Lit Up - The Bulb That Won't Burn Out

Lit Up - The Bulb That Won't Burn Out

A Centennial Bulb.

For the last 119 years, there has been a light shining unlike any other - one that refuses to burn out. In this edition of Lit Up we talk about the Chaillet bulb of Livermore - a light with personality. 

Hailed by many as a symbol of strength and perseverance, the bulb was created by early lighting pioneer Adolphe A. Chaillet. If you were to visit Livermore, CA today - you would be able to ask nearly anyone where you could find "the bulb". Of course - They would tell you to walk down to the fire department. If you look up and adjust your eyes, you will see it there. Watching over the firefighters of Livermore, day in and day out, with a warm glow that just begs the question: How?



Shelby Electric ad

Prior to the modernization of the electric light, developers were feverishly toying away with different ways of producing a lamp that would not only be practical, but long lasting and efficient. Enter: Adolphe Chaillet.

Chaillet formed the Shelby Electric Company and soon produced a filament that would become the bane of many unscrupulous inventors at the time. It is said that a cabal of engineers formed around the development of the lightbulb and silently agreed to make a bulb that had a much shorter lifespan. It goes without saying that this tactic worked to drive sales of the lightbulb and undermined Chailett's work.

Shelby Electric Company defied the common principles and created a hand-blown glass bulb with a filament so strong that it would, in fact, become generational. 

Closeup of the Centennial Bulb

The Shelby company dissolved soon after the development of their unique bulb and so these bulbs were not sold commercially. The townspeople of Livermore, however, had big ideas for their little treasure.

In the days of old, firehouses were not what they are today. If you were to set your home ablaze - a team of men would arrive on the scene not with hoses, but buckets. In the pitch black silence of the night, assembling your firefighters buckets was no easy task. Finding a candle, strapping yourself up, and then waking up your company to follow you onto the road was challenging. When the firefighters of Livermore were gifted the Shelby bulb, they immediately brought it in and lit up their small firehouse. From then on - the bulb worked as a nightlight and undoubtedly saved at least a few lives and an immense amount of precious time. 

This bulb is still burning to this day. We must confess, the bulb has been recorded to have been turned off during it's lifetime - on only three occasions. Two of these occasions were when the bulb was moved out of necessity to relocate and rebuild the firehouse around it. The bulb has otherwise, for all intents and purposes, been burning since it's installation in 1901. 

Live feed of the Centennial Bulb

As the timestamp implies, this is an image of the live video feed on this bulb at the time I am writing this very blog. Look at it go!


Livermore firehouse

Now - We can make heavy-handed remarks on planned obsolescence or the nature of consumerism to not fix but replace the things in our lives. We could ponder to ourselves how significant a bulb is in the big picture or if the advancement of LED technology will bring about a new fascination with longevity. Instead, we'll end on this: 

The community of Livermore, CA has united over the years around this bulb. It is a bit of design that holds meaning in the hearts of those around it. I believe that their community is even made better by it's presence. I urge you to find something like that in your own life and use it like a banner. Talk about it, show it off, and celebrate it. It might be a 117 year old bulb or it might be a family heirloom. It might be a special part of your town that nobody pays attention to yet. Whatever it is - these things are what make life so beautiful. Cherish perseverance. Cherish your community. 


Firehouse lightbulb display in Livermore, CA

For more information on the Centennial Bulb, including visitor information as well as photography and video, please visit their site here. We owe this story to the society that oversees the bulb's care. Without them preserving it, this bit of history would get washed away.

This post was originally inspired following a story on the bulb we heard from the folks at the wonderful podcast 99% Invisible. You can find them here. They feature design-centered stories that allow us to take a look at the detailed lives of the things around us. Really good stuff - we cannot recommend this one enough.

All photography property of Dick Jones. Used with permission - Source 

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