Fluorescent lamp fixtures are more costly than incandescent lamps because they require a ballast to regulate the current through the lamp, but the lower energy cost typically offsets the higher initial cost. Compact fluorescent lamps are now available in the same popular sizes as incandescents and are used as an energy-saving alternative in homes.
Because they contain mercury, many fluorescent lamps are classified as hazardous waste. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends that fluorescent lamps be segregated from general waste for recycling or safe disposal, and some jurisdictions require recycling of them.
Fluorescence of certain rocks and other substances had been observed for hundreds of years before its nature was understood. By the middle of the 19th century, experimenters had observed a radiant glow emanating from partially evacuated glass vessels through which an electric current passed. One of the first to explain it was the Irish scientist Sir George Stokes from the University of Cambridge in 1852, who named the phenomenon "fluorescence" after fluorite, a mineral many of whose samples glow strongly because of impurities. The explanation relied on the nature of electricity and light phenomena as developed by the British scientists Michael Faraday in the 1840s and James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s.
Little more was done with this phenomenon until 1856 when German glassblower Heinrich Geissler created a mercury vacuum pump that evacuated a glass tube to an extent not previously possible. Geissler invented the first gas-discharge lamp, the Geissler tube, consisting of a partially evacuated glass tube with a metal electrode at either end. When a high voltage was applied between the electrodes, the inside of the tube lit up with a glow discharge. By putting different chemicals inside, the tubes could be made to produce a variety of colors, and elaborate Geissler tubes were sold for entertainment. More important, however, was its contribution to scientific research. One of the first scientists to experiment with a Geissler tube was Julius Plücker who systematically described in 1858 the luminescent effects that occurred in a Geissler tube. He also made the important observation that the glow in the tube shifted position when in proximity to an electromagnetic field. Alexandre Edmond Becquerel observed in 1859 that certain substances gave off light when they were placed in a Geissler tube. He went on to apply thin coatings of luminescent materials to the surfaces of these tubes. Fluorescence occurred, but the tubes were very inefficient and had a short operating life.
Inquiries that began with the Geissler tube continued as even better vacuums were produced. The most famous was the evacuated tube used for scientific research by William Crookes. That tube was evacuated by the highly effective mercury vacuum pump created by Hermann Sprengel. Research conducted by Crookes and others ultimately led to the discovery of the electron in 1897 by J. J. Thomson and X-rays in 1895 by Wilhelm Roentgen. But the Crookes tube, as it came to be known, produced little light because the vacuum in it was too good and thus lacked the trace amounts of gas that are needed for electrically stimulated luminescence.
While Becquerel was interested primarily in conducting scientific research into fluorescence, Thomas Edison briefly pursued fluorescent lighting for its commercial potential. He invented a fluorescent lamp in 1896 that used a coating of calcium tungstate as the fluorescing substance, excited by X-rays, but although it received a patent in 1907, it was not put into production. As with a few other attempts to use Geissler tubes for illumination, it had a short operating life, and given the success of the incandescent light, Edison had little reason to pursue an alternative means of electrical illumination. Nikola Tesla made similar experiments in the 1890s, devising high-frequency powered fluorescent bulbs that gave a bright greenish light, but as with Edison's devices, no commercial success was achieved.
Although Edison had lost interest in fluorescent lighting, one of his former employees was able to create a gas-based lamp that achieved a measure of commercial success. In 1895 Daniel McFarlan Moore demonstrated lamps 2 to 3 meters (6.6 to 9.8 ft) in length that used carbon dioxide or nitrogen to emit white or pink light, respectively. As with future fluorescent lamps, they were considerably more complicated than an incandescent bulb.