The Centennial Light – A Bulb That Won’t Stop Burning

Centennial Light
How many Sporclers does it take to change a light bulb?

Well, if that light bulb is located in Fire Station 6 in Livermore, California, the answer would be none. It is in this location that you will find the Centennial Light. For over 100 years, this little light bulb that could has been burning, and today it is recognized as the world’s longest-lasting light bulb.

How does a bulb burn for over a century? Lets first look back on the history of this persistent illuminator.

The Centennial Light

The Centennial Light was manufactured in Shelby, Ohio, by the Shelby Electric Company in the late 1890s. It’s really not that uncommon from other hand-blown, carbon-filament light bulbs of the era. This particular bulb was a gift that was donated to the Livermore Fire Department by Dennis Bernal, who owned the Livermore Power and Water Company.

The bulb was originally hung in 1901 in a hose cart house, and then was moved to a garage in downtown Livermore that was used by both the fire and police departments. It was meant to serve as a nightlight so firefighters wouldn’t have to deal with lighting kerosene lamps in the dark. After the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, the bulb was moved again to a newly constructed City Hall that housed both departments.

In 1972, the bulb was still burning, and its unusual longevity was noticed by a reporter for the Tri-Valley Herald named Mike Dunstan. After a few weeks of interviewing long-time Livermore residents, he wrote an article titled, “Light Bulb May Be World’s Oldest”. He contacted Guinness Book of World Records, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and General Electric, each confirming it as the longest-lasting bulb known in existence.

It should be noted, however, that the bulb has been off the grid for short periods of time. In 1976, the Livermore Fire Department moved to Fire Station 6 with the bulb. It was deprived of electricity for only about 22 minutes during the transfer. On May 20th, 2013, the Centennial Light had appeared to finally burn out, as witnessed by onlookers who can view the bulb by webcam. The next morning, an electrician was called in to confirm its status, but it was determined that a faulty power supply was the cause. After the power supply fix, the bulb burned once again.

Today, the bulb is cared for by the Centennial Light Bulb Committee. The Fire Department plans to keep and maintain the bulb until it goes out, however long that may be. When it does stop shining, they have no plans for it, although Ripley’s Believe it or Not! has requested the bulb for their museum.

But How?

The long historical record of the Centennial Light offers evidence to confirm that this is not just some hoax or fake tourist trap. If you’re like most, though, you still might be wondering how this is even possible.

There are a few theories that together probably best explain the bulb’s longevity. For one, the bulb features a perfect seal, which maintains a vacuum to keep the filament from disintegrating. Additionally, the bulb features a very low wattage which keeps it from burning hot. Though originally a 30-watt or 60-watt bulb, today it is very dim, burning more like a 4-watt nightlight. Finally, the bulb always stays on, so it is not subject to being turned off and on all the time.

Whatever the true reasons for the bulb’s endurance, the Centennial Light continues to be a point of interest for many around the world. It has been the subject of various articles and studies over the years, and it is commonly referenced anytime planned obsolescence is being discussed. This is the practice of intentionally making products with limited life spans, so people have to keep buying new ones.

Maybe the bulb is just proof that grandma was right – they really don’t make things like they used to.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 161 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.