Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, right?
Certainly, that’s the main historical distinction that we associate with him, but like most history it’s a little more complicated than that.
In the late nineteenth century there was a growing desire for a system of electrical illumination which could compete with gas and oil-based lighting, and there were several early efforts being developed commercially; Italian Alessandro Volta, Canadians Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, German Heinrich Göbel, Scotsman James Lindsay and English 1st Baronet Sir Humphry Davy. All well-respected white, western men.
Some of these prototypes were more effective than others. They were expensive to produce, drew a high electric current and had a very short lifespan. The solution was to create a lamp that would have a high resistance, but the filaments being trialed by Edison were made of thread, bamboo or paper and were unsuccessful at every new attempt. So far it seemed that Edison would not be making the history books.
Enter African American Lewis Latimer, son of a former slave, a US Navy Landsman and later a Draftsman for a patent law firm. In 1881 he invented and patented a carbon filament that solved the light bulb problem, allowing it to shine continuously, and even wrote a book on the subject. He was hired in 1884 by the Edison Electric Light Company and the rest is the version of history we all think we know.
Should Latimer have the historic mantle of ‘inventor of the light bulb’, or does it actually belong to Edison?
The fact is, that the work of these men would have been less successful without the work of the other, and as is often the case, the success of an object, idea or process lies not with a single person but with the input and teamwork of many. Regardless of nationality, colour or gender.
In fact, as is often the case, the more diverse, wide and far-reaching the contributions to a project or system, then the more successful the outcome. By embracing all and working together we build a better future.
The recent public recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement has stirred up great divisions and passions regarding differences in race and culture, and rather than embracing and celebrating these differences, it has driven some to hatred, detachment and distancing. Some even find themselves closing themselves off to other cultures, or simply turning a blind eye to the entire situation. I would like to encourage all these people to remember the life and work of one of our greatest humanitarians…
Nelson Mandela, alongside Frederik Willem de Klerk, was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize 1993 "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa." His life’s work was focused on bringing different people and culture peacefully together;
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
“If there is one lesson we can learn from the struggle against racism, in our country as well as yours, it is that racism must be consciously combatted, and not discreetly tolerated”.
A less political figure in our world also had thoughts in this direction that are worth noting alongside Mandela’s great words.
A childhood accident left singer and songwriter David Bowie with eyes of a different colour, and during his long marriage to Somali fashion model Iman, he was quoted as saying, “Tomorrow morning it would be great if the population of the world were to wake and not know the meaning of the word ‘foreigner’, and also that skin colour would have as little relevance as the colour of one’s eyes”
It’s a tomorrow that we can all happily move towards together, as we remember Nelson Mandela, and every time we turn on a lightbulb.