There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
About an hour East of Oakland in the town of Livermore, California, hanging in the garage of Fire Station #6, there’s a small pear-shaped light bulb. The light bulb is on right now. It’s glowing and it’s been glowing, with just a couple of momentary interruptions, for 113 years.

Katie Mingle:
“Oh! There it is.”

Jon Mooallem:
“We’re looking at the longest burning – longest continuously burning – light bulb in the world in the Guinness Book of World Records, and it was installed in 1901.”

Roman Mars:
We sent our producer Katie Mingle out there to see the bulb, which is a genuine heirloom from the dawn of electric illumination built by one of its pioneers, a guy named Adolphe Chaillet.

Jon Mooallem:
Probably when you think about the beginning of electric light, you go immediately to Thomas Edison.

Roman Mars:
That’s Jon Mooallem. He’s a writer from San Francisco. He wrote a piece about the Livermore light bulb for Pop Up Magazine earlier this year.

Jon Mooallem:
But the age of electric light didn’t just switch on all at once. You had tinkerers trying to come up with better designs, trying to iterate and innovate, something that would burn longer or maybe brighter or that would cost less. So Chaillet was one of these guys.

Roman Mars:
It was a great time of invention and innovation.

Jon Mooallem:
All over America light bulbs were going off over people’s heads and some of those light bulbs were being turned into actual light bulbs.

Roman Mars:
Chaillet like to do this whole theatrical product demo where he takes a big light bulb back, the kind you would see on a theater marquis. In it would be one bulb of his own design and the rest would be bulbs from competing brands. Then Chaillet would start slowly dialing up the power, and one-by-one, the competitors’ bulbs all explode. Chaillet’s would be the last one shining. One of those tenacious light bulbs made it all the way to Livermore, California.

Jon Mooallem:
Its origin was in 1901 when a shop owner donated it to the town’s volunteer fire department. They were called ‘the fire boys’ in those days, and with the bulb hanging in their firehouse, this meant they could now gather up all their equipment if a call about a fire came in in the middle of the night, in the dark.

Roman Mars:
In those dark ages, there were no fire engines. Firefighters used hose carts pulled by horses. Here’s Tom Bramall, former deputy fire chief in Livermore. This tape of him is from a documentary about the bulb called ‘Century of Light.’

Tom Bramall:
“The volunteers that arrived to an incident, they would come to the station there, get their hose cart, hitch up the horses, look for all of the equipment that they were looking for, but this light lit up the hose cart room so that they could without getting injured and falling over. And so the light bulb served a very significant function.”

Roman Mars:
In 1906 the fire station moved just down the street. The light bulb had been on at that point for five years. They had no idea how long it would last, but it was their only light bulb. So of course they brought it along.

Jon Mooallem:
It seems like people just stop thinking about the bulb after a while. There wasn’t really an obvious way to shut it off the way that it had been wired, but it must’ve just been dim and unobtrusive enough that no one really tried too hard.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, the old fashioned hose carts were replaced with firetrucks. The bulb hung between the firehouse’s two garage doors and the firefighters were aware of it, but they didn’t think much about it.

Tom Bramall:
“The bulb hung down, probably hung down a pretty good distance from the ceiling and on a long cord that it actually sits on today, the same cord, but it was pretty, it was low enough that you could walk by and actually reach up and tap the bulb and watch it swing back and forth. As time went on, we even would throw Nerf balls at it.”

Roman Mars:
In 1971, the first full-time chief of the Livermore fire department, a guy named Jack Baird, got curious about the light bulb and he asked the local newspaper reporter to look into the bulb’s history. The resulting article got the residents of Livermore talking about the bulb and it became a point of pride. Livermore’s own little antiquity. The firefighters stopped throwing Nerf balls at it.

Jon Mooallem:
Five years later when the fire department was moving into a new building, they obviously knew that they couldn’t leave the bulb behind and in fact, Chief Baird insisted that they take it with them.

Lynn Owens:
“On March the 31st, 1976, it was the day that we moved the light bulb from 2365 First Street out here on East Avenue to this station.”

Roman Mars:
That’s Lynn Owens. He was the former division chief of the Livermore fire department. This interview was recorded for the ‘Century of Light’ documentary released in 2011.

Lynn Owens:
“March 31st of 76 will always be a special day to me.”

Roman Mars:
The light bulb was escorted with red lights and siren.

