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The Tungsten Light Bulb Scandal of 1908

John Allen Heany managed to fool some of the people with his tungsten light bulb, but he couldn't fool General Electric.

In 1905, the electric industry was improving by leaps and bounds. Heany wanted to push it further forward.

Thomas Edison had created light bulbs with carbon filaments in 1879, but they were problematic. They tended to cloud the inside of the glass as they burned. A light bulb with a filament made of tungsten, with its incredibly high melting point, was the Holy Grail.

Yet the manufacturing technique to make a tungsten light bulb had yet to be perfected.

The Tungsten Light Bulb

John Allen Heany, owner of the Heany Lamp Company of New Haven, was hot on the trail of the tungsten light bulb.

General Electric was the 800-pound gorilla of the electricity world. The company conducted its own research, but also funded other inventors, usually buying out their companies if they were successful.

GE funded Heany’s promising research, but in December of 1904 the company’s faith in Heany flamed out. At the time, Heany lived in Pennsylvania where he had taught college-level science courses before venturing out as an entrepreneur.

Heany applied for a patent for his tungsten light bulb, and then brought samples to the GE offices. All failed miserably. Heany left, discouraged. After the visit, he sent a letter asking GE to return the bulbs. GE kept one.

John Allen Heany's light bulb (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

John Allen Heany's tungsten light bulb (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

As the race intensified to see who would develop the tungsten filament, Heany emerged in 1908 with a winning light bulb. He claimed he based it on his 1904 patent, but GE – which was backing other entries in the race to perfect the tungsten filament – was suspicious. If Heany’s bulb based on the 1904 design was working fine, why had it failed so miserably when he showed it to them?

As all this was going on, Heany tried to sell the patent to GE for $500,000.

3rd Time the Charm

The GE patent staff went to work. Three times they visited the patent office to review Heany’s various applications, and on the third time they found a flaw.

The patent office had accepted a submission from Heany on one of his applications dated and stamped January of 1905. The paper had a watermark, however, that didn’t come into use until later in 1906.

Clearly, the patent application for the tungsten light bulb had been updated, but made to look like the original submission.

With the warning flags raised, it didn’t take long for the patent office to zero in on the problem. The office had fraud in its midst. The patent office uncovered collusion between a patent examiner, Ned Barton, and Heany’s lawyer – Henry Everding.

The patent office fired Barton. Not surprisingly, Heany hired him and Barton went front and center to defend his new boss.

“I would be a fool to mix up in any matter such as this,” Barton said. But he soon caved. He pleaded guilty to fraud. Everding and Heany stood trial.

Eventually, Everding admitted his part in altering the patent douments. He was convicted.

Both Everding and Barton refused to implicate Heany. Others had no qualms.

Witnesses from his own company testified that Heany had crowed about his infiltration of the patent office. A glassblower showed how bulbs supposedly patented in 1905 hadn’t been designed until years later. Nevertheless, Heany dodged the bullet and was acquitted.

Following the trial the patent office took up the question of whether to invalidate Heany’s patents – now worth millions. Heany put up a fight, but refused to answer questions about his involvement in the patent rigging. In 1911 all the patents were invalidated.

Heany would go on to have a successful career as an inventor and business man. He won dozens of patents both in the U.S. and in foreign countries. During World War I he turned his skills toward developing gas mask technology.

He died at age 69 in 1946 in Hamden, Conn. -- his home for 25 years – the fraud scandal of his youth well behind him.

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