Who Invented Christmas Lights?

Who Invented Christmas Lights?


Whether it’s snowy and white or a balmy
85 degrees in the shade where you live, in December chances are pretty high that you’ll
see twinkling electric lights lining the streets and circling dozens of Christmas trees. And even if we’re not celebrating the holiday
ourselves, many of us enjoy basking in their comforting glow. But did you know that Thomas Edison is behind
the invention of electrical Christmas lights and that he used his holiday breakthrough
to promote the implementation of electricity across the country? And while Edison was busy spreading light
and holiday cheer, he was also drumming up press for his new inventions (and business
interests) by staging elaborate electrical stunts all around the globe. And although this story can easily be dismissed
as a Christmas novelty. Edison and his collaborators were actually
taking part in the early history of science explainers that stretches back a lot longer
than your favorite YouTube science explainer channels. So this week I’ll be covering a small story
about Edison’s Christmas inventions and a big history that encompasses how science
explainers, demonstrators, and journalists have served as a bridge between research communities
and the general public for around 150 years. Well to kick this story off we have to start
with how we got from Edison’s electric light to explainer videos. The tradition of spreading cheer, joy, and
light during December has antecedents in Pagan tradition. Historians debate the specifics of how
Pagan usage of lights, logs and evergreens directly influenced Christian celebrations. But as Christianity spread regions began developing their own Christmas celebrations involving trees and light. Germans were the first to light up Christmas
trees with candles in the 17th century. And in the early 19th century German immigrants
to the US brought the Christmas tree stateside, along with some candles to light up their
evergreen boughs. Flash forward to December 31st 1879, in Menlo
Park NJ at the laboratory of inventor Thomas Edison. While Edison is often credited with inventing
the lightbulb (and inadvertently inspiring all of those cartoons where light bulbs go
off over people’s heads) this isn’t the full story. Edison’s contributions lay in improving
previous experiments and designs to create the ecosystem that allowed his lightbulbs
to be implemented successfully. But along with his role as an inventor, Edison
was interested in monetizing and spreading his inventions. This led him to conduct a series of public
demonstrations of his latest finds to spread the word about something the vast majority
of people had never heard of and to demonstrate how these new fangled inventions could better
people’s lives. And what better way to spread the word than
with a big fancy show? A December 21st 1880 article in the New York
Times describes Edison’s demonstration in particularly glowly terms: “Darkness had settled down upon the bleak
and uninviting place which Mr. Edison has chosen for his home, but the plank walk from
the station to the laboratory was brilliantly lighted by a double row of electric lamps,
which cast a soft and mellow light on all sides. The incandescent horseshoes gave out a yellow
light, which shone steadily and without the least painful glare, and were beautiful to
look upon.” This evening (which started off sounding more
like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab and ended up as a Winter Wonderland) was also at almost exactly
the same time as when the Big Apple began to get electrified, with electric lights being
a safer alternative to candles, fires, and gas lamps. In December of 1884 Edison enlisted the help
of a man named Edward H. Johnson, the vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company
in New York City, to help him spread some light during the holiday season one more time. A reporter came to Johnson’s New York City
home (which was located in the first part of the Big Apple to get electricity) to show
off a new wonder: electric Christmas tree lights. And so a new Christmas tradition was born…or
really evolved out of an already existing one. But science explanation and demonstrations
were well on their way to growing in popularity. But as interesting as the tagline “Edison
invented Christmas lights” sounds, it doesn’t really get to the heart of a larger story
about the late 19th century, technological innovation, and how Edison helped create explainer
videos. Because Edison wasn’t just busy lighting
up walkways in December. He was hard at work during the end of the
19th and early 20th century becoming an international celebrity, by cornering the market on not
only new inventions but also the title of “inventor.” He amassed a large media presence through
his prolific inventions (some of which he started from scratch, and some like the light
bulb that he picked up from previous inventors and improved upon before introducing them
to the general public). But Edison’s tree light demonstrations weren’t
a stand alone anomaly, and neither were they only about wow factor and entertainment. According to Professor Bernard Lightman of
