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Watts Up? - A parting look at lighting

They just don't make ’em like they used to!

Though new technology has yielded top-notch, energy-efficient light sources that can last years, who would have thought that simple bulbs, crafted while Teddy Roosevelt was president, could still be going strong? Two exemplary ones, however, have done just that!
     The most celebrated bulb has been brightening the lives of firemen in Livermore, Calif. for 103 years.(top photo) The famed 4-watt lamp has even earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records and was declared "the oldest bulb" by Ripley's Believe It or Not!®.
     The bulb was donated by Dennis Bernal, owner of the Livermore Power and Light Company, and first put to work as a nightlight in the Livermore-Pleasanton fire company's hose cart house in 1901 before being moved to the 1st Street Fire Station headquarters. It remained there until 1976, when it was relocated to its present site at Fire Department Station #6 on 4550 East Avenue. During the move, the renowned bulb received five-star treatment - including a police escort - to ensure its safety in transit, according to retired deputy fire chief Tom Bramell, who witnessed the historic event.
     "The new location was prepared and the city electrician took the bulb down," leaving it in the socket and clipping the wiring so it didn’t have to be unscrewed, he says. Coddled in a cotton-lined box, the lamp was "rushed" to its new assignment. "When it was reconnected, it didn't come right back on," Bramell notes, adding that observers breathed a sigh of relief as a quick adjustment by the electrician revived the bulb. In total, it was dark for just 23 minutes during the course of the move. Thanks to a modern uninterrupted power supply (UPS) and a backup generator, the bulb has burned without fail ever since - even during power outages.
     In 2001, a 100th birthday party, complete with a cake and community celebration, was hosted by the Livermore Light Bulb Centennial Committee honoring the carbon filament bulb hand-blown by the Shelby Electric Company. Visitors are welcome to view it by stopping by the firehouse or online at www.centennialbulb.org, where a link to a "bulb-cam" reveals the extraordinary glow 24 hours a day.
     A youngster by comparison, a similar bulb recently reached the 96-year mark in Fort Worth, Texas. The North Fort Worth Historical Society celebrated the anniversary of this 40-watt bulb, first illuminated on September 21, 1908. It was originally installed above the backstage door of the Byers Opera House (which later became the Palace Theater) where performers entered the building. When the Palace was torn down in 1977, the bulb was "rescued" and "hooked to a special fixture" so it could be relocated, according to Sarah Biles, administrator for the Stockyards Museum, the bulb's current home. It was "very well-protected" for the move, she says, noting that the lamp has experienced very few interruptions in its nearly 10 decades of existence: when a theater employee accidentally shut it off, the manager had it connected to a separate circuit that had no switch to ensure that same mistake would not happen again. Still burning today, the bulb is made from thick glass and a carbon filament and can be seen at the Museum located in the Livestock Exchange Building in Fort Worth.

- Celeste Matheis
Copyright © 2009 Doctorow Communications, Inc.