Incandescent light bulbs may be fading away, killed off slowly by fluorescents and LEDs, but there’s one old-fashioned bulb that refuses to go out. In fact, it’s been going for more than a century.
The world’s longest-burning light bulb has been shining* since 1901, when it was first turned on in Livermore, Calif. (It’s gone out during a couple of power outages, and it was briefly turned off when it was moved in 1903, for a week in 1937, and in 1976 when it was moved again.) The Shelby bulb was never the brightest—it started at 60 watts and has since faded to 4 watts. But what it lacks in lumens it makes up for in design.
Mastermind electrician Adolphe A. Chaillet designed the bulb, and his Shelby Electric Company manufactured it. The carbon filament was the defining feature, allowing the bulb to burn longer and at a lower temperature than tungsten-based Edison bulbs. Still, Shelby built the bulb for only a year. The conspiracy-minded say it was planned obsolescence that doomed the Shelby bulb. The more rational-minded say it was because the carbon filament within was too expensive.
Edison’s version may have outlived Chaillet in the market, but Chaillet’s bulb is a long-lasting masterwork. The bulb, made out of handblown glass, found its first home in the fire department hose cart house in Livermore. It was then moved to the main fire station and now lives in Livermore’s Fire Station 6, where a camera trained on it lets the web keep an eye on the orange filament.
That’s about all anyone can do with the bulb—look at it. Scientists are still unsure what’s kept it burning for so long, but taking it apart to figure out how it works is out of the question—at least until it stops working one day. Some experts suspect the bulb’s longevity comes from a super strong vacuum. Others say it’s a ruse. The Livermore Lightbulb Centennial Committee is just happy that the light is still on.
“The City of Livermore and the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department intend to keep the bulb burning as long as it will,” the Committee says. “They have no plans at present what to do with the bulb if or when it does burn out.”