|Editors Note: The first news account citing Livermore's Cenntennial Light Bulb's record-breaking longevity was researched and written by Mike Dunstan and published Jan. 13, 1972 in the Livermore Herald & News. Dunstan revisits the Livermore light bulb on its 110th anniversary.|
LIVERMORE, Calif. - In a world awash in throw-away devices, one icon stands against the tide: a light bulb that doesn't burn out.
Over 110 years, Livermore's Centennial Light Bulb has come to be recognized as the world's longest-lasting light, beaming 24 hours a day. Its 4-watt output and hand-blown glass bulb cast a soft crimson glow from a filament about the width of a human hair.
To date, no one knows why the Centennial Light Bulb has lasted so long.
"We live in a society that is used to disposing of complicated devices," says Prof. Debora Katz, a physicist at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. "People think that cell phones, TVs and computers are ready for the landfill after just a few short years.
"We need to change our expectations about the longevity of devices," she adds. "The Livermore light bulb was built soon after the invention of the light bulb. Imagine buying an i-Pod today that is still working in 2120!"
One of a Kind?
Dr. Katz has conducted extensive research into the Livermore light bulb's physical properties, using a vintage light bulb from Shelby Electric Co. - manufacturer of the Livermore bulb - that is a near replica of the Livermore light.
"The Livermore light bulb differs from a contemporary incandescent bulb in two ways," says Katz. "First its filament is about eight times thicker than a contemporary bulb. Second, the filament is a semiconductor, most likely made of carbon.
"When a conductor gets hotter, its ability to conduct electricity goes down. When the Shelby bulb gets hotter, it becomes a better conductor of electricity."
Katz says she will test the filament of a broken vintage Shelby light bulb at the US Naval Academy's particle accelerator to learn more about its properties. "It is possible that the Livermore light bulb is one of a kind.".
Discovery: the Light Bulb's Age
In December 1971, Livermore Fire Chief Jack Baird asked a young local newspaper reporter to investigate rumors about the age of an old light bulb at the Fire Department on First Street. I was that cub reporter at Livermore's Herald & News.
"Years ago, it was donated to the (fire) department by the Livermore Power and Light Co.," said Baird in a 1971 interview with this reporter. "It was left on 24-hours a day to break up the darkness so the volunteers could find their way.
"It was never turned off, except for about a week when President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt's WPA people remodeled the firehouse back in the '30s and a few times we had power failures."
I verified Baird's story with interviews of the then oldest-living, retired volunteer firefighters. Others included General Electric scientists, the Guinness Book of World Records and ultimately Zylpha (Bernal) Beck, daughter of the man who donated the light bulb.
The late Mrs. Beck identified the Centennial Light Bulb as the one her father Dennis F. Bernal donated to the Livermore volunteer fire dept. in 1901. Bernal was owner of the Livermore Water and Power Co. from 1892 to 1901 - the year the Centennial Light Bulb was donated to the Livermore Fire Department.
Beck, 88, recalled her father's gift of a light bulb from the Livermore Water and Power Co. to the Livermore fire dept.
Mrs. Beck's grandson, Philip E. Couden, 67, of San Ramon, remembers stories about the light bulb at the family's dinner table decades before I discovered the true age of the Livermore bulb.
"It really wasn't a big thing," says Couden, who lived with Josephine Bernal during part of his childhood.
"They weren't bragging about it. He (Bernal) simply gave a light bulb to the fire department. It is the kind of man he was."
Livermore 'Fire Boys'
The story rang true for retired members of the Livermore volunteer fire dept.
John Jensen was a member of the Livermore Fire Boys, a nickname for the volunteer fire dept. at the turn of the 20th century. In a 1971 interview, Jensen recalled seeing the Centennial Light Bulb glowing as early as 1905.
"We got that old bulb from the Livermore Power and Water Co.," said the then 88 year-old.
"I passed it every day on my way to school," recalled John Anderson, then 77 and a fellow member of the volunteer fire dept. "I don't doubt it was put up in 1901."
Guinness Book of World Records
the 1901 donation date and sitings, I turned to the Guinness
Book of Records. According to Guinness, the Palace Theatre in
Fort Worth, Tex. housed the world's longest-burning light bulb
as of 1971. It was first turned on in 1908 and was moved to Ft.
Worth's Stockyards Museum when the Palace Theatre was demolished
News of the Livermore light bulb discovery initially met a chilly reception from the Palace Theatre. My repeated telephone calls and a letter asking about their light bulb went unanswered.
I wrote to Norris D. McWhirter, editor of the Guinness Book of Records, asking him to consider new evidence that the Livermore light might be the world's longest-lasting bulb. When he acknowledged that he was updating his records, the Herald & News published my story, "Light bulb may be earth's oldest."
The story instantly reverberated around the world.
Months later, McWhirter acknowledged that the Livermore light bulb (http://www.centennialbulb.org/) had been accepted by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest.
Today, keepers of the Livermore light bulb and its runner-up in Ft. Worth are more friends than rivals.
"Every kid in Fort Worth grew up thinking we had the world-record light bulb," says Bud Kennedy, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
"It was like losing a part of history when Livermore bumped us out of the record book. We were all hoping for a rolling brownout. But the Livermore folks have become good friends. Now people from Texas visit the Bay Area to see the light bulb."
Scientists Seek Answers
Scientists from national laboratories and universities have studied the Centennial Light Bulb, looking to unlock the secrets to its longevity. From gas spectrum analysis to microscopic inspection of a similar bulb's filament, scientists seek answers.
The search began with General Electric scientists, who determined the light bulb was manufactured by the Shelby Electric Co. of Shelby, Ohio. After studies conducted by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and others, the mystery surrounding why the light bulb still glows has only deepened. But researchers are closing in on answers.
Today Katz is digging deeper to discover the light bulb's secrets. One clue: it was left on 24 hours a day.
"I think this is a factor," says Katz. "Light bulbs tend to break when we turn them on or off."
Other factors include the Livermore light bulb's low-wattage output and the thickness of its carbon filament.
Katz says she would like to test the atmosphere inside the Centennial Light Bulb to determine what gases may be inside. "But to do that, we would have to turn the light bulb off," she says.
That is not likely to happen.