It always seems impossible until it is done – Nelson Mandela
Have you ever looked at a transparent light bulb when it was lit up? While it does provide a source of light, the light tends to be harsh and casts sharp shadows. It is often difficult to see in the immediate vicinity of the light. This is why most light bulbs tend to be “frosted” with a translucent coating to dissipate the light emission.
Early methods of frosting involved painting the outside of the bulb white, or putting an opaque coating on the outside of the bulb. Neither of these methods were ideal because the coating would rub off on hands (or other surfaces) and had a tendency to chip away over time. It also gave the bulbs a rough surface, which made them more prone to breakage and gathering dust.
In 1925, newly hired scientists at GE’s National Electric Lamp Company in Ohio were given the task to frost the inside of a light bulb. This was a practical joke – a way of hazing the new hires – as the more experienced engineers believed this to be an impossible task. One scientist, Marvin Pipkin, took this challenge seriously and came up with a way to frost the inside of a light bulb by acid-etching the interior with a new chemical mixture that would strengthen the light bulb by smoothing out the inside surface. This resulted in a frosted light bulb with near-flawless light diffusion, but that was less prone to breakage and didn’t have the same issues as bulbs that were frosted on the outside.
What started as a practical joke led to a milestone in the history of lighting. It also illustrates another example of what we can do when we refuse to believe that something is impossible.