Lynn Owens:
“We had a special box built. Not only that, but the box was painted red, which even made it more special.”

Roman Mars:
When they got the light bulb to the new station, the electrician set it up so that the light bulb could be screwed in immediately.

Lynn Owens:
“He climbed up the ladder with the light bulb, screwed the wires together so that everything would go on.”

Tom Bramall:
“And Frank and made the connection.”

Lynn Owens:
“The light bulb didn’t come on and we gasped. Oh my gosh.”

Tom Bramall:
“Oh my goodness.”

Lynn Owens:
“What did we do?”

Tom Bramall:
“This world-famous light bulb and now it’s gone.”

Roman Mars:
But then the electrician jiggled some wires around.

Tom Bramall:
“The light came back on. Everybody made a big sigh of relief.”

Jon Mooallem:
Meanwhile, as a light bulb was becoming more and more famous, it was impossible for people not to start wondering about what it was made of and how it could still possibly be working. The obvious way to solve the mystery would be to crack the light bulb open and examine it, but obviously no one wanted to do that. It was just too precious.

Debra Katz:
Hi, I’m Debra Katz. I’m a physics professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Roman Mars:
Dr. Katz did some tests on similar light bulbs, light bulbs made by the same company in the same time period. She measured the thickness of the bulb’s filament, which is that tiny piece of wire and the bulb that can break really easily.

Debra Katz:
And I did that using a laser so I didn’t have to break the bulb to get in there.

Roman Mars:
She figured out that the filament in the Livermore bulb was eight times thicker than a regular bulb and made from carbon instead of tungsten.

Debra Katz:
What I figured out doesn’t tell me why the filament shouldn’t have broken by now. That’s pretty incredible. I think it still is a mystery.

Roman Mars:
What she does know is that in 1924 a bunch of light bulb companies got together and formed a cartel called Phoebus. The goal of the cartel was for all the light bulb companies to stop making bulbs that lasted so long so that everyone could sell more light bulbs. Members of the cartel were actually charged fines if their bulbs burned for too many hours.

Debra Katz:
And in two years the company’s light bulbs went from lasting 2,500 hours down to 1500 hours, and by the 1940s they actually made their goal of bulbs that only last a thousand hours.

Roman Mars:
The Shelby Company, which manufactured Chaillet’s bulb, had already gone out of business by the time the Phoebus cartel had been formed. But I’d like to think that they wouldn’t have been involved with that nonsense.

Debra Katz:
I think they were trying to make a quality product rather than a product with built-in obsolescence.

Roman Mars:
And a quality product it was.

Jon Mooallem:
This whole time, of course, the bulb was just hanging there and continuing to glow. So in a way, its story was taking on this air of magical realism.

Roman Mars:
In 2001, a group of locals decided Livermore ought to have a hundredth birthday party for the light bulb.

Jon Mooallem:
They formed the Centennial Bulb Committee and started planning what they thought would be a small get together at the firehouse that June. In the end, 600 people showed up and they had cake and there were rock bands playing and kids dancing on the top of the fire truck.

Roman Mars:
Committee members gave live interviews to Katie Couric and CNN. By then, responsibility for the bulb had passed from Chief Baird, he was the first fireman to become interested in the bulb, to one of the firefighters who served under him, Lynn Owens. You heard from him earlier.

Jon Mooallem:
Owens had been one of the younger guys in the 70s who’d sat around chucking a Nerf footballs at the light bulb. By this point, by the time the bulb turned a hundred he was already a retired division chief. He was this grinning aging guy with these tiny glasses in a bristly white mustache.

Roman Mars:
Owens loved the bulb and he loved to proclaim his love.

Lynn Owens:
“That light bulb is dependable. That light bulb has been doing the job it was intended to do since 1901.”

Jon Mooallem:
It was like he was talking about the light bulb the way James Earl Jones talked about baseball at the end of the ‘Field of Dreams.’

James Earl Jone:
“He reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”

Jon Mooallem:
Actually that’s how a lot of people end up talking about the light bulb though. People write letters to the committee and they say things like the light bulb gives them hope, or they call it “a reassuring reminder of faithfulness and service.”

Roman Mars:
In a letter, President George W. Bush called the light bulb “an enduring symbol of the American spirit of invention.” For a lot of people it also ironically symbolizes another great American invention. Planned obsolescence.

