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What's the Longest Burning Light Bulb?
The 110-year-old Centennial Light Bulb.
Credit: Dick Jones

A modern marvel in hand-blown glass and thick carbon filament hangs 15 feet above the ladder trucks in a Livermore, Calif., fire station: a light bulb that has been burning for over a century.

Many attribute the bulb’s long life to its thick filament, its low wattage and the fact that has almost never been turned off.

The four-watt Livermore Centennial Light Bulb was manufactured by Shelby Electric Company in 1901, roughly twenty years after Thomas Edison first patented his incandescent light bulb. It has been recognized by both the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley's Believe It or Not, and authenticated by engineers from General Electric.

The light bulb has not lacked for competition over the years. The tour guides at the Thomas Edison Winter Estate in Fort Myers, Florida, for example, used to tell tall tales of a legendarily long-lived light bulb there. They said Edison himself crafted it, and that it had shone since 1886. Such lore, it turned out, could not withstand the light of day, however.

No one can say when the Livermore Centennial Light Bulb light bulb first received power, but it probably switched on sometime between 1901 and 1905. Since then, with the exception of the four times it has been moved, the bulb has been in continuous operation. Compare that to the 10,000-20,000-hour bulbs touted as long lasting in local hardware stores.

A lot can happen in 111 years. The so-called methuselah bulb has outlasted the Shelby Electric Company, which General Electric purchased in 1914; it has outlived the people who blew its glass and who put it together; it survived the first web cam installed to keep an eye on it. Wars have been fought and won, empires have risen and fallen and generations have been born and died, all while a light bulb shone soft and steady, first in one fire station, then in another.

There’s poetry in that, and inspiration, too: If something so flimsy can endure for so long, even amid the flurry and chaos of emergency, then maybe the rest of us can, too.

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