It is a small thing, about eight inches in circumference at its widest, but it has outlived any giant searchlight that ever swept the night sky. In the main fire station in Livermore, Calif., is a lightbulb that has been burning for more than 100 years, making it the oldest still-burning bulb in the world.
Serving as a night-light over the fire trucks, it has only been turned off briefly on three occasions when it was moved. The four-watt bulb was handblown with carbon filament by Shelby Electric Co., a manufacturer that was purchased by General Electric in 1914.
"It's not surprising that a company that made bulbs to last a hundred years went out of business," says local historian Barry Schrader. The bulb's date of origin, 1901, has been authenticated by local records, and it has been recognized by both the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley's Believe It or Not. Engineers from General Electric have inspected the bulb and declared it representative of the time it was made, says Tom Bramell, deputy fire chief.
Engineers say the bulb has survived due to a combination of the filament thickness and the low wattage. "It may be a freak," Schrader says, "but it is also a marvel."
Firefighters happily show off their prize to visitors. As one of them says, pointing to the bulb, "It's always neat to look at a good thing we don't understand, something that's still living but isn't supposed to be."
Livermore residents treat the bulb with the awe normally reserved for a Fabergé egg.
It is one of the main tourist stops in this city of 73,345 (about an hour's drive east of San Francisco). The town is also home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Visitors are welcome at the fire station, 4550 East Ave. For more information on the bulb, visit www.centennialbulb.org.
Photography by Richard Jones)
This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.