by Andrea Widner
TIME STAFF WRITER
LIVERMORE - Electric bulb has yet to burn
itself out after 97 years and sparks curiosity and inspiration
in modern times.
Classes of preschool children, sentimental
The occasional international tourist head into Livermore-
Pleasanton Fire Station 6 searching for a monument to
What they find is the dim, orange-brown glow
of the world's
Oldest continually running light bulb that illuminates little
Except the top of the Coke machine and a few imaginations.
Some years, hundreds of people make a pilgrimage
to visit the
Bulb, which has lit a path for Livermore firefighters since 1901.
Those willing to make the trek are mostly locals, but visitors
From Louisiana to Austrlia have signed the black guest book
And stood, necks craned, to see the light suspended like a dark
Glass raindrop more than 20 feet above their heads.
"We only have a few other things of world-shaking
Livermore Hertiage Guild curator Barbara Bunshah says with
Though it once guided volunteer firefighters
Engines, the bulb is now more symbol than illumination.
"This light bulb keeps shining, in a
society and in a day when
everything is so fleeting," says Lynn Owens, a retired fire
inspector and the unofficial light bulb historian.
GIFT FROM POLICE MARSHAL
The hand-blown bulb manufactured by the Shelby
Was given to the Fire Department by Pleasanton-born
Dennis Bernal, the one-time Livermore police marshal.
Bernal sold his Power and Water Co. in 1901 and gave the
Bulb to the fire station at a time when electric power was
Still fairly rare. Its orangeeish glow hasn't been
Extinguished since, except for brief power outages.
The key to the bulb's survival seems to be
its construction- the
Thick carbon filament and low wattage have kept the bulb
Glowing for nearly a century. It also doesn't have the constant
Stress of being turned on and off all the time.
Few recognized how old the bulb was until
1972, when a
Reporter tracked down Bernal's daughter and verified the
Livermore's landmark replaced a bulb illuminating
The now-demolished Palace Theater in Fort Worth, Texas,
As the world's oldest and was accordingly recognized in
The Guinness Book of World Records.
Since then, the bulb occasionally pops into
public view, in
Reader's Digest or a National Geographic children's
Magazine or Ripley's Believe It or Not cartoons.
Every few year or so, the fire station gets
a letter inquiring
About the bulb's longevity.
"Dear Person in charge of the Light Bulb," Katie Bauer
Rolling Meadows, Ill, wrote in 1995. ". . . Is that light
Bulb still on? If not, when did the bulb burn out?
Would you send a picture for me?" wrote
Joshua Rice of
Denver, who had collected 3,000 light bulbs. "I would
Appreciate it very much because I really love light bulbs!"
The bulb's most famous visitor might be Charles
Who featured it in his book, "On the Road."
"As the Livermore firemen went about
their work, we
stood around for the afrernoon, just watching the old bulb
burn, and thinking long thoughts about the planned and
unplanned obsolescence which rules out lives," he wrote
in 1972. "In a time when gadgets are forever falling apart
or burning out r breaking up, it was kind of nice to spend
a day watching a dusty, seventy-one-year-old light bulb
just go on and on.
"If you're ever in Livermore and need
When they moved the bulb to the new East Avenue
Firehouse in 1976, the firefighters pondered protecting
The famous fixture with a cage or putting it on display,
Owens said, but they decided such reverence was
Would distort its purpose.
So they left it where Dennis Bernal had intended,
High enough that the fire trucks won't break its
Browish glass but close enough to give the firefighters
A little reassurance.
"It just keeps doing its job, never fusses,
Owens said. "If a little light bulb can get somebody to
Stop and think for a minute about stability then that is the
Importance of it."