Last week we looked at how GE’s maverick engineers invented the electric carving knife in the early 1960s, forever changing the American Thanksgiving meal. With the last slice of leftover turkey eaten, another GE holiday hero beckons: electric Christmas lights, invented by Thomas Edison in 1880.
Early on, Christmas lights were a luxury item akin to Tiffany windows and Faberge eggs, mainly due to the high price of electricity. Some estimates put the cost of lighting a Christmas tree at $2,000 in today’s dollars. The public could enjoy the lights, but only at a distance. During the 1880 Christmas season, Edison strung a line of electric lights outside his Menlo Park laboratory, enchanting travelers on passing trains.
In 1882, Edison’s partner in the Edison Illumination Company, Edward H. Johnson, hung the first string of 80 electric Christmas tree lights from a revolving tree it the parlor of his mansion. They were “all encased in these dainty glass eggs,” and presented a “most uncanny and picturesque aspect,” according to one smitten visitor. The visitor told Detroit Post and Tribune that “the result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors—red, white, blue, white, red, blue—all the evening, like the tree laden with lambent splendor that sparkles above the fountains in Aladdin’s palace. I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight – one can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
It would be two more decades before Christmas tree lights became affordable for ordinary Americans. GE first began selling pre-assembled kits of strung Christmas lights to the general public in 1903, when electricity costs had fallen considerably.
By then, the technology received a nod from the highest places. President Grover Cleveland had the White House family Christmas tree decorated with hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs in 1895, making the practice more mainstream. And in 1923, families gathered around the radio as President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree in President’s Park in Washington, D.C.
GE’s Christmas lights remain highly visible. Last night, crowds have gathered just south of the White House to watch the lighting of the National Christmas Tree with lights designed by GE Lighting. No more twinkling “dancing eggs” here. The tree was lit with thousands of programmable GE LED lights. Technology changes but tradition remains.