In Fire Station 6 in Livermore, California, a dim light bulb glows in a small display case. It looks strikingly ordinary, but it’s on an uninterruptible power supply, and a webcam streams live video of the bulb to thousands of viewers every day (you can view the webcam here, if you’re interested in unchanging videos of light bulbs).
It’s called the Centennial Bulb, and it has operated for over 117 years with very few interruptions. In 2011, it passed a milestone: One million hours of near-continuous operation.
Produced by Shelby Electric in Shelby, Ohio, the 60-watt bulb (mistakenly listed on Wikipedia as 4 watts) seems almost magical. Typical incandescent bulbs last for a maximum of about 2,000 hours, per The New York Times; that’s about 83 days of constant operation. LED lamps can last for much longer, about 50,000 hours (5.7 years of constant operation).
What, then, makes this bulb so different? To find out, we reached out to the bulb’s caretaker. And yes, the lightbulb has an official caretaker.
“For many years, I worked around the light and had an interest in sharing its history,” Tom Bramell, retired deputy fire chief for the Livermore/Pleasanton fire department, tells Urbo via email. “In 2000, I became the co-chair of the light-bulb committee and the official caretaker of the bulb as we prepared to celebrate its 100th birthday. I retired in 2003 but remain the caretaker of the Centennial Bulb.”
Bramell has spent decades around the bulb, and he attributes its longevity to good, honest American craftsmanship. He says that’s why people come from around the country to see the light.
“In a world of products failing at the end of their warranty period, I believe visitors of the light have a profound appreciation for the heritage of American ingenuity and the quality of a product such as the Centennial Light Bulb [that is able] to last more than a hundred years,” Bramell says.
To many, the light bulb has become a symbol for planned obsolescence—a tactic that some manufacturers use to ensure profits. Essentially, companies build products that are designed to eventually fail so that consumers have to buy those products a second time (and third time, and fourth time, and so on).
We wondered whether that was accurate. Could light bulb companies really make more bulbs that last for more than a century without burning out?
The quick answer: Yes, manufacturers could make another Centennial Bulb, but they wouldn’t want to.
While the Centennial Bulb is a tremendous historical artifact, the fact remains that it’s not an especially effective light bulb.
We won’t get too deep into the nitty-gritty of electrical engineering, but here are the basics: Incandescent light bulbs work by passing an electrical current across a wire filament. The wire gets hot enough to glow, which creates light.
To protect the filament, the bulb is a vacuum, or in some cases, it’s filled with an inert gas. The Centennial Bulb—and other bulbs developed at the time—uses a carbon filament, which has a lower electrical resistance as it gets hotter. It also seems to have an incredibly durable vacuum seal, which is part of the reason for its longevity. However, from a practical standpoint, the factors that make the bulb so durable make it an ineffective lamp.
Carbon-filament bulbs are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in electricity, so they’re inconsistent. They’re also extremely inefficient when compared with modern light bulbs, outputting the majority of their wattage as heat rather than as visible light.
“[The bulb] is lasting, but not very useful,” Medhi Sadaghar, electrical engineer and creator of the YouTube channel ElectroBOOM, tells Urbo.
Sadaghar notes that the Centennial Light is extremely dim, outputting a mere 16 lumens; essentially, it’s not bright enough to function as anything but a nightlight. That happened gradually over time. Originally, the Centennial Light shone brightly, but today, it’s essentially useless (although it is extremely cool).
Its uselessness may just be a key part of its longevity—keeping a dim glow going for decades is actually less stressful for the bulb than constantly being turned on and off. The initial light up is the most intense part of a light bulb’s life, but unlike the Centennial Light, most modern lights need to switch off sometimes.
“We need lights that are consistent,” Sadaghar says. “But with the new LED lights, we can easily get huge lifespans, too. Maybe not as long as this guy, but at least the light output should be consistent, and they are way more efficient.”
Sorry, conspiracy theorists, but the Centennial Light isn’t a sign of planned obsolescence.
But if you were hoping for a story involving shady men making deals in (ironically) dimly lit rooms, we’ve got good news.
