Who Invented Electric Christmas Lights?
December 2020
During the Christmas season of 1880, Thomas Edison, inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the first strand of electric Christmas lights and hung them outside his Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey. Rail passengers traveling by on trains caught a glimpse of the electric light display, but it would be decades before using electric lights to decorate for Christmas became common practice. 

Edward Johnson, Edison’s friend and business associate at the Edison Electric Light Company, had a bright idea that would change how we decorate our trees for Christmas – and make it safer. 

Decorating pine trees for Christmas with flickering candles set in the trees was a popular tradition starting in the 1800s.This posed a dangerous fire hazard. By creating strands of electric lights to decorate a Christmas tree, Johnson provided a safer and still-festive lighting alternative. 

In 1882, Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs and strung them together around a tree in front of the street-side window of his parlor. A generator powered the lights and the tree’s revolving pedestal. 

“It was brilliantly lighted with...eighty lights in all, encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red, and blue...One can hardly imagine anything prettier,” wrote W.A. Croffut, a veteran writer for the Post and Tribune. 

The electrifying display drew a crowd, and Johnson was compelled to turn his creation into a tradition – every year, he added more bulbs to the tree. He featured 120 bulbs in 1884, according to The New York Times. At that time, electricity was not yet widely available and light bulbs were very expensive, so families didn’t start using electric Christmas lights right away. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland placed multi-colored electric lights on the White House tree. 

Until 1903, when General Electric began to offer affordable pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights, string lights were reserved for the wealthy and electrically savvy. Before 1903, the wiring of electric lights had cost about $300, which is about $2,000 in today’s dollars, and would require the service of an electrician. 

On Christmas Eve in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights. Every year, people gather to see the large tree aglow and beautifully decorated with ornaments. 

Today, decorative holiday lighting and fantastic light displays are common. We give credit to Thomas Edison and Edward Johnson for their innovative ideas that brought us these Christmas traditions.