This Light Bulb Has Been Burning Since 1901

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.

17 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Office Space

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Twenty years ago (yes, you’re really that old) Office Space forever changed how we look at cubicle life. Like a much funnier Dilbert meets Beavis and Butt-head meets the then-largely misunderstood world of Silicon Valley, the comedy movie from Beavis creator Mike Judge ably skewered everything from didactic middle-management bosses to chain restaurant uniforms. And it gave us a charming Jennifer Aniston love story plus a rap mini-music video dedicated to the destruction of malfunctioning printers.

For all that and more, the 1999 film that originally performed poorly at the box office has become a widely quoted cult sensation. Here are the interesting facts and references to look for the next time you watch Office Space.

1. It was shot very, very far from Silicon Valley.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space keeps its setting purposefully vague, but the opening driving shots clue a perceptive viewer into the location: Notice the sign for Preston Road on Highway 289 in the background, which indicates that we’ve been dropped around Plano, Texas. The movie was shot in and around Austin, where Mike Judge lives, making him something of a Hollywood outsider. But Office Space is clearly attuned to the rituals and lingo of Silicon Valley’s tech scene. In fact, Judge worked as an engineer in the California area in the 1980s, which would go on to inform much of his satire, especially his popular HBO show Silicon Valley.

2. It was Mike Judge's first foray into movies ... and it didn't work out as planned.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starting out as a self-taught animator in Texas, Judge made his name in entertainment with cartoons that aired on Saturday Night Live and, eventually, turned into his own MTV show. Beavis and Butt-head premiered in 1993, when the cable network’s scripted offerings were still in their infancy, and quickly became both a commercial hit and a cause of nationwide controversy. He went on to co-create Fox’s slightly more family-friendly King of the Hill, but Office Space marked his live-action directorial debut in film (he previously helmed the movie adaptation Beavis and Butt-head Do America). Made on an estimated $10 million budget, it earned only slightly more than that at U.S. theaters. Sadly, that failure has become something of a pattern for Judge’s movie work: Future efforts Idiocracy and Extract failed to catch on with initial audiences, though the former has also grown into a cult hit.

3. It didn't exactly make Ron Livingston a household name.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space had all the makings of a breakout for its handsome, top-billed star, who was coming off a smaller part in the comedy phenomenon Swingers. But given its early commercial disappointment, he continued to seek out smaller parts and interesting, left-field projects like Adaptation. and The Cooler. He finally got his mainstream cred as the boyfriend of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City (he's the one who broke up with her via Post-it note) with the massively popular horror flick The Conjuring. He's currently starring in two series: A Million Little Things and Loudermilk.

4. Initech has a very symbolic statue.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The statue outside the Initech office shows a square peg in a round hole. No coincidence, it’s a reference to the common idiom referring to an individualist who doesn’t fit into a particular social mold. That could describe Livingston’s Peter, his co-worker friends, Jennifer Aniston’s Joanna—or, more self-referentially, Judge himself, who has always made movies and series about outsiders.

5. You can tell a lot about Bill Lumbergh from his vanity plate.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Everything you need to know about Division V.P. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) is established in an early shot of him pulling into his reserved parking space at Initech in a blue Porsche with a customized license plate that reads, “MY PRSHE.” Low-key. (Also notice the lack of any regional designation on the license plates in the film.)

6. "TPS" has a real meaning.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Lumbergh’s single-minded obsession with the details of “TPS reports” drives much of the cubicle-set humor, but what exactly is a TPS report? Potential meanings abound, especially given that companies love an abbreviation, but Judge revealed that TPS refers to Test Program Set reports, which dated back to his engineering days.

7. The food at Chotchkie's sounds less than appetizing.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A sign at the restaurant promotes its “shrimp poppers,” a food name that leaves a lot to the imagination. Later, chipper server Brian highlights “pizza shooters” and “extreme fajitas.” Whatever a pizza shooter is, it can’t be good.

8. Diedrich Bader had a very specific look in mind for Lawrence.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Diedrich Bader, who plays everyone’s favorite beer-guzzling neighbor Lawrence, came to his Office Space role with clear inspiration. “What I really wanted to look like was somebody who loved the Allman Brothers,” he told The A.V. Club in 2012. Sounds about right.

9. There's a real Milton out there.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Judge based the vengeful staffer, also the focus of several of his animated shorts, on one of his real-life co-workers when he was an engineer. Judge asked the man how he was doing, and he responded that he was going to quit his job because his desk had been moved around too many times.

