Photo: Livermore's Centennial Light web site

So last Sunday, I’m sitting at home reading the Chronicle, really giving Willie Brown’s weekly movie review (The Mechanic) the ole deep think, when I come across this crazy article on the Livermore light bulb.

Some people I asked have heard about the light bulb, but many others, including me, have not. So check this out from the Chron:

At Livermore Fire Station No. 6 is a lightbulb that has not burned out in 110 years. Nobody, even in this golden age of technology, knows why. And no one wants to unscrew the bulb to find out…

The lightbulb is about 3 inches long and slightly rounder than a modern lightbulb. Inside the hand-blown glass is a jumble of carbon filament that radiates about 4 watts of soft orange light – about the strength of a nightlight.

Its workings may be a mystery, but it’s probably the most well-documented lightbulb in history. It was first installed in a Livermore firehouse on L Street in 1901, replacing the kerosene lanterns that helped firefighters load hoses and shovels for night calls. Full article

That’s insane! From the article:

“Scientists – of which there are thousands around Livermore and its labs – have studied it for decades. Some, like David Tse, an electrical engineering professor at UC Berkeley, are skeptical. ‘It’s not possible. It’s a prank,” he said curtly, slamming down the phone.'”

Apparently that’s not the prevailing view. The bulb started gaining attention in 1972, after this article in the Tri-Valley Herald. The long-lasting light gained even greater fame with its 100th birthday in 2001. Video from the centennial on Vimeo:

Now, on the eve of its 110th birthday, the bulb, also called the Centennial Light, is the subject of Pyramids of Waste (alternate title: The Light Bulb Conspiracy), a documentary about “planned obsolescence,” which Wikipedia calls “a policy of deliberately planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete or nonfunctional after a certain period.” An article about the film in Sunday’s San Jose Mercury News details the theory behind the light bulb conspiracy:

In meticulous detail, the film lays out how, initially, manufacturers strove for long-lasting bulbs. Thomas Edison’s first commercial bulb in 1881 lasted for 1,500 hours; soon, bulb-makers were proudly advertising 2,500-hour ulbs.

But in 1924, the main bulb manufacturers in America and Europe secretly formed a cartel to limit the average life of lamps to 1,000 hours, according to internal documents, Dannoritzer said. By the 1940s, 1,000-hour bulbs became the standard.

Eventually, the cartel was exposed, and in 1953, General Electric and other industry leaders were banned from limiting the light bulb’s life span.

Although many patents have been awarded since, no super-long-lasting incandescent bulbs have succeeded commercially, the film argues.

Donated to Livermore’s fire department in 1901, the Centennial Light was made by the defunct Shelby Electric Company in Shelby, Ohio, in the late 1800s. Documents suggest its inventor, Adolphe Chaillet, hoped to create a more efficient, long-lasting bulb. Full article

Watch the full film here:

UK Indymedia also has a radio version of the film up.

The best part about all this: At the Centennial Bulb’s Home page, you can watch the light do its thing 24-7 on the BulbCam, and — OH MY GOD IT JUST WENT OUT!!!

Hah hah just kidding.

The bulb will enjoy its 110th birthday party on June 18. Start making your travel plans to Livermore now.

Does the 110-Year Old Livermore Light Bulb Prove a ‘Planned Obsolescence’ Conspiracy? 8 February,2011Jon Brooks

  • Mike Fang

    Probably, the light bulb has survived for two reason. One, it has not been turned on and off repeatedly. Second, it produces a limited amount of lite but has a large looping filament which does not bend as its temperature changes.

    There may be other reasons. Perhaps it was designed to operate at higher voltages. Or maybe it was made to last longer after all. The engineers should check in on this one.

    I do know that “dollar store” light bulbs do not last very long. Not that we will be able to buy any incandescent bulbs much longer!


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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