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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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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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