Daniel McFarlan Moore Is the Lightbulb Inventor You Never Knew About


Who invented the lightbulb? If you said Thomas Edison, you're only partially right. In fact, there have been many light bulbs invented with many different technologies throughout history — it's just that Edison was successful enough to make his mark in textbooks. But there's a lightbulb inventor that at least one 1890s newspaper columnist considered to be among the ranks of Edison and Nikola Tesla, and you've probably never heard of him. His name was Daniel McFarlan Moore.

A Promising Future

"We are soon to have electric lights so cheap that anyone can afford to have them," proclaimed journalist Francis Leon Chrisman in an 1896 issue of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. "At least, this is the promise of three noted electricians who have been working on the problem for some time past."

That's how a profile of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Daniel McFarlan Moore began. This was a time when the transatlantic telegraph system was getting better every year, the first telephone line had only been around for a few decades, and X-rays had just been invented. Technology was moving fast, and the excitement in Chrisman's words was palpable. "Perhaps we shall soon be even better off than the people at the North Pole," he wrote. "They have daylight half the year, whereas we are now promised artificial daylight for every hour in the twenty-four."

Chrisman detailed his visit to Edison's New Jersey laboratory — where the inventor was taking a break from his bulbs to see what these X-rays were all about — and his chat with Nikola Tesla about his new phosphorescent light, "which will come as near artificial daylight as anything yet attempted." Then came McFarlan, whom he admitted "is comparatively unknown to fame," but had created "the nearest approach to the production of light without heat that the world has yet seen."

This Little Light of Mine

The technology he was referring to is known as the Moore lamp. Rather than rely on a filament like Edison's incandescent lamp, Moore's light simply used an electric current that passed through pressurized gas. In fact, Moore had once been an employee of Edison, who didn't understand Moore's need to create something completely different. "What's wrong with my lamp?" he's said to have asked Moore. "It's too small, too hot, and too red," Moore replied.

Here's how Moore's vacuum-tube light worked: You'd install lengths of glass tubing up to 250 feet (76 meters) long, then suck out all of the air from the tubes and replace it with a small amount of carbon dioxide or nitrogen gas. Electrodes at either end of the tube would pass an electric current through the gas. The Moore lamp was the principal attraction at the Great Electrical Show at the Grand Central Palace exhibition hall in New York City in 1896 for good reason: It produced a warm, mellow light at around 10 lumens per watt — a level of efficiency nearly triple that of Edison's lamp.

Unfortunately, there's a reason we know Edison's name today and not Moore's. The Moore lamp was difficult to install, and its seals tended to leak their precious gases, requiring the tubes to be refilled periodically. Even worse, if one piece of the lamp broke, the entire length had to be replaced — a costly, time-consuming endeavor. Around 1910, the tungsten filament lamp from another little-known inventor named William Coolidge reached the same level of efficiency as the Moore lamp, and soon the writing was on the wall. In 1912, General Electric bought out Moore's company, acquiring all of his patents in the process.

Moore did leave behind a modest legacy, however. In 1920, he invented a new type of lighting device called the "glow lamp." It relied on two electrodes placed very close together in a bulb filled with gas — neon or argon, depending on whether you needed an orange or blue light. The advantage of the glow lamp is that it lasted for years and could take nearly any shape imaginable. If you've ever seen an electric candle or an indicator light made before the advent of LEDs, you've seen Moore's handiwork. Perhaps its most famous role is as the "on" light on those classic diner coffee makers. The next time you see one, remember the lightbulb inventor who bested Edison — at least for a little while.

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Written by Ashley Hamer March 21, 2019