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By J. B. MacKinnon , JULY 14, 2016
The light bulb that has brightened the fire-department garage in Livermore, California, for the past hundred and fifteen years will not burn out. Instead, it will “expire.” When it does, it certainly won’t be thrown out. It will be “laid to rest.”
“You have to use the correct terminology,” Tom Bramell, a retired deputy fire chief who has become the Livermore light’s leading historian, told me. The bulb has been on almost continuously since 1901, he said; in 2015, it surpassed a million hours in service, making it, according to Guinness World Records, the longest-burning in the world.
Bramell so cuts the figure of a firefighter that he has smoke-colored eyes and hair, and a permanent hack from smoke inhalation (“I do a bag of cough drops a day”). His circumlocution around the bulb’s eventual, inevitable end reflects the reverence in which it is held by Livermoreans and its more far-flung fans, who keep vigil over the light online. The bulb, he said, has outlived three webcams so far. It was manufactured sometime around 1900 by Shelby Electric, of Ohio, using a design by the French-American inventor Adolphe Chaillet. Its essential makeup is something of a mystery, because it is hard to dissect a light that is always on. (Shelby bulbs of the same vintage have been studied, but the company was experimenting with a variety of designs at the time.) What’s known for sure about the Livermore bulb is that it has a carbon filament of about the same human-hair thickness as the ones, typically made of tungsten, that are found in modern bulbs. It was made to be a sixty-watt bulb, though it currently illuminates the Fire Department Station 6 garage with only about the brightness of a nightlight.
More intriguingly, the light bulb is of the incandescent variety—the same type that many consumers now revile for its short life span. Had you plugged in a typical drugstore incandescent on January 1st of this year and left it on full time, it would likely have died by around February 12th. These bulbs commonly burn for about a thousand hours, or approximately half as long as the average bulb did in the early nineteen-twenties. “We don’t build things today to last,” Bramell said—speaking for, I would guess, almost all of us.
That truism has lately come into question, however, thanks to the widespread adoption of durable, light-emitting-diode light bulbs. L.E.D.s use semiconductor technology to achieve long life spans—bulbs that promise a fifty-thousand-hour design life are not uncommon. Current penetration in the consumer-lamps market (as the bulb business is known) is seven per cent worldwide, and is expected by lighting analysts to reach fifty per cent by around 2022. In the first quarter of 2016, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, L.E.D.-lamp shipments in the U.S. were up three hundred and seventy-five per cent over last year, taking more than a quarter of the market for the first time in history.
This would seem to be a good thing, but building bulbs to last turns out to pose a vexing problem: no one seems to have a sound business model for such a product. And, paradoxically, this is the very problem that the short life span of modern incandescents was meant to solve.