Once largely the domain of meteorologists and scantily clad entrepreneurs, live webcams are now used to capture the action at pretty much any locale your curious heart could desire: national monuments, construction sites, wildlife sanctuaries, the swimming pool at a Holiday Inn in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Livermore, a city of roughly 85,000 in California's outer East Bay, is home to a particularly fascinating/uneventful webcam installed in a fire station. Nothing much really happens on said webcam aside from live footage of an old-fashioned filament lightbulb that's been burning bright-ish for 115 years.
Dubbed the Centennial Light, the antiquated 4-watt (previously 60-watt) incandescent has been in mostly constant operation since 1901, making it the world’s longest burning lightbulb per the folks at Guinness World Records. (It’s been subject to a handful of relocations and power outages over the years, including a 9-hour-long power interruption in 2013 which was first noticed, yep, by an Australian webcam viewer.) On June 27, 2015, the bulb reached the 1 million-hour mark and was feted appropriately with a 500-guest celebration.
Hanging from a cord high above the engines and apparatus of Fire Station 6 where the first responders of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department have also served as de facto stewards of the bulb since 1976, the Centennial Light serves as both a source of civic pride and one of Livermore’s top tourist draws — that is, aside from the city’s wealth of wineries and its outlet mall. While impressive, even a 115-year-old lightbulb with a sizeable online following can’t compete with Petite Sirah tastings and the J. Crew Factory store.
That said, the Centennial Light, a museum-worthy relic that just happens to be located in an active fire station, does attract a fair number of bulb tourists. Fire Station 6 gladly welcomes drop-in visitors although up-close access to and commentary on the bulb is largely dependent on the availability of Livermore's bravest. Understandably, the station's staff can be busy at times.
While admiring the Centennial Light in the company of a firefighting tour guide can't be beat, the most convenient and up-close method of viewing this hand-blown carbon-filament curiosity is via live webcam — the Bulbcam, if you will, which refreshes every 30 seconds and has been in operation for over 15 years with a couple of upgrades along the way.
Like the Centennial Light itself, which was designed by Parisian inventor Adolphe Chaillet and manufactured in the late 1890s by the Shelby Light Company of Shelby, Ohio, the bulb’s website is something of a time-rewinding, animated GIF-heavy archaism although “plans are under way to create a new display under the Bulb, and on the wall, a new look at the Bulbcam, and a re-invention of this website."
Charming early-oughts web design aside, one not-so-small question remains: what is the secret to the Centennial Light’s record-breaking longevity?
Craig Benzine, co-host of weird science-centric PBS Digital Studios web series "The Good Stuff," recently traveled to Livermore’s Fire Station 6 to uncover the eternally burning mystery of the Centennial Light. What kind of technological sorcery has allowed it to keep burning for over 100 years? Is it a miracle? A prank? A physics-defying anomaly? Something else entirely?
Explains retired Livermore deputy fire chief Tom Bramell when asked the all-important question of why: “You know, we have to take a guess sometimes that it’s just a little freak of nature …” Translation: No one really knows for sure.
While the thickness and composition of the filament might have something to do with the the Centennial Light's rather insane longevity, Brammel, who serves as a sort of in-house bulb historian, focuses largely on the role of planned obsolescence — or the lack thereof. However, this doesn't entirely explain why the pear-shaped orb still burns strong 115 years after it was installed in a hose cart house to provide around-the-clock illumination to Livermore's volunteer firefighters. (At the time, the bulb, or any form of electrified illumination for that matter, was a a rarity).
Early incandescent lightbulbs were subject to planned obsolescence in the mid-1920s through the Phoebus cartel, an innovation-stunting agreement among early lighting industry leaders including General Electric, Philips and Osram. The cartel lasted through 1939 although its influence is still very much present today. (Hello, Apple). Given that it was manufactured a couple of decades prior to the advent of the cartel, the Centennial Light was not impacted by this industry-wide agreement that limited the lifespan and efficiency of lightbulbs as a means of eliminating competition.
So, sure, it makes sense that this antiquated lamp from Shelby Light Company might burn longer than the early incandescents produced during the Phoebus cartel era. But 115 years and counting?
Shelby Light Company, which itself went dark in 1912 when the company was sold to General Electric, was in the business of manufacturing high-quality lamps that were designed to last. “And truly this one really has," says Brammel of the Centennial Light.
Having survived a few moves around town during the first half of the 20th century, the bulb's seemingly immortal qualities first attracted national attention in the early 1970s following the publication of an exhaustively researched report written for the Tri-Valley Herald. When the septuagenarian lighting element was relocated to its current location at Fire Station 6 on East Avenue in 1976, police escorts and master electricians were called in to ensure that the process went off without a hitch. While there were a few tense moments during the move, it did go as planned.
The lightbulb's 100th birthday in 2001 was, as to be expected, a big to-do complete with a barbecue and live music. President George W. Bush even passed along his best wishes, referring to the everlasting incandescent as a "source of community pride" and an "enduring symbol of the spirit of American invention." (While manufactured domestically, the lumière itself was invented in France).
Bramell, much like everyone else who has studied or cared for the bulb, has no idea as to when the Centennial Light will eventually burn out. “I don’t know if it will expire in my lifetime. But we know that everything has an end," Bramell tells Benzine. "Some day it will expire. It could last another 100 years easily."
As of now, it's unclear what exactly will become of the bulb when it does die. As noted by the bulb's official fan page, the City of Livermore and the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department "intend to keep the bulb burning as long as it will. They have no plans at present what to do with the bulb if or when it does burn out."
Obviously, a grand send-off will be compulsory as Livermore, also home to a superlative annual rodeo, has enthusiastically observed past milestones. Perhaps someday down the road, Alameda County's sixth most populous city will be the site of the world's first-ever lightbulb funeral procession.
Mourning rituals and afterlife plans aside, there is solace in the fact that when the Centennial Light's time does come, it won't die alone — someone out there will be watching via webcam as the world's oldest lightbulb casts its final glow.
Inset photo: Wikimedia Commons