To see one of the most remarkable objects in the Bay Area, drop by Fire Station #6 in Livermore, California and knock on the front door (actually, these are Covid-19 times, so probably best to call ahead). A weary fireman will answer, and if things are quiet and the hour is reasonable, he’ll let you in.
Aside from the normal giant red trucks and array of neatly-coiled hoses you’d find in any firehouse, what makes Fire Station #6 special? A lightbulb. Specifically, the Centennial Lightbulb, which has been burning since 1901, making it the longest burning bulb in history.
This strange, small bulb is in the Guinness Book of World Records, has been recognized by Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and has received declarations from the President of the United States, Congress, various senators, the California state assembly, and more. Former President George W Bush said that the bulb is “an enduring symbol of the American spirit of invention” and the California Senate called the bulb’s firehouse home a “historical shrine.”
The Centennial Bulb was originally installed in 1901 at a firehouse on L street. It was moved several times over the course of the city’s history, often accompanied by a full parade and police escort. The bulb runs on standard 110 volt power, but is connected to a special power supply to keep it running even if there’s a power outage. It’s gone off a few times--most recently in 2013--but save for these short outages, the bulb has burned continuously for 120 years.
I visited the Centennial Bulb in May of 2019. The bulb itself hangs from the high ceilings of the firehouse, giving off a gentle glow. It originally burned at 60 watts--about the same as a modern lightbulb--but faded to around 4 watts over time. It looks a bit like the hanging globe lights which have become popular during the pandemic, or the exposed filament lights you might find in a hipster coffee shop. The bulb is accompanied by a small historical exhibit on its installation, life and local history.
Why has the bulb burned for so long? The bulb was made by the Shelby Electric Company. It has a carbon filament, and a hand-blown glass enclosure. The main theory as to why it has burned so long is that the bulb was extremely high quality when it was initially made. That sets it in contrast to the incandescent bulbs of today, which usually burn out in a few years.
Firehouse Six is located at 4550 East Ave., Livermore, California. You can try to drop by, or call (925) 454-2361 to ask about a visit. If you can’t make it to Livermore or the firehouse is too busy to accommodate your visit, you can always see the Centennial Bulb online, via its dedicated bulb cam.
The bulb has burned through two World Wars, the entirety of the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, the Summer of Love, the birth of the Internet, and much else. During a year which has felt tumultuous and unpredictable, it’s comforting to know that the Centennial Bulb has been there with us the whole time, quietly burning.