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An obituary for the 100 watt bulb; it was 80

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 12:49 PM

TAMPA The 100-watt light bulb, among the brightest of lights and a mainstay of floor lamps and floodlights across the world, has entered its last days of life.

While some last-second maneuvering in Washington could give the bulb a few more months, new energy-efficiency rules have forced the bulb to its death bed where it rests, surrounded by wistful friends, long-time manufacturers, and a few hoarders stocking up for the post-100-watt world.

The bulb was 80 years old.

"It was an old friend to a lot of people," said Steve Bunn, the de-facto caretaker of the longest-running light bulb on record, The Centennial Bulb, hanging in the California fire station that first turned it on back in 1901.

"A lot of people could look at the 100-watt and see a nice warm glow, and the fluorescents just don't have that same esthetic, pleasing light. It's sad."

The cause of death for the 100-watt was regulation – a set of new energy efficiency rules first signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007 that set a standard for how many watts bulbs can consume to produce a certain amount of light.

Some last-minute wrangling in Washington notwithstanding, Dec. 31 is the last day manufacturers can make the traditional 100-watt incandescent for the U.S. market.

Inventory may still appear on shelves through 2012, and three-way bulbs are exempt, but other relatives in the bulb family face doom, too, as the new rules will prohibit production of lower-watt bulbs.

"Yup, there have been a few hoarders; our Internet sales are going insane," said Craig Chalmers, owner of Lightbulbs Unlimited in Tampa.

His customers include Tina Sinatra, daughter of the Ol' Blue Eyes himself, who has ordered about $20,000 in different kinds of bulbs from Chalmers to keep lighting her Beverly Hills home.

"She's been very appreciative – even sent us a box set of Frank Sinatra CDs."

 

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Longtime friends of the 100-watt say it led a long and prosperous life, preceded by historic grandparents.

On Oct, 21, 1879, Thomas Edison devised the first workable electric light at his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J. A few days later, a New York Times reporter visited the lab and the paper on Dec. 28 wrote," The lamp which Mr. Edison regards as a crowning triumph is a model of simplicity and economy."

Though other inventors had devised light bulbs before, Edison's version was considered the first commercially practical product and lasted hundreds of hours. Over the next several decades, Edison and others devised brighter and brighter bulbs – eventually leading to the 100-watt.

"The design of the incandescent bulb as we know it today had matured by the 1930s," said Mary Beth Gotti, manager of the GE Lighting Institute in Cleveland, a kind of demonstration campus and history museum of the light bulb.

Though there is no official birth certificate, she pegs the 100-watt's birth at 1930.

To promote his bulbs, Edison commissioned painters such as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish to produce illustrations and calendars featuring the brand name "Mazda," referring to the Greek god of light.

One of Rockwell's iconic illustrations shows a boy reading in bed with a dog coiled up on the blanket, all illuminated by a lamp on a side table. A caption reads, "There's a right light for every purpose."

That includes Easy-Bake ovens, which use the 100-watt bulb for heat to bake. With the end of the bulb, the next generation of Easy-Bake ovens will use heating elements instead.

GE estimates there may be 50 million 100-watt bulbs in use now.

A slew of descendents are eyeballing the potential inheritance.

Among the strongest candidates: The compact fluorescent.

Nearly every U.S. retailer now sells a version of the CFL, helping push down retail prices to less than a dollar apiece in some multi-packs. New technology has added dimming features to CFLs and eliminated mercury.

Retailers like Home Depot now offer free recycling.

 

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Meanwhile, LED bulbs that use a technology similar to HDTVs and cell phone screens are entering the market at up to $20 or more per bulb. But prices are dropping quickly and LED bulb promises a lifespan of more than a decade.

Making the transition more confounding for consumers, the "incandescent" bulb itself isn't necessarily outlawed – just how much power bulbs can consume. The new energy rules say a bulb that produces a certain amount of light, measured in lumens, can consume no more than a certain amount of electricity or it will be phased out.

"New and improved bulbs are alive and well," said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has lobbied for rules to make bulbs more efficient.

GE, Sylvania and others have halogen bulbs that use about 70 watts but produce as much light as a 100-watt. "Incandescent bulbs aren't going away," Horowitz said, "They just have to use 28 percent less power."

Despite the bulb's grave condition, some are trying to resuscitate it.

Texas Rep. Michael C. Burgess has pushed to delay the new efficiency rules, calling them an unprecedented invasion of personal freedom.

A clause inserted into a massive federal spending bill this month essentially eliminates funding to enforce the new bulb rules, which would put the bulbs into a kind of regulatory purgatory.

"I'm kind of irritated about it," said customer Ray Rennala from Palmetto, shopping at South Tampa's Lightbulbs Unlimited.

Not that Rennala is against saving electricity. He's slowly been converting his home from incandescent bulbs and helping convert about 80 condo units he helps oversee in Manatee County.

"To me, I think it's a choice thing. Let the free market do its thing."

Home Depot Spokesman Craig Fishel said the store had been planning an end to the bulb, but will continue to sell them as long they're made and as long as customers ask for them.

That may not be long.

The General Electric company that Edison founded plans to end the production of 100-watts for the U.S. market on Dec 31. At midnight, the production line will go dark.


rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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