In 2007, Congress set up a schedule that was to phase out incandescent light bulbs by 2014: the incandescent light bulb was destined to go the way of Betamax and the 8-track tape, relegated to the dustbin of history. Now that schedule is in question due to Congressional Republicans — despite voting earlier for the bi-partisan bill — blocking the provision of the ban attached to the national spending bill that would have phased out the 100-watt incandescent bulb beginning January 1, 2012. Instead, that provision is now set to take effect next year.
Regardless of the politics of the light bulb ban, it is reported that manufacturers have already stopped production of incandescent bulbs in favor of retooling their assembly lines for the more expensive Compact Fluorescent (CFL) and LED bulbs that will replace the bulb types we’ve used for the past hundred-plus years. For boomers, this situation has many nostalgic implications.
The incandescent light bulb’s make-up is a simple design in which a filament is contained within a vacuum-sealed glass bulb. When an electric current is applied, the electricity flows through the filament, causing it to glow and give off heat and light in the process. It is commonly believed that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. In fact, a British inventor named Joseph Swan held the first patent on the light bulb in 1878 (one year earlier than Edison’s), but experiments with many versions of the bulb had been carried out by more than 20 inventors from several different countries as far back as 1800.
Edison had merely improved upon existing designs with a higher vacuum and a longer-lasting filament made of carbon. After Edison filed his patent, it was immediately challenged in British and U.S. Courts. In both cases, Edison lost and was forced to give up any rights to “his” light bulb. Edison’s genius at that point, however, was to recognize that a light bulb was powerless without an electrical supply. It was then that he developed his system of electrical generation and distribution that still dominates the marketplace today. His Edison Electric Company ultimately morphed into what boomers knew as “Edison,” preceded by their city or state name. Today we know the company as Consolidated Edison or Con Ed.
In the early boomer years, bulbs were just what they were: a utilitarian device we took for granted. No one questioned the life expectancy of a bulb, or worried about shadows or glare or how jaundiced a face could look in its glow. Bulbs existed, and that was that. And bulbs burned out as a fact of life, too. On occasion they could just cease to work. Upon removal from its receptacle, a simple shake of the bulb next to one’s ear would tell the story: a good bulb would not have a sound, while one that had a broken filament would rattle. Sometimes bulbs would explode when the switch was flicked, with an audible pop and a momentary bright flash — a last-gasp household supernova contained in a thin glass globe. Mister Boomer enjoyed these split-second-long displays, as he felt at an early age it was better to burn out than fade away.
Mister Boomer recalls his deepest connection with the incandescent light bulb through the visits he made with his mother to the Edison storefront in their city. In the 1950s and into the mid-1960s, consumers could pay their electric bill at the Edison store, but more importantly, they could exchange used light bulbs for new ones at no cost. The Edison company acted as an electricity pusher in that it was aware that the bulbs would use more than 20 percent of the electricity an average household would use. By supplying the bulbs for free, the company could guarantee business on a continuing basis. In our houses where electrical outlets weren’t necessarily situated on every wall, no one could imagine how our thirst for electricity would grow to what it is today.
In the Mister Boomer household, light bulbs were kept in a filled-to-the-brim paper shopping bag in the hall closet. Each bulb from the Edison store was set in a corrugated cardboard rectangular box, open at each end. As a new bulb was taken from the bag, the used bulb was placed into its corrugated container. Once the bag had come close to exhausting its supply, it was removed from the closet and placed into a little red wagon, along with Mister B’s sister. While walking the two miles to the store, Mister B and his brother would take turns pulling the wagon. At the Edison store, an employee would take out the used bulbs and count them, replacing into the bag the exact number of new bulbs as had been returned.
In Mister B’s view, consumer resistance to the phase out is not in line with our illustrious boomer history. Certainly we boomers have been faced with technological change our entire lives. Phasing out the incandescent light bulb is not a question of personal freedom. Rather, the logic behind the ban is environmental, which in itself is a movement brought to the forefront through the actions of boomers. CFL, halogen and LED light bulbs are much more efficient in the modern world, and last longer. While it is true that new bulbs currently cost much more than incandescent (and many of us doubted people would ever be willing to pay for something they once got for free … hello, cable TV!) new bulbs last for years instead of weeks or months. Issues like a non-appealing glow are already being addressed, and the price will fall as it has with every new invention. Do you recall what your first calculator or VCR cost you back in the ’70s?
Incandescent bulbs themselves emit greenhouse gases as the carbon heats within the filament. Yes, there are some pollution concerns over the disposal of new bulbs that contain trace amounts of mercury, but the same concerns have been voiced for years over incandescent bulbs, which contain lead. These new pollution issues are also being addressed: Home Depot, the country’s largest retail seller of light bulbs, as well as other outlets, are now accepting used bulbs for recycling. More solutions are sure to follow.
So how about it, boomers? Will it be c’mon baby light my fire because the times they are a-changing, you light up my life or either light up or leave me alone?
What bright memories of incandescent lighting come to mind for you, boomers?