A pair of amateur Toronto scientists were among the many people whose work helped light the world.
We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.
Quick question: who invented the light bulb? Most people would say Thomas Edison.
In fact, while Edison refined the bulb to make it a commercially viable product, his work incorporated the findings of others who spent years figuring out how to produce electrical light. Among those who laid the groundwork were a pair of Torontonians whose patents were purchased by Edison.
Medical student Henry Woodward and hotel employee Mathew Evans were neighbours who fancied themselves amateur scientists. Among the items they played around with were a battery and an induction coil. At dusk one evening in 1873, they noticed a spark at the coil’s contact post. According to one account, Evans pulled out his watch and was stunned that he could see well enough by the light of that spark to tell the time. According to another account, published in the Canadian Electrical News and later quoted in a 1991 Star article, Woodward exclaimed something along the lines of: “My! If one could only confine that in a globe of some sort, what an invention we would have! It would revolutionize the world!”
Woodward and Evans developed a prototype incandescent bulb with a carbon-rod filament that bore a passing resemblance to one made by English scientist Sir Joseph Swan 20 years earlier. The Torontonians produced a better vacuum than Swan’s, which allowed their bulb to keep air out and retain nitrogen pumped into it. The bulb was demonstrated at Morrison’s Brass Foundry, at 87 Adelaide Street West. “There were four or five of us sitting around a large table,” Evans later recounted. “Woodward closed the switch and gradually we saw the carbon become first red and gradually lighter and lighter in colour until it beamed forth in beautiful light. This was the most exciting moment of my experience.”
Less gratifying was the hunt for investors after the pair took out a Canadian patent in the summer of 1874. Despite plenty of initial interest, financiers were frightened by the high costs associated with producing and using the bulbs. Woodward and Evans were publicly criticized for inventing a “useless” product. Despite Woodward taking out an American patent in 1876, the pair threw in the towel. Tired of being ridiculed, Woodward sailed off to England in a huff. Evans, meanwhile, lacked the financial resources to carry on.
Soon after the pair ceased their work, a race heated up on both sides of the Atlantic to create a commercially viable bulb. While Swan continued his work in England, Thomas Edison refined his version in his New Jersey lab. Edison purchased several pre-existing patents, including the one Woodward and Evans had filed in the United States. By October 1879 he had produced a bulb that lasted for 13.5 hours.
Edison’s bulb patent was subjected to a lengthy legal battle when the patent office ruled it was based on the work of others. (While the suit most prominently mentioned someone named William Sawyer, we’d like to think Woodward and Evans factored in.) Edison used his business savvy to co-opt Swan by forming a joint company with him, to manufacture bulbs in Great Britain.
Edison eventually bought a piece of Woodward and Evans’ Canadian patent. While their work led to a brighter world, the pair disappeared into history. Evans, who is believed to have died in 1899, lamented that “the inventor never gets the reward of his labour.”
Additional material from the April 14, 1900 edition of Electrical World and Engineer, the February 12, 2013 edition of the Kingston Whig-Standard, and the August 29, 1991 edition of the Toronto Star.
The sketch on the right is from Woodward and Evans’ Canadian patent, filed in 1874. It’s courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.