What you see: A page of design drawings of light bulbs and related objects, rendered by American inventor Thomas Edison in March 1886. The pencil sketches are paired with a period Edison light bulb. Christie’s London estimates the lot at £600,000 to £900,000, or $75,600 to $113,400.
The expert: Sophie Hopkins, specialist in manuscripts and archives at Christie’s London.
Who was Thomas Edison, and why is he still important? He was arguably the greatest inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His fabulous inventions shape our lives today, from radiography to microphones. His way of working was also distinctive. Before Edison, scientists did personal research with a few assistants. Edison took a more collaborative approach to things. His laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey was the first of its kind–the first proper, organized scientific lab. The best way to characterize him is to use an electrical engineering comparison: he was a dynamo. An unstoppable torrent of extraordinary ideas poured from him.
The seven pages of Thomas Edison drawings in the lot have a March 1886 date. Where was Edison in his career at that point, and how widely used was his light bulb by then? He had already gained a good amount of recognition. He had the phonograph and the microphone under his belt. And by 1884, over 10,000 “Edison lights” were in use in New York. He was very successful.
Thomas Edison was not the first to invent a light bulb, but he did make the first commercially viable one. He began working on designs in 1878 and filed for a patent in 1880. Why was he continuing to work on the light bulb in 1886? Was he trying to improve the design? It is relevant to point out that through the 1880s, Edison constantly tinkered with light bulb design, mainly to improve its durability. But not all of the drawings are about improvements to the light bulb, necessarily. Edison had conceptions for how light bulb technology could apply elsewhere. The first page of drawings shows him introducing electrodes into the circuit. The drawings cover a mixture of the two [motivations]–how the light bulb itself continues to occupy him, and how electric lamp technology could have applications beyond itself, such as for vacuum tubes.
What specific pages, or drawings on specific pages, show Thomas Edison grappling with applying electric lamp technology in other contexts? I think it’s better to see the pages in a holistic sense. You see a mind fizzing with ideas and working on them all simultaneously.
One page of the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings carries a March 1886 date. We know he was on honeymoon with his second wife at the time. What does it say about the nature of the light bulb that it kept calling him and tempting him to work on it, even when he was supposed to be vacationing? To me, at least, that’s what differentiates men and women like Edison from the majority of the population. For brilliant inventors, geniuses, people who make and change history, inventions aren’t something they can make and put down. It’s very simple–Edison was a man possessed. There were just too many ideas in his brain, and they came bubbling and pouring out. He couldn’t stop, even on his honeymoon. There’s a reason he filed just shy of 1,100 patents in his name in his lifetime.
Did Thomas Edison continue to work on the light bulb until he died? The light bulb continued to preoccupy him into the 20th century, decades after he filed the patent. From the late 1870s to the 1890s, he improved the durability of the filament in the light bulb. After that, we see him tweak it less. The light bulb was always something that his followers and fans liked to talk about, because it was so significant. It’s the thing that defined him. What’s great about these drawings is they’re from the middle of the period where the light bulb was clearly a work-in-progress. Everything was essentially moving toward a more durable light bulb, which happened in the early 1890s.
A Thomas Edison light bulb comes with the handwritten design drawings. Does the bulb date to 1886? If not, when was it made, and how do we know when it was made? The bulb is certainly a little earlier than 1886. It’s possible to say the light bulb that comes with the lot was made between the end of 1880 and early 1881.
Have the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings always been offered as a pair, or did someone bring them together at some point in the past? The first time we see the light bulb and the documents together is in 2009, when they were with a rare book dealer in America. They reappeared on the market ten years later, in a sale in Paris.
Do we know how the Thomas Edison light bulb drawings left his possession? We do know that his design notebooks became scattered for the same fact I pointed out earlier–the style of working in a laboratory. Because you’re working alongside others, there’s a culture of exchange of ideas, and a vast number of design drawings. You often find material such as this coming to the open market via one of Edison’s assistants or a colleague of his who was in Edison’s laboratory at some point.
