Monday, May 05, 2008

The Bulb Keeps Burning . . . for 107 years

He calls it the long-lived lightbulb of Livermore.

That's actually something of an understatement.

At 107 years and counting, the low-watt wonder with the curlicue carbon filament has been named the planet's longest continuously burning bulb by both Guinness World Records and Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

As objet d'art and enduring symbol of American reliability and ingenuity, it's been lauded by senators and presidents.

It boasts a website -- www.centennialbulb.org, drawing a million hits a year -- a historical society and even a webcam that allows curious fans to check on it 24 hours a day.

The Livermore lightbulb, you see, never gets turned off, which many suspect is the secret to its longevity.

Hanging 18 feet above the floor at the end of a black cloth-covered cord, the little light with the filament the width of a No. 2 pencil lead is unprotected by any lampshade.

Firefighters won't even dust it. Touch it, jokes one captain, and "you get your fingers chopped off."

They guard their light with a surge protector and have a diesel generator and a battery as backups. To them, the bulb is the embodiment of their always-on-duty ethic.

For years, Tom Bramell (shown above) was known around the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department as the keeper of the bulb, the unofficial curator and caretaker who fielded queries from the public and visits from tourists. Over time, he developed a boyish wonder at its craftsmanship and spunk. From a vantage point directly beneath the bulb, Bramell says, its filament even spells the word "on."

Livermore's bulb has burned for nearly a million hours. Even now, in its old age, Bramell will stack it against any New Age fluorescent, halogen or high-pressure sodium bulb out there.

"That bulb predates the atomic bomb and the birth of the automobile," said the onetime deputy chief. "I thought that for sure it was going to go out 35 years ago, but it fooled me. It fooled everyone."

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