Right now, in the garage of Fire Station #6 in Livermore, California, there’s a small, pear-shaped light bulb illuminating this Christmas Eve.
That’s not really a spectacular, I suppose. There’s probably a light bulb burning in every fire station the country, this Christmas Eve.
Until I tell you one more thing: That same lightbulb has been glowing, with just a couple of momentary interruptions, for 113 years.
No kidding. No joke. The bulb is world-famous.
It even has it’s own webcam. You can see it right here.
(BTW, many thanks to the great podcast 99 Percent Invisible for this story…)
The bulb is a genuine heirloom from the dawn of electric light. It was built by Adolphe Chaillet. In those early years of the 1900s, inventors sought to make bulbs that might last for years, not just months or weeks.
One of Chailet’s bulbs came to Livermore, California. A shop owner donated it to the town’s volunteer fire department in 1901. Chailet was known for this. He made a name, making lightbulbs that outlasted all competitors. But even by his standards, this one bulb, continuously glowing for a century, borders on the miraculous.
The firefighters used it to to get their horse-drawn “hose carts” ready at night. Hose carts gave way to fire trucks. Decade after decade rolled by. World War I. World War II. Korea. Vietnam. Radio. Television. Color television. Jazz. Rock and Roll. Hip Hop.
Eventually, everybody just sort of forgot about it. But it was always there, glowing night after night. Year after year. Eventually, they didn’t give it much thought. I mean, the rest of the world keeps moving. Something like that, that doesn’t change? Eventually, it just blends into the background.
The bulb hung down from a long cord, and it was low enough that you could walk by and tap the bulb and watch it swing back forth. By the early 1970s, bored firefighters would throw Nerf balls at it. No joke.
Somewhere in the early 1970s, Jack Baird, the first full-time fire chief, got curious about it. Reporters uncovered its true history, and the realization that it’d been burning for seventy years by that point. Firefighters stopped throwing those Nerfs.
The story of the bulb started to spread.
Five years later, the firefighters moved a new building, They moved the lightbulb as well. It was escorted with red lights and siren. The electrician rigged it back up. They threw the switch. Nothing.
Eventually, they figure out the problem, and it came to life again…and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. It’s burned 40 more years since then.
If you research the whole history of lightbulbs, you find that somewhere in the 20s and 30s, a cartel of manufacturers got together and agreed upon some industry standards. Basically, planned obsolescence for bulbs, so that at their best they’d only last weeks and months; not years.
Manufacturers like Chailet faded away. And the cheap, expendable bulbs we’ve come to expect came into the fore. But the reality is, the technology has always been there to make longer lasting bulbs.
But this one really takes the cake, yes?
As we’ve said, the bulb is in the middle of its 113th year of life. The bulb has outlived several generations of firefighters. Literally, firefighters have been born, lived, and died all the while the bulb burns on.
The bulb now has its own webcam, and a committee that oversees it. But it’s now even outlived several webcams meant to chronicle its life!! People from all over the world tune into that webcam, just to make sure the light is still burning. One time when there was a power outage, nervous web-watchers emailed frantic messages; until caretakers could restore power and allow them to rest easy.
People are simply amazed at the bulb. As one caretaker said of it, “That light bulb has been doing the job it was intended to do since 1901.”
People write in to the committee that how oversees the bulb, and say things like…
The bulb “gives me hope…”
The bulb is a “reassuring reminder of faithfulness and service…”
There’s something about this story that just grabs your heart, doesn’t it?
The idea of a light shining on in the darkness, for 113th years. It’s amazing. Especially as we move through tonight —one of the longest nights of the year— this story of a light burning on in the midst of the night gives us a kind of hope.
Some 2,000 years ago, the writer of the Gospel of John wrote of the hope of a light that also does not fade.
“The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”
Just a while ago, we lit our Christmas candles at our 5 pm service at Northaven. Like the webcame grab above, here’s an actual picture of that moment too:
In a sense, this is an even more powerful symbol a light that never goes out. Yes, all the candles we lit at 5 are how extinguished, and we will light them again a little later tonight. But, even after we put them up on the shelf for another year, they’ll still burn in our hearts.
Because the early Christians understood that Jesus’ birth into the world was indeed a light shining in the darkness. My newest favorite Christmas hymn is an old one: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
I especially like it because of a seldom hear verse my friend John Thornburg introduced me to a few Christmases ago:
“Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.”
That verse inspired me to post my own version of the song, as a mash-up featuring the voices of modern Presidents, and Linus. (Yes, Linus. From Charlie Brown Christmas…)
Have a look at the video:
To Jesus’ way of seeing, the “peace” that our presidents can offer us is akin to the light of electric bulbs of our day. They cry peace. They speak of light. But like the light in Livermore –while their light and peace is impressive, radiating a sense of security perhaps– their light and peace cannot last.
True peace, true light, is a spiritual experience.
We know that true peace is possible. After all, tonight is also the 100th anniversary of the “Christmas Truce” of World War I. If you’ve never heard that amazing story, check it out here. 100-years ago, ordinary soldiers did what even presidents and kings could not. They allowed the Spirit of Christmas to compel them to lay down their arms. And enemies became friends.
Real peace between enemies does happen in our world, now and then. It may be rare. But it happens. And when it does, it’s always a spiritual experience like the angels sang of on that night long ago.
So, tonight on Christmas Eve, we light our candles, and trust in the Word that the light that shines on in the darkness.
Yes, the light in Livermore is amazing. But long after it finally burns out, as do all purely physical beacons of hope, people of faith will still be foolishly lighting their candles on Christmas Eve, singing “Silent Night,” and standing against the darkness of night.
And no darkness will ever overcome, or can overcome, that light.
Merry Christmas, everyone.