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Edison's bulbs fail to light up auction

December 15, 2006 By Katharine Sanderson This article courtesy of Nature News.

First all-science collection sells modestly at Christie's.

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Wanted: a home for Thomas Alva Edison's light bulbs, which failed to reach their reserve price in a rare auction of scientific objects, manuscripts and books.

The bulbs went under the hammer and came out again in the first-ever dedicated sale of scientific artefacts held by Christie's auction house in London. Christie's guide price for their showpiece lot of 20 or so light bulbs was £200,000 to £300,000.

The bulbs were used to prove that Edison was the inventor of the electric light bulb in a trial in 1890, ten years after he obtained his US patent for the invention. "They're incredibly important in the history of invention," says Christie's Matthew Paton.

But the highest bid was close to just £95,000. Steven Johnston, curator at Oxford University's Museum of the History of Science was surprised that the collection wasn't snapped up by an Edison enthusiast or institute. "It may be a misjudgement on the part of the auctioneers," he suggested. It doesn't mean no one is interested, just that no one was prepared to pay that price for it, he says.

The dispute over who invented the first functional light bulb raged for 10 years between the Edison Electric Light Company and the United States Electric Light Company. In the last moments of the final trial, Edison's colleague John Howell produced a box of working bulbs all made in accordance with the details of Edison's 1880 patent. This caused the case to be dismissed and Edison's place in history was assured. The box was lost to history, but then recently rediscovered. This caused a burst of excitement amongst Edison enthusiasts, but wasn't enough, apparently, to finance their purchase.

Going, going, gone

Christie's spent 9 months gathering more than 200 lots for their first dedicated scientific auction, which included manuscripts, books and essays as well as the light bulbs. In total the sale gathered £1.35 million (US$2.65 million) and sold 60% of its stock a reasonable amount for a first auction in a new dedicated area, says Paton.

The one lot that did pull in the big bucks was Einstein's first scientific essay, 'On the Investigation of the State of Ether in a Magnetic Field' written when he was just 16 and autographed. It went for £344,000 ($677,000) to a private European buyer.

A copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection got the second highest price of the day £78,000 ($153,000). Other notable authors whose tomes were snapped up in the sale include Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

Christie's has not decided whether they will do another science themed auction again.

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