Ode to a Bright Idea

A common household annoyance begins with a flash and a small puff of smoke. It’s time to change a light bulb. However, imagine if you had a light bulb that never burned out. My mother has one of those in our family home. She says it’s an original carbon filament light bulb that has been burning for over half a century.

In 1952, the year before my mother was born, my grandparents bought their first house, in which they intended to raise a family. The light bulb came with the house, burning softly in the narrow hallway between what would be their children’s bedrooms. When the family moved in 1967, my fifteen-year-old mother decided to take the bulb with them. Each night, as she slept with her door open just a crack, it filled her room with enough of a dull glow to let her know she was safe in the dark. The bulb moved with my mother four more times, each time finding a new hallway to provide light for late-night arrivals, midnight trips to the bathroom, and investigating bumps in the night.

Finally, in 1978, it found its place at the top of the stairs in a little white Cape where my mother decided to have a family of her own. As I grew up, it provided me with the same protection from the shadows as it did for her. It has been a nightlight after a scary movie, an illuminated path when I have been a bit tipsy, and familiar warmth after a night of heartbreak.

Forty years after its purchase, the house itself has changed. It is now painted yellow, has grown an addition, and the maple tree has been cut down. My parents look older each time I come home and so do I, but the one constant is the light bulb that burns every night at the top of the stairs.

My mother never knew why the bulb refused to die out until she discovered its sister in a firehouse in Livermore, California. Our family can attest our bulb has been burning for a minimum of sixty-six years, but this firehouse has had one glowing for 117 years! It even has its own webcam producing a twenty-four-hour riveting live feed.

Their bulb was invented by a man named Adolphe Chaillet. He used it in demonstrations to illustrate the bulb’s incredible burning power compared to other light bulbs that would literally explode under electric pressure. But sometimes an idea is too bright for its own good. In 1924, the electric companies formed a cartel to limit the life expectancy of light bulbs to 1,000 hours, 200 hours fewer than Edison’s original design. If companies violated this agreement, they would be slapped with fines. This business strategy is called planned obsolescence, and it’s kept people screwing in new light bulbs for decades. More importantly, this suggests that our family’s light bulb was manufactured before these restrictions, at least ninety-five years ago.

Like so many things in our lives, a light bulb is disposable. It is purposely constructed to blow out and then be replaced by another that will eventually do the same. I don’t know who developed our particular light bulb, but what I do know is that it was designed to last a lifetime. They made it great not to make a buck but because they could make it great. If only more products were created with that motivation.

The current fire chief at the Livermore Firehouse has expressed that if the light bulb dies under his leadership, he will see it as a bad omen. Hopefully, when our family bulb emits its last light, we will remember the importance of ingenuity over self-interest and thank it for showing us the path in those many houses on all those dark nights.

Mattea Heller
MFA student, Western Connecticut State University

 

References

Crockett, Zachery. “The Mysterious Case of the 113-Year-Old Light Bulb.” Priceonomics, 22 Sept. 2014, https://priceonomics.com/the-mysterious-case-of-the-113-year-old-light-bulb.

Mars, Roman. “This Firehouse Light Bulb Has Been Shining Since 1910.” Slate Magazine, 10 Dec. 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2014/12/10/centennial_bulb_at_the_
livermore_california_fire_department_has_been_burning.html.

Bunn Graphics. “Livermore, California’s Centennial Light.” www.centennialbulb.org.


The Heller family’s light bulb has been burning for at least sixty-six years. The family has taken it with them as they moved.
Photos by Mattea Heller



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