York University, this was part of a general trend in bringing new science to the general
public in the late 19th century. In 1834 William Whewell even coined the word
“scientist” to assign a catchall expression for this group of researchers, explorers,
inventors, and writers or “the students of the knowledge of the material world” Lightman also notes how British science explainers
(or journalists, writers, artists, and performers) of the Victorian era were often tasked with
translating these new inventions to the public. Science demonstrators and science educators
worked in different mediums, sometimes relying on detailed illustrations, other times focusing
on newspaper articles, or live performances Demonstrators often stressed the wondrous
and exciting world of science innovations by acting as translators between original
researchers and the general public, often because new inventions were also sometimes met with
excitement mixed with fear (like people who worried that electricity could be dangerous
in their homes than candles). I’d argue that Edison’s light demonstrations in the late 19th century
fall within this world of science fascination and demonstration. Because although his Christmas lightings were
primarily geared towards selling people on his newly patented bulbs and electricity,
they also focused on the themes of scientific wonder that other science demonstrators of
his era used to sell new ideas. And his December 31st 1879 display, was the first one
that kickstarted his electrical Christmas fad, and was the first in a series of similar
stunts that he staged around the world. He took his inventions to public exhibitions
like the International Paris Exhibition of 1881, London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition
of 1882, and the Exhibition of the Ohio Valley and the Central States in 1888. And no, I didn’t forget about Topsy, the
elephant who was famously put to death by electrocution on Coney Island in 1904 before rising to the stuff of urban legend. And that’s because some historians are now claiming
that it wasn’t Edison who sentenced her to death in order to show off different uses
of electricity, but rather it was her handlers who had Topsy electrocuted after she was abused and killed several people. But Lightman also notes that the science demonstrators
of the 20th and 21st century owe a huge debt to their 19th century predecessors. Because while 19th century demonstrators largely
relied on the media available to them to spread the good news about awesome science (namely
live performance, print magazines, and newspapers) science educators today use the tools largely
available to them and their audiences, meaning YOU. He points to well known demonstrators like
Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Mr. Wizard as
examples of modern science educators who tapped into the power of television, film and radio
to educate and excite the public about science. But unlike Edison, science educators weren’t
in it only to sell products, but also just to promote new inventions and science in general. That means the next time you click on the
videos by some of my awesome colleagues at PBS Digital Studios like Eons, It’s Okay To Be Smart, Brain Craft, Physics Girl, Brain Scoop, Crash Course, Hot Mess, Deep Look and Nourish (which is
about food, but is straight up hosted by a rocket scientist) then you’re watching the
latest iteration of something that started way back in the 19th century. They’re using their skills and expertise
to show you new concepts and inventions in science in a way that’s digestible, entertaining,
and bridges the gaps between behind the scenes research and how that research can improve
our lives. In some cases these inspiring figures straddle
the world between independent research and public education by splitting time between
their own lab work and their public platforms. In others they have backgrounds in science,
journalism, art, filmmaking, and communications and they use that specialized knowledge to
bring all of the wonder the science world into the general domain. So Edison and his contemporaries hit the world stage and pushed the word through newspapers, demonstrations, and science fairs. Bill Nye crashed in through our TV screens. And your favorite science EduTubers picked
up the baton today on your cellphones and laptops. So have you thanked a science educator today? So an attempt to spread the word about new
tech and science helped inspire some of our favorite holiday decorations and our favorite
science explainer videos. And it also gives us insight into why watching
someone teach us about physics or how to properly prepare homemade slime on Youtube is so addictive
and exciting. Because humans are naturally curious, and
science taps into that sense of magic that brings out the curious geek in
all of us. So what do you think? Want to give some props and shout outs to
your favorite science educators online? Drop those comments and questions below and
if you have a cool science channel in mind then share it so we can all nerd out together
for the holidays. Be sure to check out the works cited page
for my insights and info, subscribe to Origin of Everything on Youtube and follow us on
Facebook and I’ll see you here next time!