When you’re inventing things, you’re not worrying about how and where to archive the raw design sketches. It’s important to think of them as in-the-moment design drawings, not formal. It’s the best instance we have of transmitting genius to paper. To me, [raw design sketches are] more interesting and more exciting, because they offer insight into the creative process. We see Edison working through his ideas. The drawings are part of a much broader chronological arc. This one moment is a flash of brilliance, but he was constantly working toward something.
How often do Thomas Edison design drawings come to market? And how often do you see them appear with an example of the object illustrated in the drawings? The first time that original Thomas Edison design drawings came up was in June 2000.
Whoa. Exactly. It’s fair to say it’s rare to see such material on the market. To have it paired with a finished object is rarer still.
I’d wondered how much, if any, Thomas Edison design drawings have been consigned to auction. I had a vague notion that after he died, most of his material went directly to an archive. The Thomas Edison National Historic Park is the main repository of his archived material. There are five million pages in there. It’s rare to see Thomas Edison design drawings on the market. We’re quite excited to have these pages and the light bulb.
Heck, the light bulb is an emoji. Thomas Edison’s breakthrough has become the visual representation of a breakthrough. Yes! The light bulb is the symbol for the dawn of the proper modern industrial age, a symbol for brilliance, a symbol for a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to have drawings from the world’s most brilliant inventor of his invention that sums up the idea of a good idea?
What are the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? One thing I find pleasing is how big and bold and sculptural the light bulb is. It’s bigger than the light bulbs we use nowadays. I find something incredibly appealing about holding a light bulb in its earliest state, because it looks so different from the light bulbs of today. I think of how precious and alien it must have been to a 19th century observer.
And the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings? I like the fact that you get the sense of the pencil Edison uses for the drawings. I love drawings and letters in pencil. The texture of the pencil lead is more evocative than pen.
And by choosing a pencil, the user is kind of saying, “I might screw this up”. Exactly. These things are not finished works. The pencil is an admission of that. People who appreciate that person years later appreciate them more [for using a pencil to think through problems]. You want to see an unguarded moment of creation. You want to see the scientist struggling and working it out. You want to see the toil that went into it.
What’s your favorite detail in the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings, and why? I like the drawings that look most obviously like a light bulb. There’s something incredibly powerful and pleasing and emblematic about Thomas Edison drawing a light bulb.
The Thomas Edison light bulb that comes with this lot–does it work? [Laughs] It’s not working currently, but it’s in near original condition and it’s tantalizingly close to being functional. It would require technological intervention of the sort that very few are capable of doing without altering or changing the bulb.
What’s the most expensive Thomas Edison item sold at auction? It was an 82-page autograph manuscript, notes for his autobiography. It sold in New York in 1998 for $75,000. A more recent comparable lot sold at an American auction house in July 2014. It was a laboratory notebook from Edison in which he’s essentially doing experiments on rubber to find a suitable alternative for tires. That sold for $50,000. It was a full notebook, and it dated from the late 1920s, the end of his career. But to be quite honest, when collectors think of when they think of Thomas Edison is the light bulb. What’s more desirable–the light bulb, or experimenting with different forms of rubber?
So you think the Thomas Edison light bulb and design drawings have a shot at breaking the world auction record for an Edison item? If you reach the low estimate, you’ve pretty much done it. We’re hoping it contends for the title of most expensive item at auction for Thomas Edison. I think a lot of collectors see the value in design drawings of something so emblematic of modernity and progress and brilliance.
Why will this lot stick in your memory? The Eureka! sale focuses on inventions of the modern age. The electric light ushered in a society where sunset and sunrise don’t define productivity. It opens the door to everything that came afterward. To have it open the sale, as lot 1, makes perfect sense to me.
How to bid: The Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings are lot 1 in Eureka! Scientific Breakthroughs of the 20th Century, an online Christie’s sale that began on June 24, 2020 and continues until July 16, 2020.
Images are courtesy of Christie’s.
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