A common complaint with modern appliances and electronics is the fact that they’re meant to be disposed of. The life cycle of a new iPhone is only as long as it takes for them to come out with a new model, and the cycle of “use and replace” has created a great deal of waste that we’re still trying to figure out how to deal with. There was a time when things were built to last, though, and one relic of that time continues to draw attention to this day.
A Light Bulb That’s Outlasted…Almost Everything
Replacing light bulbs is an unfortunate fact of life, though with the advent of LED lights, one we have to do much less often. LED and compact fluorescent lights have the perk of lasting a long time, but they still don’t hold a candle to a tiny light bulb in a firehouse in California.
The Centennial Light is a bulb in one of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department’s stations, in Livermore, California. It was manufactured by the Shelby Electric company in the late nineteenth century, and has been continuously burning since 1901, far outlasting the company that manufactured it in the first place.
A Curiosity of the Modern Age
The light bulb consists of a carbon filament that is looped around itself several times, and when looked at from underneath, appears to spell the word “No” in cursive letters. It’s believed that the bulb was originally a 40 or 60 watt light when it was made, but in the years since it’s been on, the light has dimmed.
The light now gives off about as much light as your average nightlight, approximately 4 watts. The dimness of the light doesn’t matter to the fire department, though. They keep the light burning constantly, using it as an emergency light at night.
The Different Living Spaces of the Centennial Bulb
The curious bulb has historically been located in four buildings. It was initially gifted to the fire department in 1901 by Dennis F. Bernal, who had once owned the Livermore Power and Water Company. He donated the bulb and many others like it when he sold off the company, and the Centennial Bulb started its life in a hose cart house.
The bulb was moved to a garage in downtown Livermore that was used by the police and fire departments a few years later. It was then moved again to a new City Hall building that housed the consolidated Police and Fire departments of Livermore.
The Bulb Has Hardly Ever Turned Off
In 1976, it was finally moved to the fire station that it lives in today, four years after the bulb’s longevity was finally noted. In 1972, the bulb’s excessive burning life was reported on by reporter Mike Dunstan, and it was documented in the Guiness Book of World Records, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and General Electric.
The Centennial bulb hangs from a cord attached to a pendant light connector, and there have been only four times that it has ever been off. First in 1906, when it switched fire stations. Second in 1937, when the bulb was off during renovations. Third in 1976, when the bulb was moved to the firehouse it currently resides in.
Excitement For the Little Bulb
The move in 1976 is unique for how the light was moved. Instead of unscrewing the light bulb from its socket, which electricians feared would damage the ancient bulb, the power cord itself was severed so that it could be moved. It was off for a total of 22 minutes before being attached to the new firehouse’s emergency generator.
The final off period for the centennial bulb was in 2013, when the livestream on the bulb revealed that the bulb had gone out. The fire department that cares for the bulb was contacted, and on investigation they found that the power source that feeds the bulb had failed. It was attached to a new source, and burned once again.
A Tourist Destination, if You’re Adventurous
The Centennial Bulb is one of those quirky facets of modern life that often goes unnoticed. Every few years, there will be a news story about the bulb that will renew interest, though Livermore is far from the first destination that tourists think of when visiting California.
Still, the firehouse welcomes a variety of visitors who come to see the bulb, usually several a day. Sometimes people come in groups, sometimes they come alone, and there’s a plethora of social media posts documenting many’s first interaction with the world’s oldest working light bulb.
Why Has It Lasted So Long?
The curiosity behind the bulb’s long-lasting lifespan is something that puzzles many people. Some theories about it include the fact that the bulb has been constantly running, reducing the wear on the wires from during on and off, or possibly a mere happy accident of manufacturing.
Many people believe that the real reason is because in 1924, executives from light manufacturing companies including GE and Phillips held a meeting where they planned to reduce the lifespan of bulbs, in order to increase profit. The scheme was successful, making the Centennial Bulb a literal relic of a time past, when things were built for longevity.
A Quirk Worth Visiting
Regardless of the reason behind the bulb’s long life, it’s a curiosity that’s worth seeing and knowing about. It is managed and cared for by the Centennial Light Bulb Committee, a group of people dedicated to maintaining this unique piece of history for as long as it lasts.
There are no plans for what’s to be done with the bulb once it finally does burn out, but Ripley’s Believe It Or Not has requested to have the bulb placed in their museum. There’s talk of replacing it with one just like it from an anonymous volunteer, but in the meantime, it’s available to see as a living, burning relic of the past.