I just had to research the light bulb that has been burning in Livermore California for 110 years when one of my avid readers told me about it in a comment on the “Who Invented the Lightbulb?…Wrong” post a few days ago. In fact, the birthday is tomorrow, June 18th. One hundred and ten years. There’s a big birthday party planned.
The bulb has indeed been burning since 1901. It’s a carbon filament bulb manufactured by the Shelby Electric Company. The glass bulb was hand blown and was given to the firehouse by Dennis Bernal who owned the Livermore Power & Light Company. The bulb has been moved a couple of times and is now in Fire Station #6 at 4550 East Ave in Livermore, California. You can go to their website and watch the bulb burn with an update every ten minutes on a webcam. It’s hard to tell if ten minutes has passed, because it kind of looks the same every ten minutes, to me at least.
What is interesting, I think, is that this isn’t the only one! In fact, until Livermore contacted the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest burning incandescent light bulb was thought to be in the Palace Theatre in Ft. Worth, Texas. (It was originally known as the Byers’ Opera House in Ft. Worth.) It was first turned on in 1908, and since the theatre was demolished in 1997, it was moved to the Fort Worth Stockyards Museum where it’s still burning away.
Some argue that the fact the Livermore bulb is on 24 hours a day, with minor exception when they remodeled the fire station, and during some power outages, is why it has lasted so long. The Palace Theatre bulb was turned off and on every day, so that theory doesn’t hold water. But that is what causes bulbs to burn out more quickly. Each time the switch is turned on the filament heats up and when the switch is turned off the filament cools. If this is done a lot, the bulb will burn out because the filament develops hairline cracks each time and finally fractures.
Still it’s amazing that those two light bulbs, and three more like it burned for that length of time. Since the life of the bulb is clearly marked on the side of the boxes these days, how did these bulbs get manufactured differently than the others? The hardware store “Gasnick Supplies” in New York City had a bulb working since 1912. It was over the back door of the store and was turned off and on occasionally. In fact the owner disputed the validity of the Livermore bulb because his bulb had carbon deposits on the inside of the glass and wasn’t as clean as the Livermore bulb. Where that bulb is today is unknown as the store was torn down in 2003 to make way for a high-rise. Another firehouse bulb was installed in 1926 in Mangum, Oklahoma and is turned off and on in normal use. Then there is the bulb at the “Martin & Newby Electrical Shop” in Ipswich England that was screwed in around 1930 and burned out in 2001. And there is a couple of things that you might want to know about the Livermore bulb. It’s burning at 4 watts as a nightlight in the firehouse, originally designed for 60 watts, and its been on a protected circuit since 1976. So they’re doing whatever they can to keep the filament from cracking.
And this inevitably brings up the question of “Planned Obsolescence.” Do businesses in America plan obsolescence into their products? Was this the conceived marketing plan for the light bulb? The one thing that is sure, is you can’t force manufacturers to make a better product by legislation. It will always be the demand of the market. Would consumers have paid $500 for a bulb they know would last 100 years, or would they rather pay 23 cents for a bulb that would last only a few months? That argument will go on and on and on.
If you’re ever in Livermore, California, stop by the fire station and check it out. Pretend to throw something at it. Just kidding. WTF.