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Untangling the History of Christmas Lights

The long Thanksgiving holiday weekend is the perfect time to get out the Christmas decorations and put up the colored lights that illuminate the dark winter nights. Those beautiful strings of electric lights replaced candles, which didn't last long, came only in flame color, and were extremely dangerous. The dawn of electric Christmas lights had a lot to do with Thomas Edison, as you might guess, but even more with Edward Hibberd Johnson, who was the first to use Christmas lights.

In 1871, Johnson hired Edison, then a 24-year-old inventor, as a consultant for the Automatic Telegraph Company. Edison “ate at this desk and slept in a chair,” Johnson later recalled. “In six weeks he had gone through the books, written a volume of abstracts, and made two thousand experiments...and produced a solution.”

So impressed was Johnson that when Edison left to start a new company, he followed, quickly making himself useful turning Edison’s brainstorms into cash. In 1877, after Edison invented the phonograph, Johnson took the machine on tour, charging crowds to drum up excitement. When Edison patented the light bulb in 1880, its exact value was hard to gauge; widespread electrification was still decades away. Still, Johnson, Edison and others invested $35,000 to form the Edison Lamp Company to sell the bulbs.

So you see, the guy who strung the first electric Christmas lights in 1882 had a financial stake in their success. Read how it all came about in the December issue of Smithsonian magazine.


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