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This Light Bulb Has Been Burning Since 1901

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There’s a light bulb in Livermore, California that won’t go out. It hangs on a cord from the ceiling of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department’s Fire Station #6, and it has been burning since 1901. On June 27, 2015, there was a party held in the bulb’s honor to celebrate its one millionth hour of operation. There were refreshments and music and barbecue. Town officials toasted the bulb's achievement. The light bulb, for its part, burned over everyone’s heads, like it always does.

About an hour east of San Francisco, Livermore sits in a valley surrounded by rolling hills made gold by the drought. The fire station is on East Avenue, and bulb tourists like myself must walk around back and ring the doorbell to get let in. Inside, fire engines and equipment dominate the space. The small bulb hangs about twenty feet overhead, glowing near a row of fluorescent shop lights which, unlike the bulb, were turned off. If it weren't for the camera pointed directly at it (to broadcast a live web stream), the bulb would be easy to miss.

To be an on-duty firefighter at Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Station #6 means you have to both fight fires and give historical light bulb tours at a moment's notice. The two firemen who hosted me said I was the second visitor of the day. Some days they have huge groups who come in—groups that have been known to bunch beneath the bulb and gawk crane-necked at it until the firemen get an emergency call. They then have to politely shoo the tourists outside while they gear up to leave the station, sirens blaring. These visitors will sometimes still be standing outside when the firefighters return, waiting to get let back in to look at the bulb some more.

BULB FACTS

Manufacturer: Shelby Electric Company in Shelby, Ohio (est. 1896, out of business 1912).

Manufacture date: c. 1898.

Designer: French electrical engineer Adolphe A. Chaillet (b. Nov 1867, d. ~1914).

Filament: Carbon, made by a “secret process” that is still unknown today. The filament forms a loop inside the bulb that, from below, looks like the word “no” written in cursive.

Wattage: The bulb is thought to be a 60-watt model (actual figure unknown), but it currently burns at about four watts.

Is it still on?: Yes.

Much of this info (and the information that follows) is from A Million Hours of Service, a book about the bulb written by Thomas Bramell, Livermore's retired Deputy Fire Chief and foremost historian of the bulb. It is for sale at the fire station, along with bulb T-shirts and other bulb memorabilia. (Proceeds go to the Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters Foundation, a non-profit that supports injured and fallen firefighters, the burn foundation, and other charities.)

Brief History of the Bulb as *THE BULB*

The bulb's current residence.

The bulb had been burning without much fanfare for 71 years before Mike Dunstan, a reporter for the Livermore Herald and News, starting asking around about it in 1972. Through interviews, Dunstan was able to confirm the bulb’s longevity.

The bulb was likely given to the fire department in 1901 as a gift from local businessman Dennis F. Bernal. One of Bernal’s children recalled to Dunstan that her father had given away a stash of business and personal items in 1901 and that this stash probably included the bulb. Older residents remembered passing the fire station and seeing the bulb during walks to and from school in the early 1900s. John Jensen, a former volunteer firefighter who served in Livermore in 1905, said he recalled the light being on at all times as far back as he can remember. Because it worked as a sort of emergency light to help firefighters see at any time of the day, the bulb was never turned off.

The light has been burning so continuously, the few instances when it has been turned off can be printed on a small bookmark:

1906: The bulb was moved from a fire house on Second Street in Livermore to a new fire station on First Street.

1937: The bulb was turned off for about a week when the station underwent renovations that were part of a WPA project.

1976: The bulb was moved to the newly built Fire Station #6. It was off for about 22 minutes during that move, plus a few seconds after it was installed and wouldn’t work. (City electrician Frank Moul slightly rotated the bulb’s socket switch, rectifying the problem.)

May 20, 2013: The bulb went out in the early morning hours when its uninterrupted power supply malfunctioned. A man in Australia watching on the bulb web cam noticed the outage and frantically tried to get in touch with the fire station from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The bulb wound up being off for about nine hours.

To fix it, firefighters bypassed the uninterrupted power supply with an extension cord. Worryingly, it burned about four times as bright as normal when it was turned back on, raising fears that it was about to surge out. Over the next few days, however, it returned to its normal brightness level, which is to say about as bright as an overzealous nightlight.

