General Electric Gave An Employee An “Impossible” Task – But Then He Changed The Light Bulb Forever

It’s 1925 and a manager at General Electric known as W.I. Enfield has a special job for a new employee, Marvin Pipkin. He asks the latter to solve an age-old light bulb problem – create a durable frosted bulb that didn’t filter out too much light. Nobody had ever managed to do that, so giving the job to new staff was almost a practical joke. But Pipkin takes it on with his customary determination – and Enfield was in for a big surprise.

But before we describe the surprise that was heading Enfield’s way, let’s get to know Pipkin a little better. Marvin Pipkin was born in the Christina district, just to the south of the city of Lakeland, Florida, in 1889. His father was Daniel M. Pipkin, a farmer who became the first to plant the first citrus trees in Christina and Medulla.

Pipkin’s mother was Sarah Catherine and she and Daniel had six children together, with Marvin coming in at number four. The young Pipkin’s early education was at Lakeland’s elementary school and from there he went on to high school in Bartow, Florida. He’s said even then to have shown a particular aptitude for chemistry.

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In a 1977 obituary published in the Lakeland Ledger, one of Pipkin’s classmates remembered the youngster as “…a shy, gawky, sandy-haired, freckle-faced boy who knew more chemistry than all the rest of the class put together.” But despite his apparent intelligence, Pipkin didn’t go to college when he left school, diving straight into the world of work instead.

Pipkin started out at a prospecting company where he stayed for around 12 months. He then moved on to the International Mineral and Chemical Corporation in Bartow. And it was there that he saw first-hand the benefits of further education, since many of his colleagues had been to college and boasted a degree.

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Once Pipkin had made the decision to go to college, he resigned from his job at the International Mineral and Chemical Corporation after having worked there for a year. He now secured a place at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute and went on to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering in 1913.

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Meanwhile, after his time at college, Pipkin then began work at a fertilizer laboratory. Once he’d spent a year there, he decided to go back to Alabama to do his masters. He was awarded this qualification in 1915, and soon afterwards gained a doctorate from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. Indeed, Pipkin now had the education to develop the many ideas that buzzed around in his highly fertile mind.

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Then in April 1917 the U.S. entered the First World War and Pipkin joined the army in the following November. Indeed, the army clearly recognizing his abilities, and decided against sending him to the trenches of the Western Front in France. Instead, he was assigned to the Gas Defense Department at General Electric’s Nela Park plant in Cleveland.

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Indeed, one of the more hideous aspects of combat during WWI was the frequent use of gas warfare. Deadly chemicals such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas were pumped out across the trenches resulting in some 90,000 deaths and 1.3 million casualties during the war. And though international treaties had declared the use of poison gas to be a war crime, both sides deployed it.

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Ranked as a private, Pipkin was put to work on the most effective countermeasure to such attacks: gas masks. And the young private was to make a significant contribution to one of the most important discoveries that came out of the Nela Park laboratories. And his experiments with charcoal for use in gas masks produced highly effective results.

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For his part, Pipkin was working on ways of calibrating the absorbent qualities of charcoal. Charcoal was used in gas masks to filter out the dangerous gases that soldiers were exposed to on the battlefield. The young scientist discovered that the addition of hydrated manganese dioxide to charcoal greatly increased its efficiency in blocking one of the most deadly gases, phosgene.

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Pipkin went on to work out the effect of adding varying amounts of water to charcoal to make it effective against different types of gases. And though we cannot know how many men’s health and even lives Pipkins’s work may have saved, his contribution was obviously important.

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Clearly appreciating the significance of his work, Pipkin’s superiors promoted him to Master Engineer, senior grade. Then after the war ended, General Electric kept Pipkin on in a civilian capacity at its Nela Park plant, still today the headquarters of GE Lighting. And it was in lighting that Pipkin was put to work.

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But before we explore the next segment of Pipkin’s career, let’s take a look at the development of domestic lighting. The ability to flick a switch and have instant light is so commonplace today that it’s actually difficult to imagine what life was like before this everyday convenience. But just think for a moment what life would be like without light in your home after dark.

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As long ago as 400,000 BCE, early humans lit fires in their caves, which would have provided at least some light as well as heat. Fast-forward thousands of years, and we humans had developed the first lighting technology. Indeed, crude lamps have been found from 15,000 years ago in the Lascaux Caves of France.

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Moving on to Roman times, one favored method of lighting was sticks covered in pitch and set alight to make simple torches. Meanwhile, oil lamps were another option and in Victorian times whale oil was commonly used. Beeswax candles were also employed, but these were mostly an expensive preserve of the rich.

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Then during the 19th century, oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps in homes. But again, this convenience was at first mainly affordable only by wealthier people, though the middle classes began to have gas lighting in their homes somewhat later. Nevertheless, by the mid-19th century serious efforts at developing electric light were under way.

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Basically, the incandescent light bulb works by electricity heating a wire element set in a glass globe enclosing a vacuum. The heat causes the wire to produce light and this is made more efficient because the process happens in a vacuum. And the principles of this light-emitting potential were understood as long ago as 1761, when Englishman Ebenezer Kinnersley heated a wire and produced light.

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Meanwhile, another Englishman, Humphry Davy, is credited with creating the first electric light in 1802. His prototype used a battery to heat a piece of carbon, but the light was short-lived and too intensely bright to be useful. However, after that breakthrough there was a long hiatus with no realistic development towards an affordable electric light suitable for domestic use. Then later in the 19th century along came Thomas Edison.

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In 1880 his Edison Electric Light Company brought the first commercially viable light bulb to market. Edison’s bulb had a filament made not of wire but from carbonized bamboo and it had an average life of 1,200 hours. Then in 1906 the General Electric Company – Pipkin’s employer – came up with the much more efficient tungsten wire filament.

