Pipkin’s light bulb moment
Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16
Early electric light bulbs gave off a harsh, glaring light. So, as a new recruit to General Electric in 1919, Marvin Pipkin had the brilliant idea to make bulbs with a frosted inner surface to give a gentler glow. His managers smiled indulgently and asked the eager young chemist to work on solving the problem.
They didn’t tell Pipkin that they considered the task impossible because all previous attempts to produce frosted bulbs had failed – the frosting process made the glass too brittle to handle. Many new starters at General Electric had been given the task as a kind of induction ritual into the challenges of research.
Pipkin, however, didn’t know the task was ‘impossible’. Whilst experimenting with acids to etch the inside of bulbs, Pipkin had just added some cleaning solution to a bulb when he received a phone call and knocked the bulb over. After finishing the call, he returned to his work and accidentally dropped the bulb he had knocked over. To his surprise, the bulb didn’t shatter on hitting the floor, but rolled under his desk. Without understanding the mechanism, Pipkin had managed to make a non-brittle frosted bulb. In 1927, it was estimated that his invention had saved light bulb users over $10 million as his frosted bulbs were more luminous than clear bulbs.