California’s Mysterious (And Immortal) Lightbulb

“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.” —Aaron Rose

In A Nutshell

If you were to visit the fire department in Livermore, California, you’d find an oddly shaped lightbulb hanging in the garage. The bulb dangles from the roof by a cord and only gives off about 4 watts. So what’s the big deal? Well, aside from a handful of interruptions, this lightbulb has been shining 24/7 since 1901.

The Whole Bushel

It’s safe to say the lightbulb is one of the most important inventions in the history of, well, inventions. It’s also safe to say most of us probably take these little glass balls for granted, at least until they burn out. Then we just get irritated.

Things were a lot different in 1901. Only 3 percent of Americans actually had electricity, so when the volunteer fire department in Livermore, California got their first bulb, it was a pretty big deal.

The bulb was a gift from the Livermore Power and Water Company, and it made things a lot easier when fires broke out in the middle of the night. Instead of stumbling around in the dark, firefighters could actually see all their gear. Suddenly, hitching up horses to the hose carts became a lot easier.

In 1906, the fire department moved into a new building, so they loaded up their equipment and trucked it down the street. And of course, they took along their lightbulb. It was the only one they had, and after all, it was still burning. In fact, they kept it on 24/7. That’s pretty impressive as the average American incandescent bulb only lasts between 1,000 and 2,000 hours.

But in the words of Al Jolson, you ain’t seen nothing yet. As the firefighters ditched their hose carts for fire trucks, the lightbulb continued to illuminate their garage, dangling from the roof by a long cord. Finally, in 1971, Fire Chief Jack Baird asked a reporter to dig around and see what he could learn about the mysterious bulb that never burned out.

As it turns out, this particular bulb was invented by the Shelby Electric Company, a US business founded in the late 1890s by a French immigrant named Adolphe Chaillet. Chaillet was a pretty sharp guy, having graduated from both French and German academies, and was something of a master showman. To prove the superiority of his product, Chaillet would take several kinds of lightbulbs, screw them into a theater marquis board, and turn up the juice.

Invariably, each and every lightbulb would blow up . . . except for his. Thanks to these demonstrations, the Frenchman could boldly declare his merchandise lasted 30 percent longer than any other bulb on the planet. Well, up until he was bought out by General Electric anyway.

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Jumping back to the ’70s, Chief Jack Baird was duly impressed by Chaillet’s long-lasting lightbulb. So naturally, when the firefighters moved to a new station in ’76, the bulb was brought along in grand style. It was placed in a special red box and given an escort complete with sirens and flashing lights.

The “Centennial Light” is still burning away in Fire Station No. 6, and with very few exceptions (power failure, moving, and remodeling), it’s been giving off light for over 113 years. As you might expect, this eternal light has attracted quite a bit of attention over the years. It was featured on MythBusters, was honored in the Guinness Book of World Records, and was even honored by George W. Bush on its 100th anniversary. The bulb even has its own webcam.

But why this is particular lightbulb so special? How has it lasted so long? Well . . . nobody knows for sure. Some think it’s actually a prank, but those doubters and naysayers are in the minority. One researcher theorizes perhaps it has something to do with the bulb’s unique design. As it turns out, Shelby bulbs have filaments that are eight times thicker than average. On top of that, they’re made out of carbon instead of your typical tungsten.

Of course, that doesn’t really explain how the Livermore light has outlasted the average human and survived two world wars, the rise and fall of the USSR, the invention of the Internet, and 9/11. Perhaps the only way we’ll find out the lightbulb’s secret is to wait for it to finally burn out and then crack it open and investigate. But when the Centennial Light finally fizzles out, the world will become a little darker and little less magical. Let’s hope it keeps on shining for years to come.

Show Me The Proof

99 Percent Invisible: Episode 144: There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
Priceonomics: The Mysterious Case of the 113-Year-Old Light Bulb
Official Bulbcam
Guinness World Records: Longest burning light bulb