Father of the compact fluorescent bulb looks back

In 1976, Good Times ruled TV, Gerald Ford was trying to "whip inflation now," and in Ohio, a new kind of light bulb was being invented. The man behind the CFL looks back.

Tech Industry
Consumers with an eye to conserving energy may be snatching those swirly compact fluorescent bulbs off store shelves now, but 30 years ago they were barely a shade away from crazy.

"I was given a number of reasons why it wouldn't work," said Ed Hammer, a retired General Electric engineer who invented compact fluorescent while working at the company in the 1970s. "I was told it could be a little better than an incandescent bulb, but that was about it."

Ed Hammer
Courtesy of Ed Hammer
Ed Hammer and the first
compact fluorescent bulb.
Critics said it couldn't be done.
But by carefully spacing the
spirals, Hammer was able to
avoid reflective losses and
come out with a bulb that
could light a room.

Instead, increasing energy costs have made Hammer's invention a quickly growing part of the consumer market. Household CFLs operate on 13 to 25 watts of energy, far less than 60- to 100-watt incandescent bulbs, and thus have become a favorite with consumers trying to curb energy costs. The bulbs also last far longer than standard incandescent bulbs. Although the bulbs contain mercury and thus aren't supposed to be thrown away with the regular trash, sales are climbing. Sales could climb further if legislation pending in various jurisdictions banning incandescents passes.

CFLs will face heated competition with light-emitting diodes, but right now the price of LED lights is fairly high.

GE assigned Hammer to work on energy efficient bulbs at its labs in Nela Park, Ohio, during the first U.S. energy crisis in the mid-'70s. His first invention was a standard-shaped 40-watt fluorescent lamp, called the F-40 Watt Miser, in 1973. To lower the power consumption, Hammer changed the gas used and tweaked various components inside the lamp.

Next came the CFL. Bulbs and fluorescent light, however, are not a natural combination. Fluorescent lights are ordinarily tube-shaped. Curving them into a bulb shape creates reflective losses, i.e. light that shines from one part of the tube gets deflected by a nearby spiral.

Through a lot of trial and error, he came up with a way to space the spirals far enough apart to minimize losses without also losing a bulb-like shape. Many manufacturers have tried different designs, but the shape Hammer coined remains dominant.

Hammer invented the bulb in 1976, he said, and primarily worked alone. (Editor's note: the years reflect the time Hammer says he invented the bulbs, not when GE announced them.) The original prototype is in the Smithsonian.

Although executives at GE liked the idea, they decided not to market it at the time. CFLs would require entirely new manufacturing facilities, which would cost $25 million. "So they decided to shelve it," Hammer said.

The electronics giant contemplated licensing the design. Unfortunately, the design leaked out. Others copied it before GE started a licensing program.

"That's how it became widespread," he said. Still, "it has been a big hit for GE."

Hammer hasn't done badly either. He has published more than 40 papers and was awarded the Edison Medal by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2002.

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