a number of competitors. n193 [IPBiz notes this is the 11th year of what would be a 14 year patent.] As the aptly-named industry historian Arthur Bright stated, "For twelve years [after the issuance of the 223,898 patent] competition had been possible; it suddenly became impossible." n194 The company's market share grew from 40 to 75 percent; entry into the industry slowed from 26 new firms in 1892 to 8 in 1894, the last year of [*886] the patent's life; n195 and the steady downward trend of lamp prices slowed until the patent expired. n196

Reading this passage, one might get the impression that General Electric controlled the industry by 1891, and that by 1892 (twelve years after the '898 patent issued in 1880), General Electric's competitors were dead.

If you inferred that from the Merges/Nelson paper, you would be dead wrong.

Contemplate the Columbian Exposition which opened in Chicago in May 1893, as discussed in text from

The Electricity Pavilion, adorned with a dozen elegant minarets, four of which rose 169 feet above the hall, was over two football fields in length and nearly half that measure in width. Covering three and one-half acres, this "spacious and stately" structure "befit[ted] the seat of the most novel and brilliant exhibit of the Columbian Exposition."

Foremost among the exhibitors were the megalithic corporations, such as Westinghouse and GE, from America, and the more modest sized AEG, from Germany. Whereas AEG reproduced some of the AC equipment Brown and Dobrowolsky used in their "epoch-making" 108-mile Lauffen-to-Frankfurt transmission, GE presented its own AC system. Westinghouse, having won the bid to light the fair with the only bona fide patents, was in an odd situation. Legally, it should have been able to block the competitors from advertising pirated apparatus, but pragmatically, considering time limitations and other factors, such a tactical action was out of the question. In fact, in some ways, they owed AEG gratitude for pointing the way. Their course was to make it clear that there was only one inventor. And so they erected a forty-five-foot high monument in the center aisle of Electricity Hall which proclaimed the truth to the world. The testimonial read in big bold letters: Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. Tesla Polyphase System. And with this method, from an annex of Macinery Hall, Westinghouse illuminated the entire World's Fair. Having manufactured a quarter of a million Sawyer-Mann stopper lamps for the occasion, Westinghouse generated three times more electrical energy than was then being utilized in the entire city of Chicago.

Edison was at the Columbian Exposition, even though his light bulbs were not there. Verlang notes: Tom Edison presented ... the multiplex telegraph, the fantastic talking machine known as the phonograph, and his kinetescope, which for the first time in a public forum displayed "the varying labile movements" of a human being in motion.

Looking at Edison's light bulb without looking at prior work in light bulbs and without looking at the "AC vs. DC debate" has produced a very misleading picture of the supposed role of patents in blocking innovation. Jaffe and Lerner got the story wrong, seriously wrong.

Refer to:


Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

A post at the americanhistory website entitled Competition to Edison's Lamp gives further information which contradicts the Jaffe/Lerner, Merges/Nelson viewpoint on the lightbulb.

In terms of use, one has a data point for the year 1891: By 1891 there were over 1,300 incandescent lighting central stations in the United States with a capacity of approximately three million lamps.

In terms of Edison's novelty as to the light bulb the website notes: Edison was neither the first nor the only person trying to invent an incandescent electric lamp.

In terms of the players, the website states: The company Elihu Thomson and Edwin Houston established in 1880 to sell arc lamp systems became quite successful and diversified into other electrical markets. In 1886 they purchased the Sawyer & Man Electric Co. and began making incandescent lamps under the Sawyer-Man patents. By 1890, Edison, Thomson-Houston, and Westinghouse were the "Big 3" of the American lighting industry. In 1892, J. Pierpont Morgan engineered a merger between the Edison interests and Thomson-Houston. The resulting company was named General Electric.

An important thing to note is that ALTHOUGH GE ended up with the Sawyer-Mann patents, Westinghouse had rights to them: At the time he bought U.S. Electric Lighting Co. and began making lamps, the company was being sued by Edison for patent infringement. In 1892 the courts decided in Edison's favor and forced Westinghouse to stop production. However, Westinghouse had obtained rights to the Sawyer-Man patents and quickly retooled to make non-infringing lamps based on those patents. He produced these "Stopper lamps" until Edison's patents expired in 1897.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

To illustrate that there was much confusion as to "who invented what" in the saga of the electric light bulb, note the existence of the book
"Evolution of the Electric Incandescent Lamp"
by Franklin Leonard Pope. (1889, 1894)

5:54 AM  
Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

See also

Early development of the incandescent lamp
Furfari, F.A.
Industry Applications Magazine, IEEE
Volume 12, Issue 2, March-April 2006 Page(s): 7 - 9
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MIA.2006.1598019
Summary: This paper discusses, many inventions referred to lamp development patent by Sawyer and Man conjointly and some by Sawyer separately. In July 1878, Sawyer, Man, and five other individuals formed the Electro-Dynamic Light Company. Westinghouse brought under its control practically all of the important incandescent electric lamp patents except those of the Edison company. Edison had secured a patent about lamp bulb. Upon the expiration of the Edison patent, the Westinghouse company resumed manufacture of the all-glass globe type of lamp. When the lamp business outgrew the capacity of the West 23rd Street factory, it was transferred to a new factory in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

5:57 AM  
Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

On the Goebel defense, see
the article at frognet, which also discusses ghe book by Franklin Leonard Pope.

The article notes: However, legal action had started in May 1885 against the United States Electric Lighting Co. 3 . That case persisted for many years, ending finally in the Court of Appeals on Oct 4, 1892 - in favor of Edison 4 . It was after the formation of the General Electric Company in 1892, when the Thomson-Houston Electric Company joined forces with the Edison General Electric Company, that courtroom activity increased significantly. For example, legal proceedings had been initiated against the Mather, Perkins, Sunbeam, Germania, Boston Incandescent Lamp and Sawyer-Man companies.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

On George Westinghouse, and the use of stopper lights at the Columbian World's Fair, see the article by William Dietrich.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Lawrence B. Ebert said...

On various patent issues, see also page 94 of the book by Henry G. Prout on Westinghouse.

6:47 AM  

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