Biden: 'A Black Man Invented the Lightbulb, Not a White Guy Named Edison'

Susan Jones | September 4, 2020 | 5:16am EDT
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A masked Joe Biden speaks to a sparsely populated room in Kenosha, Wis. on Sept. 3, 2020. (Photo: Screen capture)
A masked Joe Biden speaks to a sparsely populated room in Kenosha, Wis. on Sept. 3, 2020. (Photo: Screen capture)

( - Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden, speaking in a hushed voice to a sparsely populated, socially-distanced audience in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Thursday, claimed that Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb.

"A black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison," Biden said.

He did not name the black man, but he apparently was referring to Lewis Latimer, a descendant of slaves, who patented a carbon filament for Edison's incandescent lightbulb, several years after Edison patented his incandescent lightbulb.

Biden was trying to make a point about history lessons taught to children.

“We are finally now getting to the point, we’re going to be address (sic) the original sin of this country. Four hundred years old, it’s the original sin, slavery, and all of the vestiges of it,” Biden said.

People fear that which is different. We gotta, for example, why in God's name don't we teach history in history classes?  A black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison, okay?

There's so much -- did anybody know before what's – what’s recently happened? That Black Wall Street in Oklahoma was burned to the ground? Anybody know these things, because we don't teach them. We gotta to give people facts, teach them what's out there.

The idea -- I just spent time with a number of the NFL players and basketball -- excuse me, basketball players, including Steph Curry. You know, these folks are making a difference now. It's not about fame or glory. Because They have brothers, themselves, and fathers who have been beat up, who have been brutalized just because they're African Americans.

They're about the time, I'm saying, enough is enough. I think there is a chance for a real awakening here. And the point is, I don't think we have any alternative but to fight. I don't think we have any alternative but to fight back. I don't think we have any alternative than to just go tell the truth. Just tell the truth...

For the record, according to the U.S. Energy Department:

Like all great inventions, the light bulb can’t be credited to one inventor. It was a series of small improvements on the ideas of previous inventors that have led to the light bulbs we use in our homes today.

Long before Thomas Edison patented -- first in 1879 and then a year later in 1880 -- and began commercializing his incandescent light bulb, British inventors were demonstrating that electric light was possible with the arc lamp. In 1835, the first constant electric light was demonstrated, and for the next 40 years, scientists around the world worked on the incandescent lamp, tinkering with the filament (the part of the bulb that produces light when heated by an electrical current) and the bulb’s atmosphere (whether air is vacuumed out of the bulb or it is filled with an inert gas to prevent the filament from oxidizing and burning out). These early bulbs had extremely short lifespans, were too expensive to produce or used too much energy.

When Edison and his researchers at Menlo Park came onto the lighting scene, they focused on improving the filament -- first testing carbon, then platinum, before finally returning to a carbon filament. By October 1879, Edison’s team had produced a light bulb with a carbonized filament of uncoated cotton thread that could last for 14.5 hours. They continued to experiment with the filament until settling on one made from bamboo that gave Edison’s lamps a lifetime of up to 1,200 hours -- this filament became the standard for the Edison bulb for the next 10 years.

Edison also made other improvements to the light bulb, including creating a better vacuum pump to fully remove the air from the bulb and developing the Edison screw (what is now the standard socket fittings for light bulbs).

(Historical footnote: One can’t talk about the history of the light bulb without mentioning William Sawyer and Albon Man, who received a U.S. patent for the incandescent lamp, and Joseph Swan, who patented his light bulb in England. There was debate on whether Edison’s light bulb patents infringed on these other inventors’ patents. Eventually Edison’s U.S. lighting company merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company -- the company making incandescent bulbs under the Sawyer-Man patent -- to form General Electric, and Edison’s English lighting company merged with Joseph Swan’s company to form Ediswan in England.)

What makes Edison’s contribution to electric lighting so extraordinary is that he didn’t stop with improving the bulb -- he developed a whole suite of inventions that made the use of light bulbs practical.

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