This tinkerer's literal light bulb of discovery was halogen

A bomb disposer, bulb creator, "mad-scientist father," and inveterate inventor, Elmer Fridrich has been puttering – and patenting – for over 50 years.

By , Correspondent

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    Father of invention: Elmer Fridrich, standing in his basement workshop, is still trying to improve the halogen bulb.
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On a cloudy night in 1953, as Peggy Danielson drove home through the rolling hills of eastern Ohio, she noticed a bright light shining into the sky. She thought it was an advertising searchlight, but as she neared her house, she saw that the light shone from her own backyard.

“Dad had put a tiny little lamp of his own making into a huge reflector to see if he could get the light to shine to the clouds,” says Ms. Danielson. It was one more experiment by a man who would continue to tinker for the next half-century, acquiring dozens of patents – including one for the first functional halogen bulb.

Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp – made from a carbon filament – had dominated American lighting until the early 1900s, says Hal Wallace, curator of electricity collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Elmer Fridrich’s tungsten halogen lamp, which used iodine to prevent deposits of evaporated tungsten inside the bulb, “was the first major improvement of the Edison lamp.”

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Sure, other researchers tweaked the process. But Mr. Wallace credits Mr. Fridrich with the initial discovery. The Smithsonian has recognized Fridrich’s contributions to lighting, adding his original patent document to its collection and featuring him in an upcoming exhibition on lighting 100 years after Edison. And The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America listed him sixth (just after Edison) in its 2006 list of lighting pioneers.

This shy, slightly eccentric man, who’d started his work at General Electric (GE) as a machinist on the night shift, had become the father of a device that would transform lighting. Now 88, the “mad scientist father” continues to tinker: He holds 33 US patents (31 of which are owned by GE) and has several more pending.

Not bad for college dropout.

“I was impressed with his capabilities as a researcher,” says Derry Stauffer, a patent agent and engineer who worked with Fridrich at GE and now works with him on his patents. “He talked like a PhD and had ideas like a PhD.” Only he wasn’t.

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A slight man with a soft voice, Fridrich wears a fleece jacket even on a summer afternoon: He’s always cold. Periodically, his voice fades and he pauses to wet his whistle. But his mind is electric, flashing through problems to solutions, to new problems, and then to solutions for those.

As a child in the Depression, Fridrich loved to play with fireworks and other explosives. But mostly he was curious about mixtures that produced them – an inquisitiveness that led him to injure his eye and scar his palm.

His parents were entrepreneurial, starting Fridrich Moving and Storage, and Fridrich shares their waste-not, want-not outlook. He finds treasure in trash: He once sliced open a golf club’s shaft, sharpened the edges, and made a cabbage peeler. On his patio, an old computer stand holds firewood.

Planning to become a chemical engineer, he enrolled in the Case School of Applied Science (now Case Western Reserve University). But the curriculum “nauseated me. It was more arithmetic than chemistry.” After two years, he dropped out. As an enlisted man during World War II, he worked in an explosive-powder manufacturing plant, joined a bomb-disposal team, and taught in an Atlanta machine shop, helping injured soldiers learn a trade.

By the time he was discharged, he was married and had two children. “I didn’t have a credential as a chemist, so I took a job as a night machinist at Cleveland Weld Works [a General Electric facility],” he says. “They had problems with manufacturing and I suggested things to do, and they were good enough to let me work on them. Eventually they gave me a room to work on my own.”

There, he devised a machine to package the small leads in radio tubes: Suddenly, GE could box 10,000 leads per minute. Billions of leads were packaged, and the innovation was a frequent stop on the plant’s VIP tour.

That work opened the door to a job at GE’s Nela Park, where Fridrich soon joined a heat-lamp project. Tungsten – the filament that lights up any bulb – kept blackening the glass, rendering the lamps useless. Fridrich recalled an article that described the purification of tungsten and other exotic metals using iodine, and he wondered how a little iodine mixed with tungsten might react when heated. At a high temperature, he reasoned, the iodine or halogen gas would vaporize and combine with the bright tungsten filament – a process of evaporation and deposit that would allow the filament to run hotter, giving more light per unit of energy, all without leaving dark deposits on the bulbs. This “halogen cycle” would happen again and again.

“I went around the lab and discussed this with various people,” says Fridrich. “I got smiles, but not a lot of encouragement. Basically, I was told, ‘Go ahead if you want.’ ” So he did. “Without the iodine, the bulb burned black. But when we added the iodine, it was sparkling clear. It was a beautiful light.”

His invention, which would be used for general lighting, projection lamps, headlamps, and medical lamps, was passed on to academic researchers for further experimentation and refinement. But on the patent, Fridrich is listed first – the primary inventor of the bulb.

GE awarded Fridrich one share of stock, $100, and a lab of his own, where he would keep inventing for the rest of his working life.

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At home, Fridrich’s eight children were sometimes his guinea pigs.

“One day I was getting ready for grade school, and I walked into the kitchen to get my brown-bag lunch,” says Danielson, his youngest daughter, who now lives with him. “Dad had been experimenting with photographic and offset-printing techniques. Printed all over my lunch bag were life-size, photographically reproduced houseflies. I thought it was hysterically funny, but the kids at school stayed far away that day.”

A night owl who generally sleeps most of the morning, Fridrich reads a lot. He lived “green” before it was a popular lifestyle. And even before the federal government passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Fridrich was trying to make an affordable halogen bulb.

The legislation, passed last December, calls for the phaseout of traditional incandescent bulbs, which are 90 percent heat and 10 percent light, by 2012. They will be replaced by higher-efficiency compact fluorescent bulbs (which contain mercury) or halogen bulbs. Both options are more expensive.

“I want everyone to be able to take advantage of the halogen cycle for less than a buck a bulb,” Fridrich says. His latest invention is an efficient, long-lasting, safe, and inexpensive halogen bulb that fits inside the standard socket.

For those of us who have to replace our collective 4 billion light bulbs in the next four years, it’s a ray of, well, light, like the one Fridrich sent up 55 years ago.

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