In the 1920s, major light bulb manufacturers including Osram, General Electric (which had by that time absorbed Shelby Electrical), and Philips formed the Phoebus Cartel. The cartel fixed prices, stifled innovation, and most importantly, colluded to make fragile light bulbs that would eventually burn out.
Considered one of the first truly international cartels, Phoebus established a thousand-hour standard for lamp life, enforcing obsolescence to pump up its profits at the expense of consumers. Economists consider the cartel’s actions to be one of the most notable cases of planned obsolescence, and the tactic worked—at first.
Alas, the Illuminate-i (and, as far as we can tell, we’re the first publication to make that pun) fell apart in the late 1930s due to production issues caused by the outbreak of World War II. External competition was also a factor; light bulbs were big business, and the cartel wasn’t able to completely stamp out the smaller electrical companies that made higher quality products.
As the cartel fell apart, competition increased. Today, there’s no reason for light bulb manufacturers to make low-quality bulbs, and the extremely long lifespans of modern LED bulbs indicate that a new Phoebus cartel probably isn’t going to form anytime soon.
Still, Phoebus showed the commercial viability of planned obsolescence.
And that’s a concept that has infuriated consumers over the past few decades.
In late 2017, consumer electronics giant Apple came under fire for intentionally slowing down older iPhone models in an apparent attempt to make consumers upgrade to newer phones (Apple contends that the slowdowns were necessary to keep the iPhones’ batteries operating as expected).
More recently, Apple faced criticism for their newest MacBook Pro models, which have a solid-state drive (SSD) that is fused to the logic board. Replacing the drive is effectively impossible, so the computer has a built-in expiration date.
“Solid-state drives don’t fail for the same reason that hard disk drives fail, but they still fail eventually,” says Ben Carmitchel, president of Datarecovery.com, a company that recovers files from damaged storage media. “By fusing an SSD to a logic board, you’re ensuring that the consumer will eventually have to buy a new computer. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone—after using the same laptop for about five or six years, most people will want to upgrade to a newer model anyway.”
“With computers and smartphones, hardware updates are inevitable,” Carmitchel notes. “People aren’t going to be happy using decade-old technology, so manufacturers might as well plan for obsolescence. In that way, ‘planned obsolescence’ is kind of redundant—of course it’s planned. It’s part of the industry.”
But while planned obsolescence might be acceptable in certain industries, consumers and government agencies sometimes fight back.
In early 2018, French prosecutors launched a probe to determine whether Apple planned to make older iPhones obsolete, and the European Union’s Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment Directive prevents appliance manufacturers from selling products that don’t meet certain durability requirements. In the United States, antitrust legislation prevents cartels like Phoebus from forming (with mixed results, per a research piece from Stanford Law School).
While consumers and manufacturers tangle over planned obsolescence, the Centennial Light continues burning.
Well, not burning, per se, but you get the picture. Ultimately, it’s not a symbol of corporate greed, but it is a symbol of craftsmanship.
“It’s odd that a light bulb can be such an attraction,” Bramell says. “Visitors want to come and say that they have seen it. They can hardly believe it.”
Bramell says that the Centennial Light’s allure has only grown over recent years. The webcam certainly helps with that—although things haven’t always run smoothly.
“After the 100-year celebration [in 2001] there were thousands of hits on the website,” Bramell says. “Because it was being watched around the world with a live webcam, someone suggested [putting the light] on an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) in-line, so there would be no chance of the light going out due to power failures.”
“Ironically, on May 20, 2013, the light went out in the middle of the night for more than nine hours. The fire department’s business lines and the light bulb’s website were lit up with callers around the world declaring the lightbulb dead.”
“I received a call—this was 10 years after my retirement—to come down to the station. While en route, I called the station and instructed the crew to bypass the UPS with an extension cord, which immediately restored power to the light. The bulb continues to glow brightly and the UPS is on a regular maintenance schedule for battery change[s].”
Yes, somewhat ironically, the state-of-the-art power supply had failed—not the bulb itself. Here’s hoping that it keeps shining for another century (however dimly).