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A 96-year-old light bulb: It's still going

lightbulb March 25, 1997
Web posted at: 11:43 p.m. EST (0443 GMT)

From Correspondent Don Knapp

LIVERMORE, California (CNN) -- It is no great surprise that the fire bell at the Livermore Fire Station, installed in 1876, still works.

But, surprise! So does the fire station's nightlight, a turn-of-the-century light bulb that Chief Lynn Owens claims has been burning practically nonstop since 1901. icon (87 K / 7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The long-lived light bulb illuminates today's quest for a cheaper, more durable artificial light source. Why don't the light bulb companies make bulbs like the fire station's bulb anymore? One researcher suggests maybe they never did.

Steven Johnson of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says the choice has always been the hot, shorter burn of efficiency or the cooler burn of longevity.

He rejects the claim made by some: that manufacturers program bulbs to die after a short life so consumers will have to keep buying them.

Rather, he says bulb makers are responding to consumer demand.

"They can make it very dim to last for a very long period of time, or they can make it bright, like you the consumer want it, and last for 750 or a thousand hours," he said.

new light

New technology is bright, economical

If you want the latest efficiency, Johnson says, look to compact fluorescent lamps, which give more light for less power.

Although the bulbs are oddly shaped and the initial outlay per bulb is relatively high, millions have chosen them over standard incandescent bulbs over the past few years. And with the help of power company cash incentives, consumers can even partly offset the high purchase price for each bulb.

By contrast, the popular tungsten halogen lamps are one of the least efficient alternatives. About 40 million of these lamps, with their bright, hot lights, have been sold. By some estimates, they ate up all the energy saved by the compact fluorescents.

Johnson's group has come up with a lamp that looks just like the popular halogen models, but uses the more efficient compact fluorescents.


And yet another type of bulb may be the wave of the future: the "microwave lamp."

"It's exciting, sulfur in a quartz envelope with a microwave radiation, coming from a magnetron very similar to the magnetron in your home microwave oven," he said. In other words, you put some gas in a bulb and zap it, and it lights up.

Such technologies are of no interest to the staff of the Livermore Fire Station, however.

It's not efficiency they worry about, but longevity, as they wonder how much longer their little night light will give off its warm glow.


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