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115 years and still burning after all these years.

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A Light Bulb Burning For 115 Years?

In a Livermore, California firehouse, hangs a bare bulb, now known as The Centennial Light. It’s burned almost continuously for 115 years. Impossible? Yes it is now, but it wasn’t when the bulb was originally made by Shelby Electric. True, it doesn’t shine as brightly now as it once did, but at 115 how can it be expected to have the same brilliance? But it means a lot to the firemen in that firehouse and they’re pretty proud of it.

A Good Luck Charm

It’s tradition when the Livermore firemen are called out, as they leave to battle a fire,  they reach up and gently tap the old light bulb. Perhaps for good luck and long life? These men and women put their lives on the line every day fighting fires. I hope the old bulb gives them extra courage and confidence. Why don’t we still have bulbs that last this long? Well, read on an you’ll find out the story behind the light bulb burning for 115 years.

Quality, long-lasting light bulbs

In the late 1890s, a company known as Shelby Electric, located in Shelby, Ohio, manufactured light bulbs. These were quality, long-lasting light bulbs, seeming to never burn out. Business was good, and Shelby continued manufacturing the orbs, until one day their accounting department realized something strange; the purchasing of the bulbs had slowed to a trickle. The heads of the company met to figure out why such a well-made product was being given short shrift by the growing population. The reason was shocking to them all. The bulbs didn’t burn out for many, many hours, so that they didn’t need replacing.

Conclusion: The Bulbs Were Too Well-Made

Imagine their surprise when they came to the stunning conclusion; their bulbs were too well-made and lasted so long there was no need to purchase more. Barring an accident, most of their bulbs never burned out, so once bought, no one purchased more. For the company to stay afloat and grow, something HAD to be done!

Today We Make Them Prettier, But Not Lasting

Prettier, not better

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Planned Obsolescence

A group of men, including the heads of Osram, Phillips and General Electric, the three largest manufacturers of light bulbs, met together and became known as the Phoebus Cartel. The sole purpose of the Phoebus Cartel was to control the manufacture, price and sale of light bulbs. The problem was this: If the bulbs never burned out and no one ever bought more, what could they do to ensure the re-sale of  more bulbs more frequently? This was paramount to keep their employees working and their companies growing. In the end, the decision was made to incorporate what is now known as “planned obsolescence” into their light bulbs, so that after about 1,000 hours, they burned out and the consumer would have to buy again. This was the first known instance in history of this sort of maneuver on the part of a business or industry. But as far as the general public was concerned, the heads of these electrical companies were meeting to improve and standardize methods of lighting.

Here are a couple great books for children and adults about the Livermore, CA firehouse light.

The Firehouse Light

The Little Light Shines Bright: A True Story about the World’s Longest Burning Lightbulb

Built-in Obsolescence

These days, our products contain built-in obsolescence. No one wants to make a product that lasts forever, because it takes away from future sales. Every product made today has built-in obsolescence. You’ve heard the it from computer companies, when the computer you bought one year ago is already obsolete. You’ve heard it from the phone companies that your cell phone is now obsolete. You’ve known for some time that the moment you drive your car off the lot, it begins to depreciate, and next year everything about it will be obsolete. This is planned obsolescence at its greatest! We have become a world of “disposables,” in that everything we use becomes old the moment we buy it. Once we can no longer get parts or repairs for them, we dispose of them. There was a time when we repaired and created something new from an old piece we could no longer use for its intended purpose. But now it goes to the junkyard or trash fill. But the little light bulb in Livermore just keeps on burning and has become a place tourists visit to see it still shining.

Here are stories you might like about the history of Livermore, California and surroundings.