Technology for Good: GE’s Journey For Better and More Efficient Light

This is the second in a series of posts entitled Technology for Good: A Historical Perspective From GE.  Last week, GE released all their of annual reports in one interactive data visualization.  This interactive data viz app  pulls together 120 years of their annual reports, showcasing GE’s long-standing tradition of technology for good. Learn more about GE’s history of innovation and see GE’s new Data Visualization in action.  GE is a 3p Sponsor.

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Thomas Edison’s first incandescent light bulb

Because of GE’s innovation, electric light is an indispensable part of our daily lives. For 130 years the company has continuously innovated, making light both more accessible and efficient for consumers and businesses

“We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
– Thomas Edison

Edison reportedly said that shortly after he invented the first incandescent lamp that could be manufactured on a massive scale. The founder of GE not only made electricity cheaper with his invention, but his innovation led to safer and cleaner light. Millions of homes no longer had to rely on dirty kerosene or wood for light, and streets became safer as electric lamps replaced gas lamps. Edison’s light bulb included a filament composed of a material, bamboo, that has now become one of the most popular sustainable materials today.

The light bulb opened new worlds. Students could study at night and families could read and spend more quality time together after sunset. Entertainment options around the world broadened starting with the Savoy Theater in London, the world’s first public building to be lit by electricity. And electric light was key to a new technological revolution and the mass production of products from household appliances to automobiles.

Over the decades GE has improved the light bulb’s performance – and recently has come close to making one of Edison’s greatest innovations obsolete.

A new generation of incandescents, invented 30 years after Edison’s first light bulb, used tungsten filaments that allowed light bulbs to shine even more efficiently. Light became central to everyday life and culture around the world. In 1929 the world’s most sophisticated lighting control opened at the Chicago Civic Opera. A few years later, GE’s Novalux lamps illuminated a baseball stadium in Cincinnati, and night baseball games were born. Yet even as GE improved the lightbulb, the company continued to advance lighting technology and design.

Look at GE’s new energy-efficient lighting installation on London’s Tower Bridge

GE was awarded a patent for the first fluorescent lamp, the ancestor to the now common compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), in 1938. Later innovations, like the 1959 halogen and 1961 Lucalox, reduced the bulb’s size and further increased its energy efficiency.

With electricity consumption responsible for 33 to 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States alone, GE has been on the front lines with new products that promise a longer bulb life and increased efficiency. In 2001, a new line of lightbulbs eliminated those dull yellow rays, providing a crisper and cleaner light. Later that year GE redesigned the CFL to make them smaller and comparable in size to the standard incandescent bulb. But GE’s greatest legacy since the era of Edison is its improvement of light-emitting diode technology, or LED.

Learn the differences between incandescent, CFLs and LED bulbs

In 2004, GE’s Global Research division demonstrated the first organic light-emitting diode (OLED) panel. Measuring 24 by 24 inches, the panel could produce 1200 lumens of light with an efficiency similar to what current incandescent bulb technology offered. Meanwhile GE Lumination rolled out its VIO white LED that boosted the technology’s ability to become the indoor lighting standard. In 2008, GE’s researchers demonstrated an even more jaw-dropping OLED technology: printable OLEDs that are flexible, energy-efficient and can be designed to give off several hues of light. And now its most recent innovation, the Smart LED Bulb, is one way in which smart grid technologies can create more energy efficient homes.

Over 130 years later, Edison’s and GE’s incandescent light bulb may disappear thanks to that same company’s innovations in the early 21st century.


Leon Kaye is a journalist, sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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