Have you packed away your Christmas lights?

Patents can teach us a lot about the history of technologies.

In mid-January, you will have undoubtedly put away your Christmas lights and be feeling a tug of nostalgia. So read this article which traces the history of tree lights through patents.

Candles

Since the 1500s, families have decorated their Christmas trees with candles. The candles were fixed to the branches with melted wax, a difficult process and one which represented a significant fire risk. Gradually, this method of fixing was replaced with counterbalanced candlesticks, safer and easier to use. They were made by hand and the weight was a decoration, a fruit or a moulded animal. The US72,506 system, for example, was developed in 1867 to affix candles to the tree.


            
US72,506 - 1867                   US539,199 - 1895

Clamps and clips became popular later. Produced in large quantities in workshops, they were sold in markets and in boutiques. They have a point on which the candle is placed, a receptacle to collect melted wax and a clamp to secure it to the tree branch. The patent US539,199, for example, described in 1895 a spring clip.
Many models were fitted with a ball mechanism to adjust the candle.

The patent CH73688 in 1916 combined a counterweight and clamp.


CH73688 - 1916                                             US660,899 - 1900

Inventions relating to Christmas candlesticks continued throughout the 1890s and the first 20 years of the 20th century and occasionally presented some surprising sophistication, such as contained in the document US660,899 (1900) which adds an adjustable reflective mirror to the classical system.

As wax was an expensive commodity, candles were occasionally replaced with mini oil lamp systems such as in the invention US373,958 of 1887 or even, later, by gas burners as described in the document US1,225,241 filed in 1915.


US373,958 - 1887                                                           US1,225,241 - 1915

Electric fairy lights

In 1879, Thomas Edison patented (US223,898) the first reliable incandescent electric light bulb. Two years later, his friend and associate Edward Johnson decorated his New York home with the first light garland, comprised of 80 'glass eggs' wrapped in coloured paper.


US223,898 - 1879

The Edison Electric Company began selling small Christmas bulbs in 1895. Initially clear, they were then sold in red, green and other colours. In 1894 or 1895, the White House was decorated with a Christmas tree covered in hundreds of multicoloured lights: this famous example is considered the starting point for the trend of decorating Christmas trees with electrical lights.

From 1899-1900, magazines began to publish adverts for Christmas light garland rental and large stores decorated their windows with illuminated trees in around 1901. But these decorations were much too expensive for families. Cheaper technologies needed to be developed before electrical lighting was within the reach of all.

And indeed, the American Eveready Company sold the first pre-cabled garland, ready to plug in, in 1903. General Electric then Edison Electric picked up on this technology and launched the commercialisation of this type of Christmas light garland which had the advantage of not requiring the involvement of an electrician and was therefore less costly.

In 1907, Ralph E. Morris, an employee of the New England Telephone Company, had the idea of miniaturising the bulbs by looking at the small indicator lights on telephone switchboards.

Commercial development then followed suit. In 1917, the Sadacca family, which owned a novelty lighting company, had the idea of selling multicoloured Christmas lights in its stores. They developed garlands with very safe small bulbs which were met with huge success and they went on to create the NOMA Electric Company in 1925 and for over 40 years were the largest Christmas light manufacturer in the USA.


US1,971,201 - 1928

In 1930, Philips manufactured its first electrical light garlands for Christmas trees. They were comprised of 9 bases for 9 lamps of 14 volts.

Light garlands have been refined with the development of inventions. Thus, in 1936, a patent was issued for a decoration in which tubular elements were fixed to pivoting supports and which was fixed with suction pads, which made the garland suitable for windows and displays of various sizes. In 1931, the patent US1,791,533 described a lighting system in the shape of a tree, with different colour bows behind the bulbs.   



US2,052,425 – 1936                                       US1,791,533 - 1931

The patent US2,028,342, issued in 1936 in Westinghouse Lamp, relates to the assembly of mini-bulbs and fixing of electrical wires to a pane of glass to form Christmas light garlands.

US2,028,342 - 1936                                            US2,110,353 - 1938

The document US2,110,353 dating from 1938 relates to electrical rope lights with miniature lamp holders and specially designed for decorative lighting on Christmas trees and designed to be arranged easily and without issue on the limbs.

Sophisticated products

Throughout the 20th century, fairy lights, which co-existed alongside candles for a long time, were comprised of filament bulbs operating on the same principle as the Edison bulb. They emit a large spectrum of light which makes them appear white and give off heat which can set fire to a tree that is too dry, despite being safer than candles.

The first patents for tree decorations facilitating the detection of heat or smoke, such as US4,075,614 (1976), multiplied along with the development of technologies.


US4,075,614 - 1976               US3,361,902 - 1965

Inventors also endeavoured to add special effects to the lights, such as in patent US3,361,902 which combined visual and audio effects - for example, a bell chime when a thermostat reaches a certain level.

LED light garlands

While incandescent bulbs became widespread in the 1920s and 30s as a replacement for candles, LEDs swept the market in the 190s.

LED Christmas garlands represent greater energy efficiency and are much safer to use. Their arrival on the market made it possible to reinvent lighting techniques and product design.

The first LEDs were patented by Texas Instruments (US3,293,513). The 'Semiconductor Radiant Diode' patent was issued in 1966 and related to gallium arsenide diodes emitting in infra-red.

US3,293,513 - Texas Instrument 1966  US4,039,890 - Monsanto 1977

The same year, General Electric obtained a patent (US3,249,473) by adding phosphorus to the gallium arsenide, thereby obtaining the first LED producing visible light (red). Gradually, LEDs were developed for which the colour depends on the electroluminescent compound selected to produce them.

The patent US4,039,890 by Monsanto (1977) proposed a two-dimensional LED array, in which they can be controlled individually, which make it possible to display different colours. It was from this invention that, amongst other things, the LED screens of today were born, based on combinations of red-blue-green as well as Christmas light garlands where the individual lights are controlled with an adjustment of colours via red, blue and green LEDs.

LED garlands fairly quickly replaced decorations with incandescent bulbs, even if some people are still nostalgic about the shape of the original bulbs, and even the flames of candles.

     
US7,125,142 - 2004                            US2,782,296 - 1957

Intelligent lights

The control of LEDs and their flexibility has been put to use in light shows projected onto façades and which can be synchronised to music, simply at first and then more elaborately. In 1995, a programmable lighting system (US5,629,587 of 1995) controlled the duration of lighting and the intensity of the bulbs.


US5,629,587 - 1995                                          US8,614,632 - 2013

In 2013, the patent US8,614,632 described a device that converts sound waves into signals which control RGB lights and which produce a light display.

Today, innovation based on programmes and wireless networks make it possible to create highly elaborate light and sound displays.

Today

In Christmas light garlands as with the majority of products and techniques, Chinese patents now represent the greatest number. They relate to technologies such as the IoT, big data, Bluetooth…


CN110319412 - 2019      CN110296368 - 2019

In parallel with these developments, research into the decorative aspects of Christmas lights continues. A good example would be this garland (WO2019/209526) intended to completely dress the tree and replace all other decorations by means of an enveloping form designed to be arranged easily, or this ceramic tree with integral LEDs (CN209528831).

WO2019/209526 - 2019                      CN209528831 - 2019

In contrast to these new geeky technologies, fashion is now leaning towards a return to tradition and lighting Christmas trees with electric candles or even natural ones are now coming back! Even if certain cultures - people in Sweden for example - never abandoned them.

Sources

Research by Sirris in the Orbit de Questel database

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