Tag Archives: Incandescent light bulb

There’s A Big Birthday Party Planned!

The actual bulb on webcam in Livermore.

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. 

Filament of a 200w incandescent light bulb highly magnified.

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.

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Who Invented The Light Bulb?…Wrong!

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  Right?…Wrong!  We’ve all been taught that, but the truth is the actual inventor of the incandescent bulb was an Englishman.  J.W. Starr developed the light bulb using a carbon filament inside a vacuüm bulb in 1845.  After Starr died, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan continued to work on the design and patented a carbon filament bulb in 1879.  Now here’s where it gets interesting.

The idea was to find a material that could stay illuminated for a long period of time without burning up the filament.  What Swan found that would work was a carbonized piece of cotton thread.  He did this 10-months before Edison stumbled on the same idea.  Now, understand “a long period of time” was about 13 hours.  Edison later used carbonized bamboo and was able to get 1200 hours of use.  His patent was issued in 1880.

Thomas Edison

Edison made Swan a partner and eventually bought out his patent.  The idea of the electric light bulb, obviously did not spring up miraculously in Thomas Edison’s head.  He knew that it was being worked on and that some patents had already been issued.  Humprey Davy, an English chemist, really invented the electric light in 1809.  He connected two wires to a battery, put a strip of charcoal between them, and it glowed, making the first arc lamp.  In 1835, James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated a constant electric lighting system with a prototype vacuüm bulb.  That was 10 years before Swan developed his light bulb and obtained a patent, and almost a year more before Edison filed his patent.

Fast forward, and what happens next is the Edison Electric Light Company sues the  United States Electric Lighting Co for patent infringement in 1885.  Edison prevailed in 1893.  So he continued after the other competitors in the electric light business;  Beacon Vacuum Pump and Electrical Company, Boston, the Columbia Incandescent Lamp Company, St. Louis, and the Electric Manufacturing Company, Oconto, Wisconsin.

Enter Henrich Goebel for the defense.  Henrich testifies that he had seen and experimented with electric light bulbs back in Germany as far back as 1854.  He used carbonized cotton thread for light bulbs that he made for personal use.  He did not however obtain a patent.  What the defense was arguing is that Edison did not really come up with the idea of the incandescent bulb, so his patents were useless because of this “overseen invention.”  Many witnesses testified that they had seen the Goebel light bulb well before 1880.  The court held..well, there was never a final hearing in the cases.  The Edison Electric Light Company did not pursue it after the initial court decisions seemed not to favor the monopoly.  Interestingly, it wasn’t about patents at all, it was about money as it usually is.  These other companies continued to make light bulbs, but none as successfully as Edison.  Goebel got nothing for his testimony in the civil cases. 

Edison’s Original Patent

In 1906 General Electric Corporation patented a method using tungsten as a filament and this is the bulb you still see today.  High melting point and low vapor pressure made the material the clear advantage.  Plus it was cheap.

So now you know more about the electric incandescent light bulb then you ever cared to, I suppose, but I didn’t want you to go on thinking that Thomas Edison had invented it.  I’m looking out for you.


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