Science for Sale

Some pieces of science history aren't worth as much as you might expect.

By Susan Kruglinski|Friday, March 30, 2007

Thomas Edison's first lightbulb which was used in a demonstration at Menlo Park, NJ.

Which is worth more—the original lightbulbs that clinched Edison's career as legendary inventor and launched the age of artificial illumination or Eric Clapton’s guitar? At Christie’s first­ science-themed auction, held in London last December, appraisers low balled Edison’s bulbs at $380,000, less than half of what Clapton’s Stratocaster brought in a 2004 auction at Christie’s. Even at that price, they didn’t sell. “It’s surprising because the bulbs are so unique and historically important,” says Christie’s spokesperson Matthew Paton. They were used as evidence in a highly publicized decade long trial that proved Edison invented the lightbulb. Lost for114 years, the bulbs recently turned up in an attic.

There were also no takers for a rare Enigma code-breaking machine from the 1940s or for one of the first X-rays of DNA, taken by Rosalind Franklin's research assistant. Old reliables did draw some bidders: a handwritten letter by a 16-year-old Einstein that alludes to ideas about relativity was the top seller, going for more than $670,000, and a fresh first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (yawn) topped$150,000. More surprising was the $140,000 bid for a technical manuscript from 1945 describing the creation of the atomic bomb, signe dby Manhattan Project legends like Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman.

Maybe next time Christie’s should put Edison’s phonograph on the block in an effort to attract the money of music fans.

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