Turning on a 100-year-old light bulb

Incandescent lights work by turning heat into light. You run an electric current through a filament, the filament heats up, and as it does, it starts to glow. The basic element has been around since 1809. The trick is finding material for a filament that will get hot enough to glow, but won't destroy itself too quickly. In fact, that's really the breakthrough Thomas Edison brought to the table in 1879. His carbonized bamboo filament lasted for 1200 hours—long enough to make the investment in a light bulb worth it. According to sources I found in the Wisconsin Historical Archives while researching my upcoming book on the past, present, and future of electricity, one of Edison's bulbs cost the equivalent of $36 in 1882.

This is not one of the earliest Edison bulbs. It's a later model, with a tungsten filament, dating to 1912. It was found in a time capsule at NELA Park, the General Electric headquarters and research laboratory that was opened that year. There were five light bulbs in the time capsule. This is the only one that GE engineers were able to get to light up. In the video, you can see it faintly glowing, 100 years after it was squirreled away.

Video Link


  1. There is a nice collection of early light bulbs (including a few Edisons) at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

  2. The history of the light bulb is long with many taking part. The  carbonized bamboo filament had been first used in bulbs over 20 years before Edison even entered  the field. If Edison hadn’t done so the history of the bulb would have pretty much identical.

  3. There is an Edison bulb in one of the  fire stations in Livermore, CA that I believe they never turn off and it still works!

  4. Tungsten, known as wolfram in most of the world, was identified early on as having the right properties for a filament. The problem was that it couldn’t be drawn into a wire. Edison’s team developed its metallurgy from scratch but it took over 20 years of work to make a filament.

  5. I had one just like it. It had the same long filament zig zagging up and down between the top and bottom of a metal frame. It was dated to about 1912-1918, I was told (by a librarian–Yay for librarians!), because it had that tit on the end of it indicating it was hand blown. Another indicator of its age, I was told, was the straight, non-concave shape of its sides.

    I helped a law professor neighbor clear out a Victorian house on the USC campus. An elderly bachelor law professor who had lived there had died with no heirs. I found the bulb in a closet screwed into a fixture. I was amazed when I pressed the light switch button (you know, one of those old radio-button-style on-off switches) and it lit up. It was a lot brighter than the one in the video.

    The neighbor let me keep it.  I was 15. It was 1965. I kept it in a cardboard Quaker Oats can with crumpled up newspaper.

    2 years later when I went off to SF State, my dad threw it out along with everything in my cabinet of curiosities, including my 80 year old miniature Indian birch bark canoe and equally old miniature working stationary steam engine.

  6. Are any of you aware of planned obsolescence?  This is a lightbulb that survived before the companies would design and engineer the lightbulbs to have shorter life spans and to cut them down to a favored life of 2000 hours for the sake of profit. There is a good documentary of it on youtube if you haven’t checked it out, much of our goods today share similar cases of planned obsolescence more so than ever. They are made to break so you have to keep buying them.

  7. I’m so glad the government is banning these evil light bulbs!  All Hail The Government!  They know what’s better for all of us little people!

  8. Maggie said: “This is the only one that GE engineers were able to get to light up.”

    But the linked page makes it sound like this is the only one they tried:

    “Among the items uncovered were five light bulbs. Three of them appeared to be in working condition.  GE Lighting engineers cleaned one of the bulbs, screwed it into a socket, and powered it up…”

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