Fact or Fiction: Did Agapito Flores Invent the Fluorescent Lamp?

Shedding Light on an Old Controversy Reveals the Truth

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No one knows who initially proposed the notion that Agapito Flores, a Filipino electrician who lived and worked in the early 20th century, invented the first fluorescent lamp. In spite of evidence that disproves the claim, the controversy has raged for years. Some proponents of the tale have gone so far as to suggest that the word "fluorescent" was derived from Flores' last name, but considering the verifiable history of fluorescence and the subsequent development of fluorescent lighting, it's clear that the assertions are false.

The Origin of Fluorescence

While fluorescence had been observed by many scientists as far back as the 16th century, it was Irish physicist and mathematician George Gabriel Stokes who finally explained the phenomenon in 1852. In his paper on the wavelength properties of light, Stokes described how uranium glass and the mineral fluorspar could transform invisible ultra-violet light into visible light of greater wavelengths. He referred to this phenomenon as "dispersive reflection," but wrote:

“I confess that I do not like this term. I am almost inclined to coin a word, and call the appearance  'fluorescence'  from fluor-spar, as the analogous term opalescence is derived from the name of a mineral.”

In 1857, the French physicist Alexandre E. Becquerel, who had investigated both fluorescence and phosphorescence, theorized about the construction of fluorescent tubes similar to those still used today.

Let There Be Light

On May 19, 1896, about 40 years after Becquerel postulated his light-tube theories, Thomas Edison filed a patent for a fluorescent lamp. In 1906, he filed a second application, and finally, on September 10, 1907, he was granted a patent. Unfortunately, instead of utilizing ultraviolet light, Edison's lamps employed X-rays, which is likely the reason his company never produced the lamps commercially. After one of Edison's assistants died of radiation poisoning, further research and development were suspended.

American Peter Cooper Hewitt patented the first low-pressure mercury-vapor lamp in 1901 (U.S. patent 889,692), which is considered the first prototype for today's modern fluorescent lights.

Edmund Germer, who invented a high-pressure vapor lamp, also invented an improved fluorescent lamp. In 1927, he co-patented an experimental fluorescent lamp with Friedrich Meyer and Hans Spanner.

The Flores Myth Busted 

Agapito Flores was born in Guiguinto, Bulacan, the Philippines, on September 28, 1897. As a young man, he worked as an apprentice in a machine shop. He later moved to Tondo, Manila, where he trained at a vocational school to become an electrician. According to the myth surrounding his supposed invention of the fluorescent lamp, Flores allegedly was granted a French patent for a fluorescent bulb and the General Electric Company subsequently bought those patent rights and manufactured a version of his fluorescent bulb. 

It's quite a story, as far as it goes, however, it ignores the fact that Flores was born 40 years after Becquerel first explored the phenomenon of fluorescence, and was only 4 years old when Hewitt patented his mercury vapor lamp. Likewise, the term "fluorescent" could not have been coined in homage to Flores, since it predates his birth by 45 years (as evidenced by the prior existence of George Stokes' paper)

According to Dr. Benito Vergara of the Philippine Science Heritage Center, "As far as I could learn, a certain 'Flores' presented the idea of fluorescent light to Manuel Quezon when he became president," however, Dr. Vergara goes on to clarify that at that time, the General Electric Company had already presented the fluorescent light to the public. The final takeaway to the tale is that while Agapito Flores may or may not have explored the practical applications of fluorescence, he neither gave the phenomenon its name nor invented the lamp that used it as illumination.