Thomas Edison created the lightbulb

Who really invented the light bulb

Hans-Christian Rode: "The Göbel legend - the struggle for the invention of the light bulb", Verlag zu Klampen, Springe 2007, 248 pages

Thomas Alva Edison - the true inventor of the light bulb (AP Archive)

Although the American Edison is the guaranteed inventor of the incandescent lamp, a different story continues to this day. According to this, the German watchmaker Heinrich Göbel, who emigrated to New York, is said to be the inventor. This refutes the brilliant study of the history of technology by Hans-Christian Rohde, high school teacher in Göbel's birthplace.

When asked who invented the electric light bulb, everyone would probably answer "Edison". In fact, on October 21, 1879, Thomas Alva Edison made the first carbon filament lamp in his inventor's factory Menlo Park near New York, which was bright and burned for several days. Three months later he received the patent for it. To this day, however, a different story has persisted.

In truth, so it goes, it was the German Heinrich Göbel who was the first to construct a working light bulb - as early as 1854. The watchmaker who emigrated to New York just didn't patent his invention. In 2004 the Federal Ministry of Finance issued a stamp entitled "150 Years of Electric Light Bulb", which showed the empty cologne bottle with charred bamboo thread that Göbel is said to have made. And when the Germans were to decide on ZDF in the summer of 2005 which were the greatest inventions of "our best", the light bulb came in second - and it was attributed to Heinrich Göbel from Springe near Hanover.

Heinrich Göbel - our best, an unworldly tinkerer, forgotten by industrial history and by the Americans? Everything is bogus, invented from back to front - that is the finding of the brilliant study of the history of technology that Hans-Christian Rohde has now presented. He, a high school teacher in Göbel's birthplace, meticulously uncovered an unbelievable legend. It had its origins in a dispute over the copyright on the light bulb. When Edison and his "Electric Light Company" began to use the invention industrially in 1880, other companies also got into the light business. Above all, manufacturers who had previously produced so-called arc lamps, in which the light is generated by burning dust between two electrified charcoal pins, imitated Edison's thread construction. There was no spark from her, instead a wafer-thin spiral of coal glowed in a vacuum into which platinum wires were melted to act as current conductors.

According to the law of the time, a patent had a term of only seventeen years. In 1885 Edison decided to take legal action against his imitators. And now Heinrich Göbel came into play. Because after the patent breakers were twice defeated, they pulled the story of the misunderstood inventor of the incandescent lamp up their sleeve. Göbel, who was already 75 years old at the time, claimed - in writing, because at that time copyright lawsuits were carried out solely on the basis of written comments - that he had already manufactured electric bulbs before 1873. While still in Germany, he had been working on experiments on this under the guidance of a professor from Hanover. Later, in New York, he went around at night with the light bulbs used to illuminate a mobile telescope, and in his bedroom he illuminated the clock with such a lamp. Hundreds of witnesses supported this account.

Hans-Christian Rohde delved into all the files of the process, collected Heinrich Göbel's life documents and studied the technical history of electric light. His final finding: Göbel couldn't have invented the light bulb at all. The trained locksmith did not have any extraordinary physical know-how. He had as little mastery of the procedures for creating a vacuum as he had ever had the means to get to platinum wires. The model of Göbel's invention, the cologne bottle, depicted on the German postage stamp would never have worked.

Even with the truth, Göbel did not always keep up: he had never had a precision engineering or even optical training. The professor from Hanover cannot be proven that his name, according to Göbel, was "Professor Münchhausen" says almost everything. In the poor country town of Springe, there were no prerequisites for demanding electrotechnical experiments. But Göbel would hardly have been able to do this in New York either: before 1870, operating a bedroom lamp that kept burning or one for a horse-drawn cart with a telescope would have used batteries that would have weighed more than 300 kilograms: much too expensive, much too laborious for the traveling dealer Göbel.

The question remains how the Göbel legend came about. Edison's opponent lost all but one of the trials. And the one procedure that they won did not confirm Göbel's first invention, but only considered the evidence to be dubious. Göbel, who died while the trials were still ongoing, had nevertheless fulfilled his function: The legal dispute dragged on until 1893, and since the incandescent lamp patent in Canada expired in 1894, a shortened term of protection also applied in the United States.

The Göbel legend came about for two reasons. On the one hand, because the myth is not dying out that inventors are weird, isolated, unworldly and misunderstood geniuses. But in the age of industry there are no lonely inventors, science depends on cooperation and division of labor. Edison was only able to make the light bulb functional because he had a whole team of assistants.

On the other hand, the news of that one trial in St. Louis in which the lawyers who invented the Göbel story were successful was eagerly picked up in Germany. "Göbel, not Edison" was the headline. The article by an outspoken opponent of Edison became the main source, a German engineer got into the legend in 1923, fabricated further evidence and shaped the image of "our best" in times of national depression. German idealism versus American materialism - one always liked to hear that in this country. Göbel's hometown Springe naturally jumped into action: Göbel parades were organized, Göbel plays were performed, a Göbel memorial was built and a school was named after the hero.

There is now nothing left of the legend that led to all of this. One less myth - what better can be said about the performance of a book? Hans-Christian Rohde has written a veritable technology thriller, meticulous, instructive and entertaining. This is how history of science should be.

Reviewed by Jürgen Kaube

Hans-Christian Rode,
The Göbel legend. The struggle for the invention of the light bulb,

Verlag zu Klampen, Springe 2007, 248 pages, ct., 29.80 euros.