The Livermore Centennial Light Bulb: Proof Products are Designed to Fail

Centennial Lightbulb, a lightbulb that has burned continuousy (except for approx. 20 minutes) since 1901.

Centennial Lightbulb, a lightbulb that has burned continuousy (except for approx. 20 minutes) since 1901.

A light bulb built in 2012 will last for 1000 hours. A light bulb built in the 1890s has been on in a Livermore California Fire Station for over 970,000 hours (and is still going).

Here is a bit of its story as told by Dick Jones retired engineer and member of the Livermore Centennial Light Bulb Committee.

The Centennial Livermore Light Bulb was installed in 1901.  How long did it take before someone realized it was something significant?

I think when it got moved to the fire station it is in 1976 people started to realize its significance. It started getting news because Ripley’s Believe It or Not talked about it, Charles Kuralt visited it and it is in The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest burning light bulb in the world.

Is it the size of a standard light bulb today?

Yes. It is a regular sized light bulb, just shaped a little different.

 It is always on, hanging and unprotected in the fire station in Livermore, California?

Yes, if you are in town and there is a fireman in the station they will talk to you about it. It is considered part of their job.

How is it that a light bulb built over 115 years ago is of much better quality than what we can get today?

Back then people built things to last. Now we build things not to last. In those days you wanted to build a better, long lasting bulb.

What about the Phoebus Cartel, the organization founded in the 1920’s by a group of light bulb

manufacturers to control the life of light bulbs?

I don’t know. Something has happened. The movie, The Light Bulb Conspiracy, did a great job of discussing that. They used to make light bulbs that would last on the order of 3500 hours and now they only last 1000 hours. But, now, if you buy something that lasts for a long time then how do you keep the economy moving?

Does it make sense to you as an engineer that over 115 years has gone by and a similar or better quality light bulb has not been produced?

I think you could duplicate it if you wanted to, but where is the incentive? If you want to sell cars you change the model every two years. I do not know if it is right or not. I won’t go there and try and guess. We could have solved the gas crisis a long time ago. Thirty years ago we built a five cylinder variable stroke piston engine that improved gas mileage 33% the very first time we tried and it cost $700,000 to design it. The technology to do a lot of things exists. There is a lot of available technology that has kind of disappeared. I imagine there are 100s of patents on better and more fuel efficient engines, but those patents have all been bought because they don’t want it to get better.

Have there ever been any near catastrophes with the Centennial Livermore Light Bulb?

We have done stupid things with it. When the fire trucks used to go out they used to think it was funny to hit the bulb as they left the station for good luck. They did not have any reverence for it at the time. They would throw Nerf balls at it from time to time as well.

As an engineer do you have any idea how this light bulb was built differently than those that are today?

It was the right choice of materials that were put in a good vacuum. We did find a lady in Colorado who found a similar light bulb in her father’s things. It looked identical to the one we have. She brought it to us, we plugged it in and it shined bright. She was offered $5,000 for it, but she decided to keep it. There is another one in Fort Worth, Texas at the Palace Theatre. They are slightly behind us in terms of length of time that their bulb has been burning.

In 2001 you had the 100th birthday party for the light bulb.

We planned a nice simple little party and invited the local citizens to join us. At 3 am, the night before the party, my phone started to ring and it was the fire department. They told me that the little party had gotten out of control and that NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and everybody else was at the fire station with their reporters and they were doing live feeds to Katie Couric and Peter Jennings in New York. We didn’t know what to do. We went down to the fire station to do interviews. It was fun. We had over 700 people show up. Every newscaster in the world was there and we sang happy birthday to a light bulb on National TV. Originally the light bulb information was hosted on the City of Pleasanton’s website. When these stories started coming out so many people hit the website that we crashed the server. The city was not happy with us.  In 2011 we had another party and celebrated the bulb turning 110 years old.

Are there any thoughts on when it will go out?

No, at the rate it is going it will probably outlast all of us. It will probably continue to get dimmer over time. We are happy it is still going and that everyone enjoys it. We keep a web cam on it so people can see it online. We are now on our third web cam.


To learn more: The Lightbulb Conspirarcy, an excellent film on planned product failure / planned obsolescence.


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