Awaiting Innovation: The Lightbulb

Awaiting Innovation: The Lightbulb

Sean Rioux
Nov 15, 2012

The lightbulb: so fundamental was its invention that it became the iconic symbol of ideas and innovation. Yet despite such a prestigious distinction, the lightbulb has barely changed much since its introduction into homes. Sure there are CFL bulbs and LEDs, even wi-fi connectable systems now. But where is the iPhone of lightbulbs to push the technology of illumination forward?

While certainly we do have innovative iterations of the lightbulb, many of it's basic features remain unchanged, and for many people traditional filament based bulbs are still everywhere in our homes. Why is it that the lightbulb stagnates while other ideas which have endured the decades (like the telephone or television) have continued to rapidly evolve beyond their initial conception?

Lets look at how some of the technologies we've used over the past century have evolved since their invention courtesy of some inforgraphics from around the web:

The Telephone

The Record Player

Click to read more about the past ten years of Television innovation, and for a more thorough history of television check out this infographic that goes back to 1926.

Of course some of these technologies haven't necessary been suplanted by their innovation. You might think of the popular resurgence of record players and vinyl as an example of how old technology remains relevant despite innovation. While true that some legacy technologies offer special characteristics we still hold dear (like the unique qualities of vinyl for sound), it's about mass adoption in the consumer market. The vast majority of music listeners now stream, or download music (or still listen to CD's). While vinyl may have endured the ages, the technology has even in itself been innovated upon (the modern turntable compared with say, a Victrola).

Wi-fi connected, smartphone controllable, LED, CFL...while innovation is happening in lighting, a lot about the basic bulb has remained the same.

Think about it: the socket, the shape, even the sconces, fixtures and lamps we use bulbs with, not much has changed from when our parents (or even grandparents) were children. Lightbulbs and maybe even lighting in general has yet to really enjoy a BIG revolution in decades. Where is the iPhone of lightbulbs that encourages and excites everyone into adopting something new?

Many things stand in the way here. As I mentioned above, the socket, a simple threaded cylinder with conductive contacts, has changed very little. The reason for this is a common one in technology, where a standard that works and has been implemented across the industry is really hard to change. At my parents home there must be fixtures in the house with sockets older then me that still work. The fact that old technologies still work and work well enough just seems to slow any movement on updating the standard. Just think of how many people complained when Apple recently updated the 30 pin connector on the iPhone and iPad!

Cost is another concern. Many of the contemporary options, even those that are fully compatible with traditional sockets are more costly per bulb (even if lower when considered over time). Sure they might last longer, but often to the average consumer, cheaper is generally preferable. This has the effect of maintaining a demand for cheaper but less power efficient bulbs, while stifling the demand for better bulbs (and potentially more risky innovations). Not to mention the cost of things like wifi controllable bulbs, which while futuristic, doesn't do enough to really capture the imagination and encourage people to pay luxury prices for the option.

Thats not even to mention all the backlash against CFL bulbs. Concerns about UV radiation and toxic materials have for some overwhelmed the potential reduction in energy use, slowing adoption amongst some.

While the move away from incandescent into CFLs and LED bulbs pushes on, I'm still left wondering what the future holds for the simple lightbulb. Will we have ever have a way of lighting our homes that actually feels truly modern or even futuristic the way an iPhone does?

One day perhaps the diminishing cost of wifi connectivity in a lightbulb will make it impossible to buy a bulb without it. One day perhaps someone will invent a new light socket so compelling the industry moves to a new standard overnight. Perhaps wireless power will one day make plugging things at all redundant. Perhaps, but more realistically for the forceable future, the lightbulb in it's current incarnation will likely continue to show it's age.

(images: as linked lead image by Sean Rioux)

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