The following is a transcript of a school assembly given by my Dad, Nigel Freeman-Powell, on 18th February 2002. It tells the story of how my grandfather, Normal Powell, invented the world’s first floodlight.



In the first chapter of Genesis we read  “God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’. But we have never been very happy with that arrangement and throughout history have tried to turn night into day and produce light to lighten our darkness.

In the late 18th century two famous Birmingham men James Watt and Matthew Boulton sent their young engineer William Murdoch to Redruth, in Cornwall. While there he succeeded in lighting his house and office with piped coal-gas, the first time this had ever been done. Later, the system was introduced into Birmingham, making Birmingham the first place in the world ever to have public streets lit by gas.

At the end of the 19th century Thomas Edison in America was engaged in a series of experiments to produce a practical light bulb which used electricity. He tried over 2,000 experiments before he succeeded. A reporter asked him how it felt to fail so often. He said “ I never failed once.  I invented the light bulb – it just happened to be a 2,000-step process.”  This was a rather immodest boast because the English physicist Joseph Swan actually invented the first incandescent light bulb – Edison just improved it for practical use.

The descendent of Edison’s light bulb is a very familiar sight today, of course: a glass globe in which a thin filament of tungsten glows brightly when electricity passes through it – the air is replaced by argon so the filament does not burn away.  But nowadays we have other types of light bulb as well.

In the early 1960s my father was very keen on making home movies on cine film and he had difficulty getting good easily-portable lighting for this. For an ordinary light buIb to give out a very bright light it needed to be very big or else the hot filament would be so close to the glass it would melt it. In those days the Philips electrical company produced long thin tubes made of a special glass (the sort you’re not supposed to touch with your bare fingers) with a metal filament down the middle, like this one. They were designed to be run on 110V, the voltage use in America and Japan, when they glowed dull red and gave out a gentle heat for use in bathroom heaters and treating muscular aches and pains. My father and a colleague of his had the idea of connecting these Philips tubes to the full 240V used in Britain to see what sort of light they gave out. This is the prototype model they built and you can see it gives out a very bright light indeed. It was rather crudely made and heavy and doesn’t reflect the light forwards very efficiently. (In fact, having got these out of our loft and used them for the first time in 25 years they could probably do with a better polish than I’ve given them for this morning.) This is the second model they produced which is lighter and reflects the light forwards better.

My father and his colleague made several of these, ordering the tubes from Philips and thinking that when they had perfected the idea they might go into commercial production and sell them. But Philips eventually became curious as to what they were using all these tubes for, and, fools that they were, they told them!

Philips said  “Oh, we’ve never thought of doing that, we’ll have a try and see what it’s like!”  My father and his colleague had been too slow to take out a patent on their invention, and Philips quickly went into production making small, compact bright floodlights for photography. Nowadays floodlights like these can be seen around the world in their millions, illuminating car-parks and other public spaces or else lighting up the outside of your house when someone approaches, but these really are the first two in the world ever built, by my father.

Darkness has always been associated with evil and light with good. Dark deeds are done under the cover of darkness, while the brighter the light the easier it is to see the flaws in something and to remove them.  It is a strange thing about light – no matter how vast and black the darkness is, the tiniest bit of light can be easily visible – you’ve only got to look up at the stars on a dark night to see that that’s true, and the blacker the night the more the stars seem to shine out brightly.

In our Carol Service at Christmas each year we hear the beginning of John’s gospel in which he speaks of the coming of Jesus as of light into a dark world: “Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. God sent John the Baptist to tell everyone about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was only a witness to the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was going to come into the world. But although the world was made through him, the world didn’t recognize him when he came. Even in his own land and among his own people, he was not accepted.”

Jesus also described his followers as light for the world – like a city on a mountain glowing in the night for all to see. He said  “Don’t hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a lamp-stand and let it shine for all. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”

One small light can put an end to an awful lot of darkness; one good deed of kindness and love can stand out in contrast to an awful lot of bad deeds of selfishness and greed. We are all called upon to be lights in a dark world and by acts of love, kindness and self-sacrifice to remove the darkness in the lives of others.

Copyright © Nigel Freeman-Powell 2002. Reproduced with permission.