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Not “Frankenstein’s Lab”: Inside the Collaborative Quest for the Light Bulb

Contrary to prevailing perceptions, Edison did not resemble a solitary Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of the renowned British novel “Frankenstein,” engaging in electrical manipulation akin to sorcery. Instead, Edison’s endeavors epitomized collective ingenuity, akin to a laboratory masterpiece.

In his pursuit of perfecting incandescent lamps, Edison adhered to a regimen of two modest repasts, partaken at 7 a.m. and midnight, respectively. The intervening hours were wholly dedicated to tireless labor within the laboratory, where weariness often compelled him to slumber upon the unyielding ground, akin to a vagabond.

The milieu of the laboratory demands steadfast resilience amidst perpetual setbacks. In his quest for the optimal filament material, Edison assiduously experimented with over 6,000 varieties of fibers, ranging from mundane to exotic. From macaroni to fishing line, cork to banknote paper, each underwent the crucible of electrical conductivity, only to invariably succumb to distortion, fracturing, and pulverization under the relentless onslaught of current. Eventually, he alighted upon bamboo, its inherent straightness and resilience proving ideal for transformation into elegant U-shaped filaments through the process of carbonization.

Edison’s inaugural bamboo filament was hewn from a carbonized folding fan, marking a pivotal juncture in his pioneering work.

However, the efficacy of bamboo filaments varied significantly depending on their provenance. Bamboo sourced from the Far East exhibited superior rigidity and durability, exemplified by a particular lamp with a filament crafted from Japanese bamboo, which endured for an unprecedented 1,589 hours, shattering all prior records.

Subsequently, Edison dispatched an expeditionary team to survey over 1,000 bamboo species worldwide in pursuit of the most suitable filament material. This protracted endeavor, spanning several years, incurred expenses totaling $100,000—a princely sum by contemporary standards, equivalent to tens of millions in modern currency.

Ultimately, Japanese bamboo emerged triumphant, with a grove near the Ishikimizu Hachimangu Shrine in Japan serving as Edison’s primary source of filament material for over a decade. Dubbed “Hachiman Bamboo” owing to its remarkable robustness, it had once been coveted for fashioning sword sheaths.

Another species of bamboo, known as Guizhu, indigenous to China and subsequently introduced to Japan, features hollow stems prized for crafting flutes and various artisanal wares.

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