10. Jennifer Aniston helped the movie get made.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The cast of Office Space has one instantly recognizable name: Jennifer Aniston, who was by then of course already a superstar for playing Rachel on NBC’s Friends. In a reunion for the film, Judge thanked Aniston just for signing on (though he added that she was great in the part), saying, “It helped us put the studio at ease a little bit—at least they had one famous person."

11. Michael Bolton has embraced the punchlines about him.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter’s co-worker Michael Bolton (played by David Herman) hates the fact that he shares a name with a musician who is, in his words, a “no-talent ass-clown." While the real-life Bolton initially seemed peeved about the mockery, he now signs Office Space DVDs for fans.

12. Chotchkie's is a thinly veiled TGI Fridays.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The chain restaurant by the office is notable not just for its fried food but for its emphasis on “flair” worn by the servers (15 pieces of flair is the minimum). Office Space is clearly mocking TGI Fridays, whose staff used to dress with seemingly endless buttons and ornamentation. TGI Fridays actually phased out flair by 2005, supposedly as a result of the movie.

13. Y2K makes a cameo.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter tells Joanna while having lunch that in his job he updates software for the “2000 switch.” In 1999, the impending change of the millennium was in fact a massive headache for tech companies and their programming of dates, a phenomenon that became known as Y2K.

14. The movie reintroduced red Swingline staplers.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton’s beloved red stapler was actually painted that color by the prop department, so that it would pop on the screen. As it was one of the more hilarious throughlines in Office Space, viewers started to seek it out in real life. The brand Swingline, which had phased out red staplers, decided to bring the product back. Design-minded executive assistants everywhere can thank Judge.

15. Mike Judge is hiding in plain sight.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In an uncredited role, the writer and director plays Joanna’s boss at Chotchkie's, reprimanding her about her lack of flair. (Though it’s hard to recognize him under the mustache and wig.)

16. Judge is a not-so-secret hip-hop head.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Hip-hop is repeatedly played and referenced throughout Office Space, particularly gangsta rap, which was ascendant in the '90s. The famous printer-smashing sequence is set to the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” Also notice Michael Bolton rapping along to Scarface while driving in the movie’s opening. Judge has cleverly curated hip-hop in much of his work, from rap videos in Beavis and Butt-head to a collaboration with Danny Brown for Silicon Valley.

17. Milton foreshadows the climax a lot.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton mentions the possibility of burning down the Initech office several times before actually doing it, making it perhaps the least surprising act of arson depicted in film.

BioLite Has Designed a Headlamp That Won't Irritate or Slip Off Your Head

BioLite
BioLite

Headlamps are convenient in theory. Instead of fumbling with a flashlight or your phone in the dark, you can strap one to your head and walk your dog, do some late-night grilling, or venture around your campsite hands-free.

But in reality, the awkward design—with a bulky light that digs into your skin and slides down your forehead—cancels out much of the product's appeal. Luckily, it doesn't have to be this way, as the folks at BioLite have demonstrated with their reinvented headlamp.

The BioLite HeadLamp 330, which debuted on Kickstarter in 2018 and is now available on Amazon, promises to make you forget you're even wearing it. Inspired by modern wearables, BioLite has retooled various elements of the clunky traditional design to make it as comfortable as it is functional.

A man wearing a red HeadLamp 330
BioLite

The ultra-thin light sits flat against your skull, which means you won't have any painful marks in the middle of your forehead when you take it off. The band itself is made from a moisture-wicking fabric that feels good on your skin, even when you're working up a sweat. And unlike conventional headlamps, BioLite has redistributed the power source to the back of the head in its design, balancing the weight and taking care of any slippage issues.

As is the case with other BioLite products, technology is an essential part of the design. The 330-lumen lamp projects light up to nearly 250 feet in front of you. There are variable lighting settings, too: You can opt for either a white spot or floodlight, both with dimming options, or a strobe light feature; there's also a red floodlight. It can run for three and a half hours at maximum brightness or 40 hours at minimum brightness, and when it needs to be recharged, you can just plug it into a micro-USB source like a solar panel or powerbank.

Get your own BioLite Headlamp for $49 on Amazon. It's available in in ember red, ocean teal, sunrise yellow, or midnight gray.

Teal headlamp.
BioLite

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