INFINITE LIGHT
with TOM BRAMELL

The former fire chief looking after a record-breaking, ever-burning light bulb

Interview: JAMIE MacRAE
Photography: CARLOS CHAVARRÍA

Jamie MacRae: Who are you and what do you do?

Tom Bramell: I’m the chairman of the Centennial Light Bulb Committee here in Livermore, California, which means I help to look after the longest burning light bulb in the world. It hangs in a local fire station and has been going for over a hundred years.

JM: What exactly are your responsibilities as chairman?

TB: The committee was put together to organise the 100th birthday for the bulb back in 2001, but I’ve kind of become the honorary chairperson for life. I suppose my main responsibility is to talk about it. I look after the website, I wrote a book about it, and other than that, I just enjoy its longevity.

JM: Could you describe the bulb for me? I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it in person.

TB: It looks like your standard 60-watt incandescent light bulb. It’s a hand-blown glass bulb with a carbon filament – a lot of people think that it’s tungsten, but it’s not. It was probably designed by Adolphe Chaillet in the late 1800s, and, in fact, this type of bulb was tested against a bunch of others and in 1898 it was proclaimed the best in the world: they claimed it was at least 20 per cent more efficient and would last longer than any other bulb on the market. Nearly 118 years later, it’s still going, so they weren’t far wrong with that. Even the most energy-efficient LED bulbs today will only last from 20,000 to 50,000 hours, but ours has lasted over a million.

JM: There’s no day-to-day bulb upkeep required?

TB: Nope. We don’t dust it off; we don’t touch it.

JM: Is that for fear of damaging it?

TB: Yeah. Also, the cord is very brittle, which concerns me – we would never try to take it out of its socket. It hangs pretty high off the floor in the fire station, so it’s pretty safe up there, although back when I was a fireman we used to swat it for good luck! It hung down low enough that when you went out on a call, you could jump on the rig and swat it on your way past.

JM: It’s amazing that so many hundreds of firemen will have done that over the years and it has never smashed. Where actually is it in the fire station?

TB: Today it hangs above the trucks, but in its lifetime it has moved a couple of times. It started off in 1901 in a small hose-and-cart station; they were using handcarts and horse-drawn equipment back then. They moved it in 1906 to a new firehouse, and then it got moved again to its present location in 1976 – the light was only off for 22 minutes.

JM: That’s pretty quick.

TB: They had everything prepared: 22 minutes from the time they took it out of the old station to it being installed in the new one. It didn’t come on right away either – everybody gasped because they thought it was broken.

JM: Has it gone out since then?

TB: Yeah, it went out in 2013.

JM: That must have been a tense moment.

TB: I got a call at about five o’clock in the morning saying, “Chief, I gotta tell you some bad news: The bulb is out.” So I said, “Oh my goodness, well get ready because the press are going to be all over this,” and he told me they were already there! I had to make my way over and deal with the bulb – bear in mind that I had been retired for ten years already.

JM: You have competitors, don’t you? Other long-burning bulbs. Have you ever had the chance to visit one?

TB: Another committee member went to visit our closest rival: the Palace Bulb in Fort Worth, Texas, but I haven’t. There was one in Ipswich, England, too, but that burned out in 2001. In the 1980s there were a few more rivalries going on – three, four, five others – but we don’t really hear from them anymore.

JM: Friendly rivalries? There’s not been any attempts to destroy the bulb?

TB: Oh yeah, totally friendly.

JM: Why do you think people become so enraptured with it?

TB: I think it’s something that people can relate to: everyone has a light bulb in their house but none that have lasted this long. People come from all over the world and they are all a little bit in awe – they almost can’t believe they came all that way just to look at a light bulb. But it’s not just a light bulb; it’s more symbolic than that. Hundreds of firefighters have worked under this light for more than 117 years and it’s still glowing, doing its job. It’s quiet, it’s unassuming; it just hangs from the ceiling 24/7.