How Did Edison Invent Christmas Lights?
Did Thomas Edison pave the way for today's EduTubers? Danielle tracks the path from Edison's Christmas light demonstrations in the late 19th century all the way to the science explainer videos of today.
Whether it’s snowy and white or a balmy 85 degrees in the shade where you live, in
December chances are pretty high that you’ll see twinkling electric lights lining the streets
and circling dozens of Christmas trees.
And even if we’re not celebrating the holiday ourselves, many of us enjoy basking in their
But did you know that Thomas Edison is behind the invention of electrical Christmas lights
and that he used his holiday breakthrough to promote the implementation of electricity
across the country?
And while Edison was busy spreading light and holiday cheer, he was also drumming up
press for his new inventions (and business interests) by staging elaborate electrical
stunts all around the globe.
And although this story can easily be dismissed as a Christmas novelty.
Edison and his collaborators were actually taking part in the early history of science
explainers that stretches back a lot longer than your favorite YouTube science explainer
So this week I’ll be covering a small story about Edison’s Christmas inventions and
a big history that encompasses how science explainers, demonstrators, and journalists
have served as a bridge between research communities and the general public for around 150 years.
Well to kick this story off we have to start with how we got from Edison’s electric light
to explainer videos.
The tradition of spreading cheer, joy, and light during December has antecedents in Pagan
Historians debate the specifics of how Pagan usage of lights, logs and evergreens
directly influenced Christian celebrations. But as Christianity spread regions began developing
their own Christmas celebrations involving trees and light.
Germans were the first to light up Christmas trees with candles in the 17th century.
And in the early 19th century German immigrants to the US brought the Christmas tree stateside,
along with some candles to light up their evergreen boughs.
Flash forward to December 31st 1879, in Menlo Park NJ at the laboratory of inventor Thomas
While Edison is often credited with inventing the lightbulb (and inadvertently inspiring
all of those cartoons where light bulbs go off over people’s heads) this isn’t the
Edison’s contributions lay in improving previous experiments and designs to create
the ecosystem that allowed his lightbulbs to be implemented successfully.
But along with his role as an inventor, Edison was interested in monetizing and spreading
This led him to conduct a series of public demonstrations of his latest finds to spread
the word about something the vast majority of people had never heard of and to demonstrate
how these new fangled inventions could better people’s lives.
And what better way to spread the word than with a big fancy show?
A December 21st 1880 article in the New York Times describes Edison’s demonstration in
particularly glowly terms:
“Darkness had settled down upon the bleak and uninviting place which Mr. Edison has
chosen for his home, but the plank walk from the station to the laboratory was brilliantly
lighted by a double row of electric lamps, which cast a soft and mellow light on all
The incandescent horseshoes gave out a yellow light, which shone steadily and without the
least painful glare, and were beautiful to look upon.”
This evening (which started off sounding more like Dr. Frankenstein's lab and ended up as
a Winter Wonderland) was also at almost exactly the same time as when the Big Apple began
to get electrified, with electric lights being a safer alternative to candles, fires, and
In December of 1884 Edison enlisted the help of a man named Edward H. Johnson, the vice
president of the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City, to help him spread some
light during the holiday season one more time.
A reporter came to Johnson’s New York City home (which was located in the first part
of the Big Apple to get electricity) to show off a new wonder: electric Christmas tree
And so a new Christmas tradition was born…or really evolved out of an already existing
But science explanation and demonstrations were well on their way to growing in popularity.
But as interesting as the tagline “Edison invented Christmas lights” sounds, it doesn’t
really get to the heart of a larger story about the late 19th century, technological
innovation, and how Edison helped create explainer videos.
Because Edison wasn’t just busy lighting up walkways in December.
He was hard at work during the end of the 19th and early 20th century becoming an international
celebrity, by cornering the market on not only new inventions but also the title of
He amassed a large media presence through his prolific inventions (some of which he
started from scratch, and some like the light bulb that he picked up from previous inventors
and improved upon before introducing them to the general public).
