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In many movies and animated cartoons, the light bulb represents an idea that occurs inside a character's mind. But where does this metaphor come from and what is the first movie/cartoon/show that used it?

  • Sources of light have long been used as symbols for a powerful idea (and for knowledge in general) since long before the invention of the light bulb. Many institutions like schools and engineering societies use an oil lamp or candle or sun in their seals/logos/crests. – Adrian McCarthy Jun 27 '17 at 20:49
  • Indeed that image has been living in fictional essay such as comics way long before it appeared for the first time on screen. But I was wondering more about the first appearance in the 7th art and how the allegory was shaped and re-adapted to fit a new platform of representation. – KazerKrin Jun 28 '17 at 7:19
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Where does this metaphor come from?

The term "bright" to mean "clever" seems to have originated/evolved in the 18th century..

By the mid 1700s, the term was being said to describe children who were clever or displayed an intelligence remarkable for their age. A hundred years on, the word meant a combination of all these, a meaning akin to our modern understanding of the word.

Source for all references

When the lightbulb was invented...

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, or to easily express a point of view. Early reports of Edison’s success with the electric light bulb were often illustrated with drawings a dark room illuminated by a single lamp.

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As the bulb’s success became more and more apparent, Edison himself quickly became a celebrity. Many drawings and photographs from the time, depict Edison leaning against a workbench, holding an electric light bulb. These iconic photographs of Edison, the so called “Wizard of Menlo Park,” equated the inventor’s prolific output with the light bulb in the public’s mind. The bulb came to stand for all of Edison’s inventive prowess.

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As a symbolic representation of Edison’s slew of new ideas, it wasn’t long before the the symbol came to be associated with the concept of new ideas generically.

Edison’s improvement of the electric light coincided with the world’s new understanding of the of the word to describe someone, or something, as intelligent and inventive. That Edison’s electric light bulbs were also bright like the sun, also helped to connect and cement these two concepts as analogous concepts in the minds of the public.


What is the first movie/cartoon/show that used it for the first time?

Then came along Felix

enter image description here

In the early twentieth century, Felix the Cat was the world’s favorite animated animal. Created more than a decade prior to Mickey Mouse, Felix was the most popular cartoon character of the silent-film era. The anthropomorphic black cat, with his white eyes and a giant grin, was unable to speak because of the limitations of the medium, but Felix’s emotions and thoughts were projected both through his exaggerated movements, and through various kinds of physical manifestations. 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.

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    Good find - but in my opinion you need to be a bit more explicit about the fact that all your quotes and images derive from the same source (which you briefly acknowledge with a single "source" link in one quote). – Floris Jun 26 '17 at 16:07
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    If any sentence is to be bolded I'd think the last one qualifies "It was in these symbolic images that we first see the light bulb used to represent a new idea." – DasBeasto Jun 26 '17 at 17:48
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    It's interesting, the article that the quotes are taken from seems to be the sole source of this answer - a blog attributed to a commercial lighting manufacturer. I hold some level of doubt about it's findings, as does a commenter in this reddit thread: reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/3kx7u5/… It points to the possibility a 1935 episode of Betty Boop might be closer to the original concept - however the link posted just goes to a dead youtube link. I think the answer to this might reside more in traditional libraries than the net – Aaron Lavers Jun 27 '17 at 5:22
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    Yeah, while I can see the image of the IDEA teapot pouring into Felix's head, and another image of Felix holding a lightbulb, I can't see one where a lightbulb is used in place of the teapot. I'm dubious. – Strawberry Jun 27 '17 at 13:30
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    @AaronLavers The Youtube link to the Betty Boop episode works for me. It shows "Grampy" wearing a square academic cap with a real lightbulb attached. – nwellnhof Jun 28 '17 at 11:25
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Felix the Cat was the first to use the light bulb as a metaphor for a bright idea.

In the early twentieth century, Felix the Cat was the world’s favorite animated animal. (...) The anthropomorphic black cat, with his white eyes and a giant grin, was unable to speak because of the limitations of the medium, but Felix’s emotions and thoughts were projected both through his exaggerated movements, and through various kinds of physical manifestations. When Felix was thinking, symbols and letters would sometimes appear over his head (...) It was in these symbolic images that we first see the light bulb used to represent a new idea.

Source

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