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Fire department to celebrate its famous still-burning light bulb at 11 a.m. today

Saturday's event to mark its 1-million hours of service at Livermore station

A public celebration will be held in Livermore from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today to mark what is possibly the most famous light bulb in the world, one that has been burning for more than 100 years.

The event will be held at Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department station 6 at 4550 East St. in Livermore. It will recognize the first 1 million hours of service of the Livermore Centennial Light Bulb. Festivities will include antique fire apparatus, history mobile, fire safety house, displays, music, books and T-shirt sales. Barbecue hosted by Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters Foundation.

Consider life in 1901. That was two years before the Wright brothers took to the air and seven years before Ford began to produce the Model T. Electricity was part of American lives in populated areas, although rural communities had a few decades to wait.

In 1901, an incandescent lightbulb was installed in the Livermore firehouse to light the equipment, and it has burned on for the last 114 years. Even now -- when computers and cellphones are regularly pitched into recycling -- the steady little lightbulb continues to do its duty and shine on at Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department's Station 6.

"The lightbulb still works as a night light today," said retired deputy fire chief Tom Bramell, chairman for a celebration next week recognizing the bulb's 1 million hours of service. "It lights up an apparatus floor, which is what it did when it started."

In those days, a fire call meant the volunteers would scramble to assemble the equipment and hitch the horses to the pumper, so in the middle of the night the light served a significant function, Bramell noted.

"They still didn't have motorized apparatus, and the fire department was still volunteer," he said. "Their double-decker pumper was horse-drawn, and they were all hand-operated pumpers, with half a dozen men pumping on each side."

Lightbulbs weren't in the budget at that time, Bramell said, and the lightbulb was a gift from Dennis Bernal when he sold the Livermore Water and Power Co. in 1901.

"This lightbulb was built in Shelby, Ohio, and it was built to last, at the Shelby Electric Co.," Bramell said. "It was declared by Shelby Electric in 1898 'the best lamp on earth.'"

This was well before the Phoebus Cartel (1924-39) comprised of General Electric, Phillips and others around the globe mandated that bulbs not last more than 1,000 hours, half of their normal life at the time.

"Incandescent lightbulbs today are lasting 1,500 to 2,500 hours, but LED bulbs last 25,000 to 50,000," said Bramell.

The vacuum seal has been suggested as one possible reason the bulb has lasted so long.

"The fact there was a secret process and formula in its production, that has not been disclosed to this day, tells me that something in that process is the secret to its longevity," Bramell said.

He visited Shelby, Ohio, doing research for his book, "A Million Hours of Service," which he wrote to clear up misconceptions he has heard over the years. It will be for sale at next week's party, with proceeds going to the Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters Foundation, and it is also available at blurb.com.

For a long time, the firefighters treated the old-fashioned light bulb like an affectionate mascot, recalled Bramell, who was with the department from 1974 to 2003. They tapped it for good luck as they left to fight a fire. They used it as a target for their Nerf football between calls.

Then in the 1970s, a local newspaper reporter investigated the fact that the bulb had been burning steadily since 1901, and the faithful lightbulb garnered worldwide attention.

"After learning about its longevity, we treated it with a lot more respect," Bramell said.

The bulb, which hangs 18 feet above the floor, uses regular current and is about 60 watts. It hangs in the original fixture with the same socket and chord.

When the new Station 6 was built on East Avenue, the bulb was placed in a padded box for the short trip on March 31, 1976, which meant it was out for 22 minutes.

"It was then connected to the ceiling and, lo and behold, it didn't come on," Bramell remembered. "Everybody was concerned. Then Frank Maul, the city electrician, jiggled the switch -- and it came on."

They also believe it was out for about a week in 1937 when the station was part of a WPA remodeling project. And a backup battery failure glitch at Station 6 caused it to go out for a few hours in 2013.

"Other than that, it's been on 24 hours a day," Bramell said, enough to earn it recognition from Guinness Book of World Records.

Its closest known competitor is a lightbulb that began its service in 1908 at the Byers Opera House in Fort Worth, which became the Palace Theater. The Texas bulb is now in a museum where it was put on a rheostat, said Bramell, which takes it out of the running.

As the Livermore lightbulb approached its 100th birthday in 2001, it was dubbed the Centennial Bulb, and webmaster Steve Bunn created a site that included a webcam so fans can watch it burn, at www.centennialbulb.org.

"I thought, if you can have webcams of corn growing and paint drying, why not that cam?" recalled Bunn in a film called "Century of Light," produced by Christopher Leps.

The lightbulb has been the subject of documentaries and two children's books, and the website has links to segments on ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN and international shows. The bulb has been written about from every viewpoint, including technical (Popular Mechanics), intellectual (PBS) and fun ("The Late Show with David Letterman").

Celebrations were held in 2001 and 2011 to recognize the lightbulb's century and more of service, and Bramell emphasized that next week's festivities are to celebrate the bulb's "first" 1 million hours. More than 2,000 community members are expected at this party, to be inspired by its longevity.

"It's a solid piece of engineering, one of the first in existence, and it may be one of the last," Bramell said. "It is glass and metal and filament -- but there is much more to it."

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