But Edison’s tree light demonstrations weren’t a stand alone anomaly, and neither were they
only about wow factor and entertainment.
According to Professor Bernard Lightman of York University, this was part of a general
trend in bringing new science to the general public in the late 19th century.
In 1834 William Whewell even coined the word “scientist” to assign a catchall expression
for this group of researchers, explorers, inventors, and writers or “the students
of the knowledge of the material world”
Lightman also notes how British science explainers (or journalists, writers, artists, and performers)
of the Victorian era were often tasked with translating these new inventions to the public.
Science demonstrators and science educators worked in different mediums, sometimes relying
on detailed illustrations, other times focusing on newspaper articles, or live performances
Demonstrators often stressed the wondrous and exciting world of science innovations
by acting as translators between original researchers and the general public, often because
new inventions were also sometimes met with excitement mixed with fear (like people who
worried that electricity could be dangerous in their homes than candles).
I’d argue that Edison’s light demonstrations in the late 19th century fall within this world of science fascination
Because although his Christmas lightings were primarily geared towards selling people on
his newly patented bulbs and electricity, they also focused on the themes of scientific
wonder that other science demonstrators of his era used to sell new ideas.
And his December 31st 1879 display, was the first one that kickstarted his electrical Christmas
fad, and was the first in a series of similar stunts that he staged around the world.
He took his inventions to public exhibitions like the International Paris Exhibition of
1881, London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1882, and the Exhibition of the Ohio Valley
and the Central States in 1888.
And no, I didn’t forget about Topsy, the elephant who was famously put to death by
electrocution on Coney Island in 1904 before rising to the stuff of urban legend.
And that's because some historians are now claiming that it wasn’t Edison who sentenced her
to death in order to show off different uses of electricity, but rather it was her handlers
who had Topsy electrocuted after she was abused and killed several people.
But Lightman also notes
that the science demonstrators of the 20th and 21st century owe a huge debt
to their 19th century predecessors.
Because while 19th century demonstrators largely relied on the media available to them to spread
the good news about awesome science (namely live performance, print magazines, and newspapers)
science educators today use the tools largely available to them and their audiences, meaning YOU.
He points to well known demonstrators like Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Richard
Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Mr. Wizard as examples of modern science educators who tapped
into the power of television, film and radio to educate and excite the public about science.
But unlike Edison, science educators weren’t in it only to sell products, but also just
to promote new inventions and science in general.
That means the next time you click on the videos by some of my awesome colleagues at
PBS Digital Studios like Eons, It’s Okay To Be Smart, Brain Craft, Physics Girl, Brain Scoop, Crash Course,
Hot Mess, Deep Look and Nourish (which is about food, but is straight up hosted by a
rocket scientist) then you’re watching the latest iteration of something that started
way back in the 19th century.
They’re using their skills and expertise to show you new concepts and inventions in
science in a way that’s digestible, entertaining, and bridges the gaps between behind the scenes
research and how that research can improve our lives.
In some cases these inspiring figures straddle the world between independent research and
public education by splitting time between their own lab work and their public platforms.
In others they have backgrounds in science, journalism, art, filmmaking, and communications
and they use that specialized knowledge to bring all of the wonder the science world
into the general domain.
So Edison and his contemporaries hit the world stage and pushed the word through newspapers, demonstrations,
and science fairs.
Bill Nye crashed in through our TV screens.
And your favorite science EduTubers picked up the baton today on your cellphones and
So have you thanked a science educator today?
So an attempt to spread the word about new tech and science helped inspire some of our
favorite holiday decorations and our favorite science explainer videos.
And it also gives us insight into why watching someone teach us about physics or how to properly
prepare homemade slime on Youtube is so addictive and exciting.
Because humans are naturally curious, and science taps into that sense of
magic that brings out the curious geek in all of us.
So what do you think?
Want to give some props and shout outs to your favorite science educators online?
Drop those comments and questions below and if you have a cool science channel in mind
then share it so we can all nerd out together for the holidays.
Be sure to check out the works cited page for my insights and info, subscribe to Origin