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John White Howell
Electrical engineer, Edison associate, Edison Medalist,
former President of the Edison Pioneers,
and founding member of the Society of Incas.

Over the course of his fifty years as an electrical engineer in the Edison Lamp Works (1880 to 1930), John W. Howell rose from the ranks to become one of Thomas Edison's many key men in the lamp works, ultimately earning the position as chief engineer of the Edison lamp works. During his years in the lamp works, John held over forty patents for his inventions relating to the incandescent lamp and electrical power industries.

In 1924 John was awarded the Edison Medal, which formally recognized him for his contributions toward the development of the incandescent lamp. (To this day the Edison Medal is awarded once annually for achievements in electronics)

In all the years the medal has been awarded (annually to this present time), John is only one of two recipients cited specifically for work on the incandescent lamp -- Edison's brilliant engineer William D. Coolidge being the other in 1927.

During his many years working for Edison, John had helped promote fellow Edison employees from beneath his level to above; John knew his place, and reveled in his engineering work. He was a team playing hands-on engineer who apparently preferred laboratory work over office work.

When he received the Edison medal John suddenly and unexpectedly found himself amongst a long list of notable recipients such as Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, fellow Edison associate John Lieb (and three years later fellow Edison engineer William Coolidge).

Where William Coolidge was known more for his groundbreaking discoveries with tungsten filaments (a German invention that Edison bought) and x-ray technology, John Howell was known more for helping to improve filament designs and efficiency of the actual lamp manufacturing process. In 1886 John determined for the first time the relationship between a lamp's candlepower and its life, and through the years he was intimately associated with inventions which increased lamp manufacture from an initial rate of 35,000 lamps a year to 3,000 lamps a minute. This also greatly reduced the cost per unit of lamp manufacture.

In the years after Edison's incandescent lamp patent expired, this helped keep Edison's lamp works (General Electric) far ahead of the competition. John was also responsible for traveling to Germany with Dr. Willis Whitney, founding director of GE's research laboratory, where they tested the German tungsten filament, and then approved Edison's purchase of the tungsten filament patent.

In the years after Edison first developed the high resistance carbon filament lamp, a flood of legal battles hounded Edison. Although John W. Howell testified in many of these trials on behalf of Thomas Edison and his high resistance lamp patent, John is mostly remembered as being one of the key technical witnesses in the early 1890-91 patent infringement trial sometimes referred to as "the great filament suit". The trial was a key event in Edison's electric lighting industry.

Edison had taken The United States Electric Lighting Company to court over infringement over his original 1880 incandescent lamp patent. Many key Edison experts testified at the trial and provided tremendous evidence in defense of Edison.

One reason historians are drawn to John Howell's testimony, is because John provided one of the more tangible aspects of the 1891 trial; the hand-making of the delicate "tar putty" filament lamps themselves.

The opposing lawyers claimed Edison's original patent was invalid because a person skilled in the art could not make working lamps from the patent instructions, using only materials and methods described therein. A similar incandescent lamp case in England had been lost for this very reason. Edison & his lawyers knew this. They needed somebody to prove his patent by hand-making replicas of his 1879 "tar putty" filament lamps on which Edison's fundamental high resistance carbon filament was based.

Edison put two of his lamp technicians onto the task of making the original incandescent lamps for the court. They both failed to produce working lamps. John Howell then stepped in and subsequently produced thirty to forty working "tar putty" lamps, some of which burned on test stands for over 600 hours.

Other key Edison experts preceeded and followed John on the witness stand, including Charles L. Clarke, former Chief Engineer of the lamp works up to 1884 - a crucial period of early lamp development. Clarke was grilled for over three months on the witness stand. Together they all successfully defended Edison's lamp high resistance carbon filament patent. The resulting decision in favor of Edison led to the consolidation of infringing lamp companies into the Edison Lamp Works, into what we now know as the General Electric company.

Two of the 1890 trial "tar putty" lamps, and the tools used by John to make them, were displayed at the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago. Seven of John's 1890 "tar putty" lamps survive today in a rare collection of historic lamps now up for auction in London.

In his long career with Thomas Edison, my great grandfather John Howell did many notable things. But the thing I'm most drawn to is simply his single-minded devotion to engineering.

- John Starr (one of his many great grandchildren)

Other links:

"Men and Volts: the story of General Electric" (c) 1941 John Hammond
Edward Covington's Howell page