Who Really Invented The Light Bulb? And Other Myths Debunked

By Google Arts & Culture

Discover the inventions credited to the wrong people

History is not fixed. Here you’ll find a selection of very well known inventions and their origin stories. Somewhere along the way these stories have been warped, changed, or completely rewritten. Luckily, some historians and researchers have worked hard to uncover the real narrative and made sure the right people are credited and celebrated.

Edison recreates his lamp experiments during Light's Golden Jubilee, 1929 (1929/1929) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

An Englishman – not Thomas Edison – created the light bulb

Thomas Edison is credited with inventing a whole host of valuable inventions but the real story behind them often reveals a different pattern of events. It was actually British inventor Sir Humphry Davy who was the first to invent the electric light in 1809.

Davy Sir Humphry 1778-1829LIFE Photo Collection

He made the discovery by connecting two wires to a battery and attaching a charcoal strip between the other end of the wires. The charged carbon glowed making the first arc lamp.

Davy Sir Humphry 1778-1829LIFE Photo Collection

Edison’s version wasn’t released until 1877, but his bulbs were better equipped leading to them being better known, pushing Davy’s previous work to the sidelines.

LIFE Photo Collection

Edison also didn’t invent motion picture

Once again, Edison manages to be credited with another huge invention but doesn’t deserve the praise. It was actually Louis Le Prince, a French artist, who was the inventor of the early motion picture camera. In Leeds, England in 1888 Prince used a single lens camera to shoot 16 pictures a second without blurring the exposure.

While we know some of Prince’s work now, there is a troubling conspiracy surrounding the whole invention and Edison’s claim to fame. In 1890, two years after his achievement, Prince boarded a train bound for Dijon, but disappeared and was never seen again. Years later, during a patent trial for Edison’s motion picture “invention”, Prince’s son was found shot dead in New York. American courts would later dismiss all of Prince’s work.

Edison with early motion picture film and projector (1912) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Elizabeth Magie invented Monopoly 30 years before the classic Parker Brothers’ version

The accepted history of the beloved board game Monopoly has come to symbolize something like The American Dream in a microcosm. The story goes that Charles Darrow, an unemployed designer, invented the game, pitched it to the Parker Brothers company, and thereby became a millionaire himself.

Monopoly (Darrow Edition) (1933) by Charles DarrowThe Strong National Museum of Play

In reality, an almost exactly similar game, ‘The Landlord’s Game’, was patented by Elizabeth Magie in 1903. The game was designed to promote progressive economics and act as a warning against the evils of monopolies. Magie never made more than $500 from her invention, and her right to the patents for Monopoly wasn’t uncovered until the 1970s.

The Landlord's Game (1910) by Elizabeth MagieThe Strong National Museum of Play

Chien-Shiung Wu’s scientific contributions to the atomic bomb were ignored

During World War II nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in the development of the atomic bomb. Fast forward to the 1950s and Wu began working with theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, who wanted her help in disproving the law of parity. The law said that there was “a fundamental symmetry in the behavior of everything in nature, including atomic particles.”

20-Chien-Shiung-WuNational Women's Hall of Fame

Although Wu’s colleagues had developed the theory to disprove the law, it was actually Wu who created and conducted the experiments that served as proof. In 1957, Lee and Yang both received the Nobel Prize for their work, but Wu’s contribution was completely ignored. Despite outrage by Wu’s peers, the decision to exclude Wu from the prize was never changed.

The Atomic Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima (1945-08-06/1945-08-06)Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Lise Meitner’s work on nuclear fission was forgotten due to being in exile

Austrian physicist Lise Meitner was integral to the discovery of nuclear fission. In the early 20th century, after moving to Germany, she began a long partnership with chemist Otto Hahn. When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Meitner was forced to flee because she was of Jewish descent. She eventually settled in Sweden and continued to collaborate with Hahn from afar. In Berlin, Hahn’s team conducted experiments that would prove to be the evidence for nuclear fission, but it was Meitner and her nephew (Otto Frisch) who ultimately described the theory and coined the term, “nuclear fission”.

Lise Meitner at the Lindau MeetingLindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

When Hahn published the discovery, he left Meitner out of it. It’s thought this might be due to rising tensions caused by Nazi Germany as she was of Jewish heritage – yet the real reason remains unknown. Regardless, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for the discovery of nuclear fission and Meitner’s contribution was not acknowledged. After scientists realised that nuclear fission could be used as a weapon Meitner was invited to work on the same Manhattan Project as Wu to develop the atomic bomb. She refused, stating: “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”

Hahn-Meitner-Straßmann-table, the fission of atomic nuclei (1930/1939) by Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, Lise Meitner, BerlinDeutsches Museum

Nikola Tesla was the real inventor of the radio

In the 1890s, both Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla were fighting to develop the radio, but it is Marconi’s efforts that are remembered. Tesla actually received more of the early patents for the technology; in 1897 he filed for and was granted the first radio patent, which became the basis for much of his future work, including radio-controlled boats, torpedoes, and radio frequency feedback.

Tesla on Arrival to AmericaNikola Tesla Museum

His developments in radio dates back beyond Marconi's announcement of radio technology as his "invention" but Marconi is more commonly credited with inventing the radio because he was able to take all these technologies and turn them into a commercial product.

Tesla's Laboratory in Long IslandNikola Tesla Museum

Galileo Galilei did not invent the telescope

Italian astronomer, physicist, and engineer Galileo Galilei is credited with many inventions and discoveries including the telescope. Yet most historians agree that it was actually Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershay who had been making magnification devices using the improved quality of glassmaking of the time.

LIFE Photo Collection

Supposedly, Galileo had heard about these and decided to build his own, making some improvements in the process. One of the reasons why Galileo was credited with inventing the telescope is because he was the first person to use these new optics as a scientific instrument, which is where the real value was added.

H. Lippershey, printer's sample for the World's Inventors souvenir album (A25) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes (1888) by Allen & GinterThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Antonio Meucci created a working telephone decades before Bell

There’s a lot of controversy and intrigue surrounding the invention of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell is often credited as the inventor of the telephone since he was awarded the first successful patent. However, Antonio Meucci also developed a talking telegraph, called the ‘teletrofono’. Around 11 years later (still five years before Bell’s phone came out), Meucci filed a temporary patent on his invention in 1871. But in 1874, he failed to send in the $10 necessary to renew his patent.

Telephone (Prima metà dell'Ottocento) by Antonio Meucci; foto di Filippo ManziniTeatro della Pergola | Fondazione Teatro della Toscana

Two years after that, Bell registered his telephone patent. Meucci attempted to sue him by retrieving the original sketches and plans he sent to a lab at Western Union, but the record had conveniently disappeared. Controversially, Bell was working at the very same Western Union lab where Meucci swore he sent his original sketches. The Italian inventor died, never profiting from his invention and faded away into obscurity, while Bell claimed full credit.

LIFE Photo Collection

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