Century-Old Bulbs Shine Light on Future Tech

Posted by Macie Melendez on April 24, 2012
Century-Old Bulbs Shine Light on Future Tech
GE employees look at a photograph of the Advisory Board of the National Electric Lamp Association from 100 years ago.

On March 25, 1912, GE Lighting employees gathered at Nela Park campus in Cleveland, Ohio to bury a sealed time capsule that contained GE light bulbs representing available and emerging incandescent technologies of the era.

Exactly 100 years later—on March 25, 2012—current GE employees and retirees gathered to dig it up. Among the capsule’s treasures were photos of past employees, a daily newspaper, pamphlets, and, of course, several GE light bulbs. (Remarkably, one of the tungsten filament lamps actually lit up after it was cleaned and screwed into a socket.)

Taking a look back at where lighting was 100 years ago got me thinking: What have been the most significant changes to lighting so far? And how does energy efficiency play into lighting today?

I decided to ask Mary Beth Gotti, the director of the GE Lighting Institute. Below are her responses.

Home Energy: How has lighting changed in the way of energy efficiency in the last 100 years?

Mary Beth Gotti: In the last 100 years, one of the drivers for the growth has been increased energy efficiency—more light per watt. Standard incandescent technology was pretty mature by the early 1930s. The first practical fluorescent lamp, invented at GE NELA Park in 1938 was a real game-changer for lighting commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities. Right around 1960, we reached a real golden age of lighting invention with the birth of the halogen product family, metal halide, high pressure sodium (all GE patents)—and the first visible light emitting diode (LED) invented by Nick Holynak at the GE research facility in Schenectady, New York. Since that era, we’ve seen continued improvements in efficiency, life, color quality, and more compact sizes. 

HE: How has lighting changed in the last decade?

MBG: The last 10 years have seen more moderate increases in efficiency, with a greater role of electronics (ballasts, controls) to enhance overall system performance and “controllability” (e.g. sensors, dimming, load shedding, etc.), and to reduce size. LEDs, of course, have exhibited tremendous improvements in efficiency, evolving from single-digit lumen per watt performance to levels rivaling—or even exceeding—more traditional fluorescent and HID solutions.

HE: What do you think GE Lighting will look like 100 years from now as far as energy efficient bulbs?

MBG: 100 years is a long time, and it’s difficult to predict invention. Over a shorter horizon (10 to 20 years), by all accounts we should witness the emergence of “game changing” LED solutions for a full range of indoor and outdoor applications that not only save energy and simplify maintenance, but allow us to optimally tune color and light output for health, aesthetics, and visual performance. It’s hard to imagine that LEDs are the “end of the line” for lighting inventions. Whether it’s OLEDs or some source born out of plasma physics, it’s safe to predict potential new lighting sources will be “enablers” of  the continued evolution of sustainable design.

View photos of the time capsule components on GE Lighting’s Facebook page.

To read a full press release on the time capsule, click here. 

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