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So by the early 20th century light bulbs that we could easily recognize today were available. But there was another refinement that researchers and inventors strived towards in that era. The bulbs on the market were made from clear glass, and this created a harsh, bright light which many people found unpleasant.

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So the search for the holy grail of light bulb development was now focused on finding a way to have a bulb that was frosted. Indeed, this would give a softer and more attractive lighting effect. But to be effective, a frosted bulb would, as far as possible, need to avoid limiting the amount of light it emitted.

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And General Electric researchers had indeed been working on a frosted bulb. In 1920 they succeeded in developing one, but it had serious flaws. The bulb was made by etching the exterior of the glass, but this method reduced the amount of emitted light by up to 25 percent, an unacceptable loss.

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What’s more, the exterior surface was no longer smooth after it had been etched. Furthermore, the fissures on the outside of the bulb collected dirt and dust, which was difficult to remove. And the etching process fatally weakened the bulb, making it so delicate that it could break in the hands of anyone simply holding it.

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Meanwhile, when Pipkin joined General Electric as a civilian in 1919 after his wartime service he was by now 30 years old. And it seems that the technicians and scientists and General Electric had decided that developing a frosted bulb was a nigh-on impossible task. So they often assigned this conundrum to new staff as a practical joke – which brings us back to Pipkin.

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In fact, as we’ve seen, Pipkin had already worked for General Electric as an enlisted soldier during WWI. But now he was a new civilian employee. And when his boss, Enfield, told him to develop a frosted light bulb, he didn’t see it as a joke at all. Indeed, he apparently relished the challenge.

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If Pipkin was aware that this task was regarded as an impossible one and so was assigned as a joke, he was determined that he would have the last laugh. In any case, the problem he was faced with was to design a frosted light bulb that wouldn’t mask too much of the light from the filament. And it needed to be strong enough for everyday use.

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In an article in the August 1927 edition of the Popular Science magazine, Pipkin recalled the time when he was working on the light bulb project. He said, “When I was fussing around with inside frosting experiments, back in 1919, everybody laughed at me, and kept calling me off to tackle something ‘more practical.’”

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“They told me about the manufacturer who had contracted with the railroads to supply 50,000 inside frosted bulbs, and had begged off on his contract when he found he had 50 percent breakage in his product,” Pipkin continued. “Inside frosting was an exploded dream.” But Pipkin clearly wasn’t put off by the railroad story.

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And as his words indicated, it was already recognized that interior frosting was the way forward rather than frosting on the outside of the light bulb glass. So Pipkin carried on with his task, which mostly involved trying to frost the interior of a light bulb glass by etching it with various dilutions of acid.

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Then, strangely, it was an unexpected phone call in 1925 that gave Pipkin the breakthrough he was searching for. Irritatingly, he was in the middle of an experiment, using a particular concentration of acid on the inside of a light bulb glass, when the phone rang. So Pipkin abandoned his experiment to answer the call.

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Pipkin related the incident to Popular Science, “One day I had just poured a cleaning solution into an [acid-etched] lamp on my desk when a telephone call interrupted me. In answering the phone I accidentally tipped the bulb over and spilled the acid out before it had had time to clean off the inside etching.”

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And the results of this premature removal of the cleaning acid were startling. Pipkin remembered, “Later, when I returned to my experiment, I was careless enough to drop this inside-frosted and half-cleaned bulb onto the floor.” Therefore, he would have to repeat the experiment all over again – or so he thought.

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You’ll remember that previous acid etching attempts had rendered glass bulbs too fragile – but not this time. Pipkin pointed out, “By all rights it should have smashed to pieces. Even a clear glass bulb might not have stood the drop. But this theoretically very fragile inside-frosted bulb just bumped on the floor and rolled under the desk unhurt. And that’s all there was to my discovery.”

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So Pipkin had stumbled across the answer to the frosted bulb puzzle through a happy accident. So his new method involved a two-step process of acid application. In the first stage the acid created minuscule fissures on the inside of the bulb glass. But the second step, which used an acid solution with a different composition, created bubbles over the fissures. This actually gave the glass added strength instead of weakening it.

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Amazingly, Pipkin’s innovation left the glass with sufficient strength. And it also had only a slight effect on the amount of light emitted. Plus, the etching was on the inside rather than the outside of the glass bulb. So this meant that there was no rough surface to accumulate dirt.

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Having achieved his breakthrough, Pipkin, clearly a scientist with something of the showman about him, decided to set up a rather theatrical demonstration for his boss Enfield. He took six bulbs to his supervisor’s office and stood them upright on the desk. Three of the bulbs had been treated with just one acid application. Pipkin toppled each one over, and they all smashed.

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But the remaining three bulbs, indistinguishable in appearance from the first three, had gone through Pipkin’s new two-step process. So he tipped those over – and none of them broke. Then to emphasize his point, Pipkin took the three bulbs and dropped each on the floor from a height. Rather than break, they bounced, and Enfield was astonished.

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Indeed, Pipkin’s innovation changed the light bulb industry. But he didn’t stop there – he continued to refine the frosted bulb with its soft glow. Then in 1947 Pipkin designed a new technique for frosting the inside of bulbs. This time he coated the interior of the glass with silica, creating a bulb which was known as the soft-white.

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And Pipkin also found the time to make important improvements to the bulbs that were used for flash photography. However, it’s his innovative work with the bulbs that lit so many homes for decades that will be most remembered. Meanwhile, having retired from General Electric in 1954, Marvin Pipkin died in 1977 aged 87 in Lakeland, Florida, where he had lived for many years.

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