Up at the Hoosac School, there’s a long-standing story passed down through generations of faculty and students crediting the invention of the incandescent light to a Tibbits family member and not to Thomas Edison. In fact, a letter from the 1940s discovered in the Hoosac archives, outright claims Edison stole the idea for the incandescent bulb after a visit to the Tibbits estate.
An outrageous claim or is there something more to the story?
Let’s start with a spoiler. Edison did not steal the idea for the incandescent bulb. Not from Tibbits, at least. We found no evidence in the Hoosac nor our own archives to support any real involvement between the better known inventor and our own Tibbits. Yet, what we did uncover sheds some light on where that myth might have originated.
The Hoosac School was founded by the Rev. Edward Tibbits in 1889 as a choir school located at the corner of Route 7 and Hill Road in Hoosick. It was moved in the 1950s to its current site, where it continues today as a private coed college preparatory school, with the old Tibbits mansion a focal point of any visit to campus. Known today as Tibbits Hall, this Gothic structure was built by the son of NY politician George Mortimer Tibbits sometime prior to the Civil War. The locals of the day referred to the home as the “Castle of the Nepimore Vale,” after an earlier name for the valley region.
Behind the castle is a smaller, far less grandiose plaster-wrapped building; a structure built in the mid- to late-18th century by Colonel Francis Pfister. Pfister was a British loyalist, who died at the Battle of Walloomsac. Unassuming and today used for faculty housing, this structure inspired the name of an enterprise that would lead to one of the most important discoveries of the modern era.
White House Mills was established sometime prior to 1879 by Edward and John B. Tibbits, the grandsons of George Mortimer Tibbits. The brothers were by then producing radial dynamos capable of powering arc lamps and demonstrated the capabilities of these units at the International Exposition of Electricity in Paris and at the Electrical Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, where they won a gold medal and received mention in Scientific American. The Tibbits dynamos even received interest from George Prescott, who had since the 1860s written on all manner of electrical inventions. The White House Mills dynamos appear in his 1884 volume Dynamo-electricity: Its Generation, Application, Transmission, Storage and Measurement.
Edison by that time was making rapid strides in improving the lifespan of the incandescent bulb. By the end of the 1880s, the Edison incandescent could burn reliably upwards of 600 hours. And by 1905 Edison’s General Electric held the patent for a tungsten-coated carbon filament which lengthened burn time significantly and also produced a brighter light.
What few may realize is the idea for the use of tungsten came a few decades earlier from a mind of an 18-year-old inventor, Turner D. Bottome. Bottome found he could produce a long-lasting filament for the incandescent light if he coated carbon in tungsten. Tungsten offered high-heat resistance to the otherwise delicate filament, a quality of special importance at a time when power generation was less stable than it is today.
This discovery garnered instant recognition for its potential. Recognition and interest from inventors like Thomas Edison. But it wouldn’t be Edison who would secure the patent for the design. Bottome filed the first patent in 1887 and, needing funding to support his research for applications of the technology, he reached out to John B. Tibbits and White House Mills in Hoosick.
According to the 1909 Electrical Review: “Mr. John B. Tibbits, who took up this young man, was an Episcopal clergyman of considerable means and a man of very bright ideas and quite an inventor himself. He spent a large sum of money on electrical research work… Some of his suggestions were thought visionary at the time, but some of them have since proved perfectly feasible.”
Today, the Tibbits name is synonymous with education and ingenuity. Students at the Hoosac School now have the opportunity to examine a multitude of original diagrams of the White House Mills radial dynamo with the hope of resurrecting the design for demonstration purposes. In this, the spirit of what happened here on the Nepimore Vale more than a century ago continues.
The initial development of the tungsten-coated carbon filament happened right here in Hoosick and is largely regarded as the single most important discovery leading to the successful commercialization of the incandescent bulb. And while Edison didn’t steal anything, perhaps what inspired the long-standing myth wasn’t a physical theft, but something that cut deeper. That credit so often goes to a lone man or entity, leaving so many in the shadow of that single bright light.
Special and most sincere thanks to the Hoosick Township Historical Society for help in uncovering the truth about the Tibbits light and for loaning an original arc lamp made by White House Mills to the Hoosac School over the summer. For more information about the Tibbits light, please visit Hoosac.org and see the latest Hoosac Today. Samantha Graves is a trustee for the Hoosick Township Historical Society and works in the Alumni Relations and Institutional Development Office at Hoosac School. You may reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.