60 thoughts on “Who Invented Christmas Lights?

  1. The picture of Edison with the huge globe with electrical twisted wire in it around the 6:00 mark, is that a plasma ball of Edison's version or just a gigantic light bulb?

    Great episode, Thank you. You packed so much information into this one!

  2. I wonder what it must have been like to experiences electricity for the first time. It must have be how we would react to anti gravity once it gets invented.

  3. A lot of homes were burned down by those festive christmas-tree candles – Edison’s application saved lives (at the holidays). Thank you, ‘science explainer’.

  4. In computer science, there is a famous video called The Mother Of All Demo, by Douglas Engelbart (known for his invention of the mouse computer) in 1968, featuring " video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, and a collaborative real-time editor.". Way ahead of this time ! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJDv-zdhzMY Wasn't meant to the pubic though, it was more for universities research. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Mother_of_All_Demos

  5. Interesting connection between Edison and all my favorite YouTubers. Thanks for showcasing some wonderful people like Emily Graslie!

  6. Oh, my god. How much of a nerd am I. All I could think of when she was listing off "my colleagues here on YouTube" was HOW MANY OF THOSE AM I SUBSCRIBED TO? XD
    (The answer is: Most of them, + one she didn't mention (probably because it's PBS online but not science): "It's Lit" with Lindsey Ellis. Heh.)

  7. Gotta give shout-outs to the channels of:

    1. Issac Arthur
    2. Sharkee
    3. John Michael Godier
    4. Trey the Explainer
    5. Your Dinosaurs are Wrong

  8. What about Tesla's contributions? Didn't Thomas Edison take ideas and inventions and patent just like he did with the movie industry?

  9. Balmy 85 Degrees? more like 95-100 (35-37.777 Degrees Celsius) where I live!
    Also…
    METRIC IS BETTER THAN THE IMPERIAL SYSTEM YOU YANKY BASTARDS!!!

  10. I had the good fortune to meet one of the earlier (and incredibly prolific) science explainers: Isaac Asimov. While he's usually described as a Science Fiction writer, he was also a science educator. He couldn't have been more gracious and I treasure my signed copy of the Foundation Trilogy 🙂

  11. I wonder exactly what side of history you are on. Listening to this commentary, observing your histrionics and excessive details, you failed to include truth regarding the light bulb. Although much of history is hidden, lights were invented long b4 Edison. We only need to examine history of the ancient world of the Moors of Cardova who were the first to invent street lights etc. More recent was Louis Latimer who invented the shoe last and worked alongside Edison to improve the light bulb’s filament. Yet Edison rushed to the patent office unbeknownst to Latimer, and thereby history attributes the invention to him. Edison was able to create blueprints. It was Louis Latimer who improved the filament which allowed the light to operate much longer than the few seconds of Edison’s design. These men oftentimes, in fact most times stole the inventions of others. The Library of Congress is complicit in the cover-up and mythological narratives by excluding Blacks. You must be more diligent in your research and only deliver truth as this is not. It is apparent whose side you are on, but they are certainly not on yours. Always apply diligence when executing research.

  12. … 1:27 I can't help think of the coincidence that the country that nearly exterminated the menorah invented the lighting of Christmas trees with candles…

  13. This almost might be better titled "The origin of public scientist" or science educators.
    I'm not familiar with the term 'explainer video'. I clicked because I knew it would be good TOOE content. 🙂

  14. Great video, although I have to agree with some of the other commenters on here, Edison gets a little too much credit. Although I didn't realize he was such a salesman/showman. That explains a lot. BTW, I just discovered this channel, and am super impressed!

  15. How have school locker-rooms evolved as social spaces. How do ideas about our bodies, sexuality and gender occur in locker rooms? I'm sure a whole bevy of sociologists have something to say about this. Also Judith Butler has something to say about this.

  16. Neil Degrassi Tyson gets smack for demoting pluto but I like to think of it as bring attention to other dwarf planets like Ceres, sedna, haumea, makemake etc.

  17. Shout out to Veritasium, DONG, SciShow, Steve Mould, 12Tone, NativLang, the Physical Therapy guys, Up and Atom, Acapella Science, Physics Girl, Smarter Every Day, Crash Course, VSauce, Alliterative, A Way with Words, and so many more.

  18. Viced Rhino is a great debunker of science tomfoolery along with Professor Stick.
    Today I Found Out/Top Tenz is fun and very accurate. in fact they work hard to be accurate when just being flashy would probably get them more views. Also Simon Whistlers voice is fantastic.
    Polar Warriors – A channel focusing on Bipolar and the many joys and sorrows it brings.

    Your videos are amazing and awesome. If you want to look into more cute things how about the history of Anime in the west like why Cartoons from the rest of the world are cartoons but that – its anime.

  19. I just found this channel yesterday and I’m happy to say I have binged watched ever since. Thank you Danielle, and the Origin of Everything team, for all your hard work and thoroughness in these videos.

  20. Shootout to my space science educators! Vintage Space (Amy Seira Teitel), Curious Droid (Paul Shillito), and Scott Manley.

  21. Ummm everyone knows that Edison was scared of Tesla's AC (alternating current) & was hell-bent on using DC (direct current) to power the grid which was not viable then & is not viable now, which is why we chose Tesla's AC method, & is also the reason why Edison WAS the one electrocuting animals, in order to make an attempt to make everyone else scared of Tesla's AC also.
    Also Edison never did pay Tesla that 50k he owed him!
    I really loved this channel until they tried to make someone like Edison look like a good person because he soooo wasn't!

  22. What is the origin of masculism (the radical idea that men are not disposable, and are more than muscles)? Maybe link Ferel Christensen and Georgia Duerst-Lahti.

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