- If someone suddenly has a great idea, then that’s commonly illustrated as a lightbulb above their head.
- Although this visualization implicates Edison in its origin, his connection to the lightbulb moment is inapt.
- Edison's process of discovery was more commonly a prolonged affair involving considerable trial-and-error.
- The actual origin of the lightbulb moment has its origin in early cartoon films involving a spry character.
Remember that Eureka! moment when Thomas Edison instantly and brilliantly invented the lightbulb? Forget it—that simply never happened. So, how did the ubiquitous visual meme of the lightbulb moment begin? Let’s see.
By now, it’s commonplace; if someone suddenly has a great idea, then that’s illustrated as a lit bulb above their head. Of course, Edison is commonly credited with inventing the lightbulb; perhaps he claimed to have had just such an epiphany in its creation. However, this account isn’t true.
For starters, Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb; he did discover how to decrease its cost of production and increase its operational longevity. More problematically, these innovative advances were by no means quick fixes. It took hundreds of attempts before Edison found the specific bamboo filament that was to make his version of the lightbulb a marketable success.
Perhaps Edison shouldn’t be admired for his creativity, but for his industry. He himself famously declared that: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Indeed, taking direct aim at the very essence of the lightbulb moment, Edison offered a bluntly unpretentious self-appraisal of his numerous celebrated innovations, including the lightbulb:
“I never had an idea in my life. I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.”
If the meme of the lightbulb moment isn’t to be credited to Edison, then how might this wildly popular cliché have originated? Some authors have suggested that the expressive symbols and images that were often depicted above the head of silent cartoon favorite Felix the Cat may hold the key. Nevertheless, despite Felix’s evident know-how with lightbulbs—in the 1927 episode, “The Cat and the Kit,” Felix used two to replace his car’s burned-out headlamp—a lustrous lightbulb above his head seems to never have been portrayed.
Actually, a different cartoon character—Professor Grampy—seems to have been the source of the lightbulb moment. In ten animated shorts produced from 1935 to 1937 by Max Fleischer Studios, the spry gadgeteer frequently came to the aid of "Jazz Baby" Betty Boop. Grampy did so by jury-rigging several shrewd solutions to a series of thorny problems.
When confronted with such challenges, Grampy characteristically reached into his pocket, removed, and then donned his proverbial "thinking cap"—a mortarboard with an unlit bulb mounted on top. With plucky resolve, Grampy hunkered down to work, dutifully engaging the trial-and-error process of entertaining one possibility after another, all the while stroking his beard and muttering “Let me think.” When he finally hit upon the solution, the bulb lit up and Grampy gleefully exclaimed, “Hooray, I’ve got it!”
Despite this vivid evidence, the full story behind the animation of Grampy’s lightbulb moments has yet to be told. We can surmise that they might have involved the "meeting of two memes."
First, the lighting of the bulb may represent a "bright idea" that "shines light" on a challenging problem, thereby "energizing" its practical solution. Second, the bulb didn’t float mysteriously overhead; rather, it was screwed into an iconic article of academic attire, the mortarboard. Placing this professorial cap on Grampy’s head clearly signaled that deep thinking—the very business of the brain—was on tap.
But, wait! Didn’t Edison disavow "brain-born ideas" as responsible for his inventions? And didn’t he emphasize perspiration over inspiration in the creative process?
Edison died in 1931. So, he could never have seen any of Grampy’s animated lightbulb moments. His reaction to them can only be guessed.
But I suspect that Edison would have taken a decidedly dim view of these cartoonish portrayals of innovation, although he would have been quite pleased with the audio and video quality of the films themselves. After all, Edison paved the way for motion pictures of this caliber with his own invention of the Kinetophone and the Kinetoscope.
Investigating the origin of the lightbulb moment is certainly challenging and entertaining, but could there be more to be learned from this inquiry? I believe so.
It’s all too facile to believe that venerated inventors and creative artists are special—so special that true giftedness enables them to accomplish amazing feats with astonishing speed and ease. This possibly misleading portrayal of creativity leaves the rest of us to dejectedly and enviously sit on the sidelines instead of getting into the game.
How about putting aside the myth of the lightbulb moment and accepting the challenges that face us with the resilience and tenacity that Edison championed? Success may not come quickly or easily; but, time and effort can often overcome whatever we may lack in raw talent. This more positive attitude may help unleash the innovative possibilities in all of us.
This article also appears in the APS Observer and appears here with the permission of the APS.
Morris, E. (2019). Edison. New York: Random House.
Wasserman, E. A. (2021). As if by design: How creative behaviors really evolve. New York: Cambridge University Press.