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The Little Bulb That Could

There's More Than Vineyards in Livermore

Just a short ten minute drive from the Bridgelux corporate offices in Livermore, California is Fire Station #6, home of the “Centennial Light,” a.k.a., the world’s longest burning light bulb

I drove over to Fire Station #6 one day last month, knocked on the door, and was greeted by a friendly firefighter.  I suddenly had a burst of the giggles saying “I’m here to the see the famous light bulb,” something, until I started working at Bridgelux, I never really imagined saying.  He took me through the station to the other side of the building, pointed upward, and I stared for a while.

The firefighter gave me a brief history of the bulb describing how it has been shining in Livermore since 1901, and in 2015 reached a milestone of 1,000,000 hours of burn time.  He patiently answered all my questions about the history of the bulb, the filament, and just who finds this bulb so interesting.  In particular, I wanted to know how they were powering the bulb and if it could be affected by a surge or an outage.  “Don’t worry,” he explained, describing how the bulb now has its own dedicated and independent power supply so there should not be any more snafus like the one that happened in 2013.  

300 Motorcycles & A Bulbcam

He also told me some fun stories about bulb visitors like those that come on double decker tour buses, or the one time nearly 300 motorcycles (!) rolled up from Southern California during one of their runs just to see the bulb. 

Although you don’t get this angle on the “bulbcam,” the firefighter/tourguide was also quick to point out that at certain angles, you can see the word “no” (or “on”) written by the filament within the bulb, something the younger visitors especially find amusing.

Below the bulb is a nice spread of commemorations, photos, and flags, all documenting the history of the bulb and of the local Livermore region.  There’s even a “happy birthday” letter from U.S. President Bush from the year the bulb turned 100.   

For more information about the history of the bulb and its origins at the Shelby Electronic Company of Ohio, there are plenty of articles online (like this one.).  There are also movies (like this one), and there’s even a short clip from David Letterman where the bulb is mentioned! 

what does it mean today?

I’m writing this blog for the Bridgelux website.  So what does all of this have to do with LEDs?  For me, three things come to mind:

  • First, while the lifespan of the bulb is itself interesting, it’s also the warm, amber light that is emanating, which provides a calming, nostalgic feel.  This “old school” feeling is a trend that I’ve been noticing, most recently after visiting Light+Building in March this year where amber glows were shown in many booths.
  • Second, the bulb is a reminder of the lifespan of light and how far lighting technology has come.  We know that LEDs have longer lifespans (referred to sometimes as “usefulness”) than other types of bulbs and can save consumers money over the long run.  Having just celebrated Earth Day last month, it’s a reminder that we should consider green solutions not just for lighting, but for other areas throughout our homes and workplaces as well.
  • And finally, many community art projects and installations are focused around light.  Take Illuminating Downtown in San Jose or Illuminate SF as examples in the immediate Livermore region along as examples where light installations bring community members together to provoke conversations about light, art, architecture or design.  Whether it’s a massive installation in a major city, or “the little bulb that could” sitting in a suburban fire station, the power of light can bring community members together and that’s a great thing!

If you’re in Livermore visiting Bridgelux, ask us for directions and take a few minutes to head over to Fire Station #6 to see the bulb.  Besides, how often do you see something that is in the Guinness World Records?

Last Thoughts

None of this would be possible without thanking the firefighters of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department Station #6 who have the added responsibility of dealing with looky-loos like me.  I imagine none of them ever prepared to host near-daily visitors (yes, they said people come just about daily) looking at their ceiling.

And if you’re new to lighting, and specifically LEDs, check out the LED Technology section of the Bridgelux website for an introduction to the field.