Mar 06

The Lightbulb Post

by Hannah Holt »


Almost every day, someone stumbles across my website because they are looking for “books about light bulbs” or “lightbulb coloring pages.”

I can only imagine what these people think. What? No books about lightbulbs! How misleading. (This is an idea place for children’s literature and crafts.)

And then I thought, Why not give them what they want? So here you have it:

Lightbulb Fact Sheet

Lightbulb Coloring Pages

Also, IĀ  occasionally receive emails from middle school students asking for help on their lightbulb homework. Here are a couple of the most frequently asked questions:

Q: Is it “lightbulb” or “light bulb”?

A: Both spellings are acceptable. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary favors lightbulb, so that’s the spelling I use. However, other dictionaries list it as “lightbulb or light bulb.” My spell checker prefers “light bulb,” but I thumb my nose at it every day. It makes me wonder. How much influence will spellcheckers have over conventional spelling in the future?

Q: Who invented the first lightbulb?

A: The answer your teacher probably wants is Thomas Edison. So write Thomas Edison and be done with it. However, it’s not really true. If you want the longer answer, read on…

Several people before Thomas Edison worked on electric lights– Humphry Davy, Joseph Swan, and Charles Brush to name a few. However, there’s a reason why Edison is a household name, while the others are remembered mainly by lightbulb enthusiasts. He is remembered because he surpassed his contemporaries in two important areas.

He made it endure:

Previous attempts at the electric lightbulb resulted in short-lived illuminations. Edison made electric light that could last more than a few seconds. Here’s how… What do you think fills the space inside a lightbulb? If you think it’s the air you breath, you’d be wrong. Lightbulbs are filled with inert gas. The oxygen in normal air causes filamentsĀ  (the part that glows) to burn out quickly. Inert gases make lightbulbs last much longer. Thomas Edison made this important discovery.

He made it convenient:

Edison’s original oxygen-free bulb glowed for more than 13 hours (much longer than the previous attempts!). However, he knew it needed to last even longer. He kept tweaking and testing different types of filaments until he found one that could last more than 1,500 hours. Thanks to his efforts we have safe, convenient, and relatively cheap lighting in our homes. What if he had stopped with that first bulb? Do you think electric light would have become as popular?

So Thomas Edison wasn’t first, but everyone agrees that he did it best. It just goes to show, how you finish is usually more important than when you finish.

Let me illuminate this point by telling you the story of another scientist, Dr. H. Tracy Hall.

Dr. H. Tracy Hall is the scientist commonly credited with inventing the first man-made diamond. Tracy might not have been first, but like Edison there’s no doubt he did it best. Here’s why.

He made it endure:

Tracy made it possible for other people to recreate his work. Several scientists before Tracy were able to produce one diamond, but that’s all. There’s been some argument about whether or not these other diamonds were legitimate, but after Tracy it didn’t matter. Tracy’s machine could withstand the high temperatures and pressures demanded for diamond synthesis over and over and over again. There was no doubt he was a diamond man, because he showed others how to do the same.

He made it convenient:

Tracy Hall first synthesized diamonds in 1954. At the time, he was working for General Electric, Edison’s company. Despite his success with synthetic diamonds, he had trouble securing funding for his other research projects. So he left G.E. Within five years, he had built and patented a completely different diamond press. Scientists had been chasing the diamond dream for over 150 years. Tracy solved the diamond mystery twice in less than a decade.

Now you might think that a man with diamonds at his disposal would have a house in the mountains and another by the sea. But not Tracy. He never moved from his modest house in Provo, Utah. Instead he used his wealth to establish chemistry scholarships.

I met one of Tracy’s scholarship recipients several years ago during a summer research stay at Purdue University. He told me Tracy’s scholarship made it possible for him to complete his undergraduate degree. At the time, this recipient was wrapping up a PhD in Chemistry.

Tracy’s giving back has helped scientists and citizens in more ways than they probably realize. From the roads we drive on, to the gas in our cars… the cutting power of synthetic diamonds makes modern life easier. He used his genius to make life better for others.

Tracy passed away in 2008. He was a my grandpa.

  1. Kirsten

    That’s funny! I now know way more about lightbulbs than I ever thought possible. Thanks for indulging my curiosity.

  2. Renee LaTulippe

    Well, gosh, Hannah, first you had me laughing with your witty and wonderful lightbulb expose’, and then you stuck it to me right in the heart with your beautiful tribute to your grandpa. What a funny, informative, and tender post – thank you for this. And what a grandpa to be proud of! :)

  3. Renee LaTulippe

    Also, based on your “give them what they want” theory, I should write a post all about cactus…cacti.

  4. Joanna

    Hannah, this is brilliant… I didn’t know lightbulbs could be so interesting!! Loved hearing about Dr. H. Tracey Hall – your wonderful grandpa!

  5. Tara Oliver

    awwww great post, Hannah!!

  6. Catherine Johnson

    What a wonderful post, humorous and a lovely tribute to your grandpa, what a clever guy!

  7. Susanna Leonard Hill

    Renee said it so well that I won’t try to compete. Ditto Renee!

  8. Hannah Holt

    Thanks everyone. I need to figure out nested comments, so I can do a better job at replying to individuals. I really appreciate each of you stopping by.

    Renee, I can see how your poetry site “No Water River” would attract the cactus seeking crowd, but I would have never thought about it that way. I might have a cowboy poem for you if you think it would help quench their desert thirst. I’m a firm believer in “give ’em what they want.” :)

  9. Renee LaTulippe

    Cowboy poem? Well, little lady, whatcha waitin’ fer? Send me an email ASAP! (Er, I guess Pony Express Mail?)

  10. Beth Stilborn

    This is great! Thank you for shedding more light on this subject. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    I love the coloring page with the two lightbulbs duking it out!

  11. Ramona

    Really great post. practical, interesting and loved the illustrations!

  12. Hannah Holt

    Ha, ha, ha, Beth!

    Ramona, thanks! I’ll take an illustrating compliment from you as high praise. :)

  13. Mom Holt

    What a great post! As I read it, my mind’s eye was playing a short documentary being watched by a room-full of 3rd graders. I think you would be a great producer of info-videos for kids. And you should narrate and animate it as well. Your imagination knows no bounds!

  14. Heather

    This is an excellent post! I love the story about your grandfather. What a cool man he was and what a beautiful legacy he left in this world.

  15. Hannah Holt

    Mom H, I don’t think I’ll be filming a documentary anytime soon. You know… with all my free time. But you are so sweet!

    Heather, yes he was a cool man, but I’m biased in that respect. Thanks for stopping by.