Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Edison's lightbulbs
Five days after our big windstorm and 130,000 people are still without power in the Seattle area and many of the traffic lights don't work. Since this happened only a week before the darkest day of the year, it's only natural that many of my neighbors have a newfound appreciation for the wonder of electric light.

However, a week before the storm a co-worker and I were already talking about what a great invention light was. This is the story that spared our conversation.
A set of lightbulbs belonging to Thomas Edison could fetch US $500 000 when it goes under the hammer in London next week. The set contains rare bulbs dating from the 1880s, including several made by Edison and his fierce competitor, Joseph Swan. But the star of the collection is one of Edison's unappreciated inventions: a bulb that may well have been the world's first vacuum tube.

The items were collected to serve as evidence in a trial in which Edison successfully sued the U.S. Electric Light Co. for violating a patent on the design of his lightbulb. Edison, who was famously litigious, collected examples of the designs used by leading lightbulb makers in an effort to show that U.S. Electric Light must have copied his version. At the trial, two of the bulbs were deliberately broken so that the court could study their construction.

The evidence was lost after the trial, apparently after John Howell, Edison's secretary, stored it in an attic. "By rights, it shouldn't even still exist," says Laurence Fisher, a specialist in technical apparatus at Christie's auction house in London

To us, it seemed a no-brainer that some collector or museum would pick up these artifacts. They are unique, historically significant, and part of a well-known technology story. At one time every child learned the story of Edison and the lightbulb. It was a great edifying story of perseverance and American ingenuity. It was the archetype for narrative for the era of tinkerer/inventors. So, my co-worker and I were surprised to hear that the lightbulbs were withdrawn from the auction after failing to bring even the minimum acceptable bid.

The price wouldn't be outrageous for art, show business memorabilia, or even an equivalently rare book. It's also not that historical and scientific memorabilia don't sell well. Objects associated with space and the military command prime prices. So why didn't it sell? Is technology, as a subset historical/scientific memorabilia collecting, not yet a mature enough field command top prices, or was there something too mundane about lightbulbs to catch the interest of the right collectors? Or were they just overpriced?

Any thoughts?

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