Jon Mooallem:
I like the light bulb because it’s this little speck of continuity. You know, it’s something that started more than a century ago and it keeps going and so it sort of connects us to that time. You can almost imagine it like this little ember of a campfire that was lit back then and is still glowing. And kind of in the same way, if you trace that history, you see these waves of people coming together around that fire and then slowly leaving the picture and new ones coming in.

Roman Mars:
The light bulb outlived Jack Baird, the first fire chief who became curious about it, and Lynn Owens, its most devoted caretaker. Chaillet’s light bulb has seen generations of firefighters come and go through Livermore.

Jon Mooallem:
So in 2001 right around the time of the party, the Centennial Bulb Committee also set up a webcam in front of the light bulb.

Roman Mars:
The camera takes a picture of the bulb every 30 seconds so that people all over the world can make sure that it’s still on. The guy who maintains the camera, his name’s Steve Bun.

Jon Mooallem:
And he told me he’s already had to replace the supposedly high-tech webcam two times because the light bulb has outlasted both of those devices.

Roman Mars:
The bulb has its own standby generator, something inaccurately named the uninterruptible power supply. It’s zonked out suddenly in the middle of the night in May of 2013 and when it did, the light bulb went dark.

Jon Mooallem:
Steve told me that when it happened, people around the world who happened to be watching the webcam at that point saw the bulb blink out and started calling or emailing him panicked, you know, or just in disbelief.

Roman Mars:
The bulb was out for nine hours and 42 minutes before someone was finally able to get over to the firehouse and rig up an extension cord. When it was turned back on, Steve said, everyone swore it looked brighter.

  1. Brandon

    Thanks Roman and to your team for putting out this article! Fascinating history. I don’t think many people know that the concept of planned obsolescence exists, that it influences design and manufacturing, and that its shaped our disposable mindset towards many products. We’ve been cheated to a degree by many companies, like those mentioned, to be conditioned to lower standards of expectation.

    As an architect I’m constantly challenged to source durable products to make a lasting building and improve its long term quality. This is a great article about awesome engineering and design. How many products these days outlive their inventors?!

    Thinking on those possibilities changes how you might think about sustainability and being smart stewards of resources. I hope LOTS of people listen to this article. Its far more than just a story about one little bulb.

    Much thanks,

  2. Bruce Jewell

    I listened to the last 3 episodes and enjoyed them all. The podcast made me think about some things.

    I was bothered by thinking how long this light has lasted and why when we changed to the newer types of bulbs (CFL and LEDs) that these longer burning versions of incandescent bulbs were never considered. I realize that it is likely the newer types burn less energy, but there is likely some savings in cost for the public in bulb technology that already existed. The CFL and LED bulbs cost 10-30x more than these new types and for that the power usage may not be so apparent.

    I’m sure this approach comes off the rails pretty early on, but I would like to have heard that question asked or at least remarked on in the podcast.

    Just a Stray Thought

  3. This is SO PYNCHONESQUE! There is a chapter in Gravity’s Rainbows told from the perspective of a light bulb that never went out. Since it became famous in 1971, and novel was published in 1973, it’s possible Pynchon had heard of it.

    1. Did you know the thin metal wires that supourt the coiled tungsten filliment in common incandescent bulbs serves a rarley disused secondary safty function, that thin wire that support s the filiment burns upt instantly, severing the electronic circut, when bulb is broken or given to to much or too long the delicate support acts as a low cost and effective fuse, otherwise evey time a lamp got knocked over the 8000 degree ferinhight tungsten wire would continue to conduct, even after it landed on your newspaper pile, a heaven forbid start a house fire. Any person could make a bulb that last 90 years, but only a team of engineers, scientists, and politicians could make a bulb that only last one year, but was better everyone, in the long run. Thevillainous ellectrical company did you a favor and was therfore accused of scandal.. Btw you can still buy a bulb without this contraversal feature but that bulb will have to have a fuse installed elsewhere in the assembly, so bring your checkbook, the irony is, its liberals we have to blame for this particular trespass of industry, you see its better because its worse.

  4. So, how bright is the bulb and how much power does it consume?

    Lamp efficiency is inversely proportional to longevity. For a given power input the brighter bulb will die sooner than the dimmer one.

  5. Geoff

    The bulb has burned for a long time because it has a thick filament and is relatively low power. This helps with longevity, but also makes it dimmer and less efficient. There are good reasons that incandescent bulbs moved towards thinner filaments, even if it means shorter lifespans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist