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A lightbulb has been burning for 113 years and no one knows how

It’s New Year’s Day! Welcome to 2015! And after all the very-temporary fireworks from last night, it’s time to look at more lasting options. So how about this: in California, there’s a lightbulb that’s been running for 113 years – and it’s really a mystery as to how it works.

That’s right, since 1901 this little 30-watt bulb has been battling in a fire department building – that’s almost one million hours.

It’s been labeled the ‘Eternal Light’ or the ‘Centennial Light’ and has outlived every firefighter from its original era. It’s also got its own Facebook page and a “BulbCam” to ensure its survival.

Some have called the whole thing a hoax, but the Guinness World Records has payed it and Mythbusters and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not have featured the shiny object in broadcasts.

The bulb’s mysterious power, however, remains exactly that – a mystery. Though it could also be a sign that we’re getting gipped when it comes to lightbulbs, forking out dough for a product designed to conk out.

Thomas Edison is commonly lauded as the inventor of the bulb, even though a dude called Humphry Davy first produced an incandescent light in 1802. But it was Edison who cashed in on the product, developing a lightbulb that lasted 1200 hours in 1879 and started producing about 130,000 a year.

Yet the light that’s been shining in California is actually the invention of French-born Adolphe Chaillet, who moved to the US in 1896. He opened his own light bulb factory, Shelby Electric Company, and soon established his product as the longest lasting and brightest bulb in the business.

Demand for the Shelby lamp skyrocketed, but the company was unable to keep up with the costs of an expanding market and were bought out by General Electric in 1914. The Shelby bulb was discontinued.

But it wasn’t the last we’d hear of the Shelby bulb. In 1972, budding journalist Mike Dunstan, of the Tri-Valley Herald, investigated claims from a fire marshal in Livermore that they had a bulb at the station that had been burning for decades.

Dunstan found that the bulb was a Shelby original, and had been donated to the fire department in 1901. At the time, only three per cent of American homes were lit with electricity, so the bulb was a big deal.

Fire chief Jack Baird told Dunstan that the bulb “was left on 24 hours a day to break up the darkness so the volunteers could find their way”.

That’s 24 hours a day, from 1901 to 1972 – a remarkable 71 years.

It turned into an international phenomenon, and its longevity still hasn’t been explained. When it was moved in 1976 to Livermore’s new station, a full police escort accompanied it on the journey.

As mentioned previously, it was put under video surveillance, and it has outlasted three cameras. The original 30-watt bulb still shines, but its strength is only at about four watts these days.

Still, bloody impressive.

Centennial Bulb

There was a brief scare in 2013, but it turned out to be the power supply failing, not the bulb.

The closest to any semblance of an answer anyone has managed is Annapolis physics professor Debora M. Katz.

While her research is nowhere near conclusive, she claims that the Shelby bulb’s filament is eight times thicker than in modern bulbs. Katz believes this could be a contributor to its longevity, as well as the fact it burns at a lower watt-level to today’s bulbs.

She also stated that the fact it hadn’t been turned off and on extensively, which is taxing on the bulb as it has to reheat, could be a contributing factor.

“I thought for sure all the physics must’ve been worked out,” she said.

“But perhaps there’s just some fluke with that particular [bulb].”

And that’s where we stand today, the Centennial Light is just a fluke of nature, or physics, or whatever.

This bad boy has been going for almost one million hours. That’s just ridiculous.

Yet could it just be that light bulbs aren’t made to last these days? It’s a legitimate question, given most modern-day tech products are made to fall to pieces.

There is reported history of collusion among the big lightbulb producers, too. The Phoebus Cartel – consisting of Osram, Philips and General Electric among others – moved to standardise lightbulbs in 1924.

While the public ploy was price regulation, they were allegedly engaging in planned obsolescence, agreeing to fix life expectancy to 1000 hours, less than Edison’s bulb more than 20 years previous.

They also reportedly put a halt on research, ensuring the technology didn’t advance further.

That’s no proof that the practice is still enforced today, or indeed that it ever was, but it wouldn’t be a surprise. Still, it’s doubtful whether there would ever be a bulb that could continuously burn for more than 100 years.

This Shelby bulb in Livermore, California, is just a one of those cool, unexplainable revelations in the world, and it will be a sad day when that light finally goes out.

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Comment (5)

    Joe Buck

    Wednesday 7 January 2015

    It isn’t some plot. You can get a very long lived, but inefficient and power hungry incandescent bulb by using a very thick filament. You would wind up paying so much extra for electricity that it would have been cheaper to keep replacing bulbs. But LED bulbs should last decades.

    Reply

    Freddie Fortune

    Friday 13 February 2015

    I’ve had the same neon tube lights in my car port used since I moved in 35 years ago and they still work. I’ve had to replace other tube lights in the house several times over the years. There is no doubt light globes/tubes/bulbs whatever you call them are designed to fail these days. Sad!

    Reply

    Justin Case

    Friday 13 February 2015

    It could start a fire – they should turn it off.

    Reply

      Jim Island

      Wednesday 18 February 2015

      “It could start a fire – they should turn it off.”

      I see what you did there.

      Reply

    Big Ben

    Thursday 19 February 2015

    Cause it a fire station….. what a tit rat

    Reply