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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How many times did Edison fail in attempting to invent the lightbulb?
That's a trick question really. In fact, Edison did not invent the light bulb, though he did succeed in developing a viable version based on a carbon filament that he patented in 1879.  Finding it did take a lot of trial and error, around 3000 experiments, according to a Live Science account. But he wasn't done even after that patent. Within a year, he came out with a bulb based on a bamboo filament.

There is a very precise number connected to the experiments involved that would make people with OCD cringe, 2,774. It's cited in a Rutgers newsletter on the Thomas Edison papers  here:
No one, including Edison, ever counted the number of experimental lamps that they made. There were hundreds of experiments before he developed the bamboo lamp. And many additional experiments before the lamps were adequate for commercial production. In a letter to Edison in spring 1884, Francis Upton noted that the lamp factory had conducted 2,774 experiments (presumably since it had started operations in October 1881).
The link in that paragraph take you to a digital image of a handwritten note on the bamboo lamp.

Inside Edison's Lab. Photo by Ariella Brown
But what of the famous quote about Edison claiming not to have failed 10,000 times but to have found 10,000 ways that did not work? There does not appear to be a written account saying exactly that, though it does apply to his experience with the battery more than the bulb. The Rutgers newsletter dug up a quote that comes pretty closed in Edison: His Life and Inventions an authorized biography by Frank Dyer and T. C. Martin which was first published in 1910.  In it Edison's friend and associate, Walter S. Mallory, offers this account:

"This [the research] had been going on more than five months, seven days a week, when I was called down to the laboratory to see him [Edison]. I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: 'Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?' Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: 'Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won't work!'"
Photo by Ariella Brown

There you have it, not exactly in the words you find on quotes sites, but the same idea. If you're interested in learning more about Edison and his experiments, including the invention he did consider a failure (talking dolls), do take the time to visit Edison's lab in Menlo Park, NJ. It's held by the National Park Service. Find information on exhibits, hours, fees, etc, here. If you time it right, you can go over to see Edison's home, Glenmont, pictured here on the same day. Special events are planned for Edison Day on June 6.