How did the lightbulb become associated with a new idea?
In the late 19th century, before the development of practical techniques to reproduce photographs on the printed page, illustrations and cartoons were a mainstay of newspapers worldwide. Editors would commission illustrations to depict events described in the articles. Early reports of Edison’s success with the electric light bulb were often illustrated with drawings of a dark room illuminated by a single lamp.
As the bulb’s success became more and more apparent, iconic photographs of Edison next to his invention stood out in the public’s mind. The bulb came to stand for all of Edison’s inventive prowess.
But it was the early twentieth-century cartoon, Felix the Cat, that cemented the idea of a light bulb as a new idea. Created more than a decade before Mickey Mouse, Felix was the most popular cartoon character of the silent-film era. When Felix was thinking, symbols and letters would sometimes appear over his head, and he would often use them as props: question marks became ladders, and musical notes became vehicles. It was in these symbolic images that we first see the light bulb used to represent a new idea.