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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: Electric Light

Inventor: Moses Farmer, Class of 1844

Moses Farmer
Moses Farmer. Photograph courtesy of

Had Thayer School been around when Moses Farmer, Class of 1844, was a Dartmouth student, the prolific inventor surely would have been one of the school’s most celebrated alumni.

Farmer’s inventions include the electric fire alarm and the electric trolley. His enduring legacy, however, is the work he did with electric lighting. In 1859, decades before Thomas Edison electrified the nation, Farmer had electric lights in his Salem, Mass., home.

Moreover, it was Farmer who inadvertently inspired Edison’s successful experiments with the light bulb. Edison had dabbled with electric lights for years without success and had pretty much given up—until he visited Farmer’s lab in 1878.

“I believe I can beat you making the electric light,” Edison told his host.

The tour had been a revelation. “I saw for the first time everything in practical operation. I saw the thing had not gone so far…that I had a chance, ” Edison wrote.

Electric Lightbulb

The two inventors took different approaches. Farmer, a member of the Spiritualist Church who believed that his talents were gifts from God and should not be commercialized, had factories in mind when he experimented with lighting systems. He built massive arc lights powered by an on-site dynamo that illuminated thousands of square feet of manufacturing space. Edison, who calculated the moneymaking potential of what he invented, devised a profitable system by thinking small. He imagined an electric system in which a homeowner could turn on a single light powered by metered electricity from a centralized power plant. When Edison restarted his experiments using a new self-exciting dynamo invented and built by Farmer, venture capitalists took notice.

Although Moses Farmer pioneered many electrical applications, he is largely unknown today because he routinely plunged ahead with new technologies rather than perfecting saleable products. He never got rich, though he made some money selling his patents to the likes of Westinghouse and Edison. Farmer died at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair preparing his inventions for exhibition. In 2006 he was a posthumous inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

—Lee Michaelides

For more photos, visit our Research and Innovations album on Flickr.

Categories: Inventions

Tags: alumni, award, innovation

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