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Producing Electric Light: How Resource Scarcity Affected Light Bulbs, 1880–1914

Bild: Shane Rounce/Unsplash
Published Sep 10, 2020

New article published by former Division employee Dr. Hanna Vikström. In this article Vikström describes how the manufacture of light bulbs affected both mining and politics, in a time of globalization and proctectionism in the early 20th century. This issue continues to be at least as relevant today. In the beginning of the 20th centruy, companies competed to ensure access to the limited and valuable metals in their quest to take over the rapidly growing lighting market. Today companies are competing to ensure access to lithium for batteries instead.


A light bulb is manufactured from resources found across the world. Knowing what role these resources play in manufacturing processes helps us understand why some technologies were successful and others were not. The glow from light bulbs depends entirely on the metals in the filament. In the late nineteenth century, manufacturers struggled to find a metal that did not melt when emitting a soft, warm glow. Only a few metals had the sought-after properties, and these became valued resources. This article explores how the manufacturing of light bulbs affected and was affected by access to metals. Manufacturers competed fiercely to ensure they acquired the resources only found in a few places worldwide in their quest to take over the expanding lighting market. Making light bulbs in an era of protectionism affected extraction sites and politics globally.

Link to full article

Hanna is currently a postdoc at Umeå University’s History of Science and Ideas department in Sweden. She holds a Ph.D. in History of Science, Technology, and Environment, specializing in how state and business actors experienced and coped with metals scarcity in the twentieth century.

Belongs to: Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment
Last changed: Sep 10, 2020