Three Theories On Why the Bulb Hasn’t Burnt Out

1: Consistency: Matt, one of the firefighters who showed me the bulb, tossed out this theory (which he identified as “a theory,” meaning that it is in no way definitive). As described above, the bulb has been turned off and on so infrequently that the filament has burned at a steady rate without having to cool down and heat back up repeatedly. This results in a sort of “thermal momentum.” (“Thermal momentum” is my phrase, and I thought it sounded super smart when I said it during Matt’s explanation and am including here for posterity, hoping it gets reprinted in further reports about the bulb, granting me a slice of the bulb's immortality).

2. It’s just one of those things: Joel, the other firefighter present during my visit, added to the previous theory by calling the whole thing a “perfect accident” (which I concede is a much better phrase than my “thermal momentum” mumbo jumbo—mumbo jumbo, it turns out, that is already a term in the physics community and not a term coined by yours truly; thus my immortality burns out). “The Shelby bulbs are hand-blown,” he explained, and the uniqueness of its shape, size, filament, and other factors that can’t be achieved during mass production all contribute to this “perfect accident.”

3. Planned Obsolescence: On December 23, 1924, executives from the world’s major light bulb manufacturers met in Geneva to hatch a plan. GE, Philips, Tokyo Electric, Germany's Osram, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and others joined together to form what is known as the Phoebus Cartel. The cartel divided the world into market zones they would individually control and instituted sales quotas to keep each company equally dominant. They also decided to limit their lightbulbs’ average operating lives to 1,000 hours, about half the number of hours the companies’ existing bulbs were capable to burn.

“The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it,” writes Markus Krajewski in the trade magazine for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “Each factory bound by the cartel agreement—and there were hundreds, including GE’s numerous licensees throughout the world—had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards.”

The cartel unraveled by the 1930s, partly due to government intervention and fair trade legislation, and also because smaller competitors were able to disrupt the manufacturing giants by selling cheaper bulbs.

While the cartel’s shelf life was as short as the bulbs they produced, its legacy has lasted much longer. Accusations of planned obsolescence are routinely pointed at companies nowadays, and every time someone’s smartphone breaks after its warranty runs out, the ensuing complaints (justified or not) have their roots in the Phoebus Cartel's scheme.

If this all sounds like the plot of a paranoid novel, it’s because it is. Thomas Pynchon wrote about the Phoebus Cartel in Gravity’s Rainbow. They appear in a section about “Byron the Bulb,” a plucky talking light bulb who never burns out and becomes a target of the the cartel. While Pynchon was obviously writing fiction here—lights bulbs don’t talk, not even famous ones hanging in California fire stations—the Phoebus Cartel was very much real.

Seeing as Gravity’s Rainbow was published in 1973, it’s possible that Pynchon, who lived in California, had read Dustan’s coverage of the fire house bulb in the Livermore Herald and News and used it as inspiration for Byron the Bulb (he'd have to have quickly put it in the book he had been working on for years, though).

Either way, the centennial bulb has become a smoking gun of sorts for people who believe that companies still conspire to shorten products’ operating lives for profit. It was featured in the 2010 documentary The Lightbulb Conspiracy, and a British film crew traveled all the way to Livermore to film the bulb, glowing away in humble glory.

No matter how well-made those pre-Phoebus bulbs are, 114 years is still a ghastly overachievement for Livermore's little light.

When I asked the on-duty firefighters about the theory of planned obsolescence, they shrugged and were democratically noncommittal as to whether or not their station's nightlight pointed to a global conspiracy.

Landesarchiv Berlin

What Happens When/If It Burns Out?

After that close call in 2013 when it was off for nine hours, the keepers of the bulb saw its life flash before their eyes. Should the centennial bulb burn out for good, they don't want to be without a strategy for saying goodbye to it with dignity. While nothing is official yet, they want to have a full funeral procession through town, finishing at the historical society where the bulb will be displayed in a resting place of honor.

If you show up and quietly do your job without fuss for long enough, there's a chance you'll be celebrated like a head of state when you die.

Murmurs of a replacement bulb also abound. A supposedly unused Shelby model just like the current centennial bulb has been acquired by a party who may be willing to part with it when the time comes. Keep in mind, these plans all hinge on the bulb actually burning out, something that hasn't happened for 114 years.

Don't be surprised if it buries us all. Long live the bulb.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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