An Illuminating Idea

As Christmas trees gained popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, the candles used to illuminate them posed an increasing hazard. That all changed with the innovation of the now-ubiquitous electric tree lights.

Untangling an impossibly knotted ball of stringed lights has become as much of a tradition during the holiday season as exchanging gifts and baking cookies. Like many holiday traditions, the custom of bringing greenery indoors during December was adopted and adapted by various religions and cultures over time. Thanks to a combination of Victorian trendsetting, German immigrants, and the same woman who had a hand in popularizing Thanksgiving traditions, the custom of illuminating evergreen trees made its way to the United States in the mid-19th century. And while electric tree lights may seem like a trivial invention, holiday celebrations were much more dangerous affairs without them.

The Father of Christmas Lights

When Americans began bringing Christmas trees inside, they were the definition of a fire hazard — a dry piece of wood strung with homemade paper ornaments and edible garlands. Despite this risk, revelers continued to light their trees with flaming wax candles, a tradition that went back for centuries. Every year, “without fail newspapers printed tragic stories about Christmas trees accidentally catching fire and houses burning to the ground, sometimes with deadly consequences.” The tree-illuminating industry was ripe for innovations that would vastly increase safety.

Although Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb, Edward H. Johnson, the vice president of Edison’s Electric Light Company, became the “father of the electric Christmas tree.” On December 22, 1882, Johnson displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree, featuring 80 red, white, and blue bulbs, in his home. Edison and Johnson would work together to improve Johnson’s idea and brought his electric tree lights to market in 1890.

Johnson’s invention followed the pattern for accepting new technologies that Adam Thierer advocates in his book Permissionless Innovation: i.e., initial hesitance, gradual adoption, and eventual assimilation. At first, the American public was uncertain about the safety of electricity and Johnson’s lights. However, when President Grover Cleveland displayed the first electrically lit White House Christmas tree in 1895, the public finally began warming to the idea that tree lights were a vastly safer alternative to candles. At the time, however, electric lights were still out of reach for most people, with the price of renting a generator and wiring a tree totaling $300, or $2,000 in today’s terms.

A Different Kind of Christmas Light Competition

Nearly two decades of further technological innovations and active business competition made Christmas tree light technology affordable enough for middle-class consumers and further improved safety, lighting the way for twinkling trees and extravagant outdoor light displays.

In 1890, General Electric (GE) bought Edison’s lightbulb factory and began to distribute tree lights more widely. Unfortunately, though, there were few technical improvements on Edward H. Johnson’s initial invention, and the cumbersome lights could still cause tree fires due to the heat they generated.

The next breakthrough didn’t come until 1903, when GE rolled out the first pre-wired stringed lights, which were safer to use and much easier for the average consumer to set up. GE attempted to obtain a patent for its stringed lights, known as “festoons,” in order to effectively corner the tree light market. However, the patent was ultimately rejected, because “the product was based on knowledge that an ordinary wireman possessed.” The rejection of GE’s festoon patent broke open the market, resulting in competitors who could bring improved stringed light designs to consumers at lower costs.

One such entrepreneur was Albert Sadacca. Motivated by the tragedy of a New York City fire caused by Christmas tree candles, Sadacca wanted to create a safer alternative for widespread use. He repurposed “the white novelty lights his family produced, switching them over to colored bulbs.” Albert Sadacca would go on to form the National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association (NOMA) Electric Company in 1925, which would become the largest Christmas light manufacturer in the world until the 1960s, when a combination of the aluminum tree trend and foreign competition drove them out of the business.

One reason why Christmas tree lights could improve and eventually grow in public adoption was the relatively few regulations they faced. Conversely, many new technologies today face prohibitive regulations that make it harder for people to benefit from innovations. Rather than allowing for permissionless innovation, regulators currently seek to stymie new technologies and innovations — like driverless cars and life-saving medical treatments — even when they have the potential to significantly improve safety and make people’s lives easier.

Thanks to competition and permissionless innovation, stringed lights are no longer just for the wealthy few of Edison’s day but are affordable and safe. And though still largely associated with Christmas, they are also used as year-round décor for everything from dorm rooms to restaurants.