Sometimes it seems like light bulbs burn out just a few minutes after you change them. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Centennial Bulb in California, which has been burning since 1901.
The light bulb hangs from the ceiling of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department’s Fire Station #6, about an hour east of San Francisco.
The nondescript station doesn’t exactly seem like a tourist destination, according to Mental Floss’s loving homage to the bulb. Visitors looking for the famous Centennial Bulb simply have to ring the bell at the back door and wait to be let in. Engines and fire equipment line the path to where the bulb hangs, near a row of less impressive fluorescent lights. One camera pointed at the bulb for its livestream is the only indication you’re in the presence of a legend.
Plenty of people still find their way there, though, so the firefighters have added tour guide skills to their resumés. The only time visitors aren’t welcome is when an emergency call comes in and the firefighters have to politely ask them to leave so they can suit up. Sometimes, tourists will even wait at the firehouse until the firefighters return to let them back in.
A Brief Bulb History
According to anyone’s best guess, the magical bulb came from the Shelby Electric Company, in Shelby, Ohio, back in 1898.
The filament (the part that lights up) is made of carbon, the result of a “secret process” that’s still a mystery. From below, the filament looks like the word “no” in cursive—some kind of a clue, perhaps?
Experts think the bulb is about a 60-watt model. In its old age, it’s only burning at about four watts—still more than enough to keep it officially alive.
The bulb didn’t achieve fame until sometime in the early 1970s, when local reporter Mike Dunstan started investigating its history. Through a series of interviews, Dunstan discovered it had already been burning for 71 years, and a star was born.
As far as locals can recall, the Livermore light bulb has only been turned off four times in its life. The first time was in 1906, when it moved to a new fire house. Thirty-one years later, it went off again for about a week, as the station went through some renovations. In 1976, it moved again to its current home in Fire Station #6.
Most recently, early in the morning of May 20, 2013, a power supply malfunction caused it to go out suddenly. An Australian man who was watching the live stream noticed and contacted the station to alert them about the emergency. About nine hours later, after some electrical tinkering, power was restored once again.
The Centennial Bulb’s Secret To Longevity
Nobody really knows why the bulb has managed to stay alive for so many years. The Livermore firefighters have a few different theories, though. Some think it’s consistency: The bulb has been turned off so rarely that the filament never has to cool down or heat up again, so it just keeps going. Others describe it as a “perfect accident”—just one of those things nobody can really explain.
A few years ago, the fire station finally decided to take advantage of its status as a tourist attraction and publish a book about its most famous resident. Most of the public information about the bulb (including everything in this article) comes from “A Million Hours of Service,” a book about the bulb by Thomas Bramell, Livermore’s retired Deputy Fire Chief and chief bulb historian.
The book is on sale at the fire station, along with other bulb merch. Proceeds from book sales go to the Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters Foundation, a nonprofit organization for injured and fallen firefighters.
When the bulb reached its millionth hour of life in June 2015, locals threw a party to celebrate. Partygoers danced and ate barbecue, and local officials gave short speeches in the bulb’s honor. Meanwhile, the Centennial Bulb just kept on burning, like it always has.
[h/t: Mental Floss]