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Ralph Gardner Jr: Just A Bulb

The deceased light bulb
Ralph Gardner Jr.

The strange, unrecognizable sound was something that bore resemblance to both a fizzle and a sizzle, if you’ll allow me that distinction. Whatever it was, my reaction once I did identify the source, was disbelief followed by grief. The cause of the noise, and the ensuing darkness, was an expensive light bulb I’d invested in back in 2013 under the premise that it might outlive me. It was, for its time, cutting edge illumination technology: an LED bulb that promised to shed warm, cozy light for 22.8 years when employed an average of three hours a day. If you can remember that far back cold, harsh light better adapted to an interrogation room than a living room was the norm for pretenders to the incandescent throne.

The notion of a light bulb that never needs changing, after a lifetime of bulbs that often died within short months of screwing them in, had given me a peculiar sense of well-being. It’s not as if changing light bulbs is high on my list of annoyances. But it’s one less thing to worry about. Every time I turned it on I was comforted by its dependability in a world mired in uncertainty. But doing the math: my bulb kicked the bucket only one-third of the way into its projected lifespan.

I’d bought the bulb at a New York City store called Just Bulbs for $60.95. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my anguish at the bulb’s demise was somewhat alleviated because I was able to expense it. I’d been on light bulb assignment for the Wall Street Journal, performing what I like to think of as investigative journalism. It was at a transitional moment in the history of lighting with cheap incandescents bowing out to pricy compact fluorescents and LEDs and I’d heard rumor of this superpower bulb.

I didn’t have much hope that Just Bulbs or Switch, the start-up that manufactured it, would apologize for my light bulb’s premature demise and replace it for free. Still, you never know. So I called David Brooks, the owner of Just Bulbs and reminded him of my Wall Street Journal story. He gave no indication of remembering either me or my story. I didn’t take it personally. He’s sold a lot of light bulbs in the meantime. He’s probably also pretty blasé about publicity. A store that sells nothing but light bulbs tends to attract attention, especially in the media capital of the world. Late Night with David Letterman did a segment that involved the store as far back as 1982.

“They’re out of business,” Mr. Brooks told me curtly when I described my bulb and identified the manufacturer. He added that even if the company hadn’t gone belly up – a subsequent Google search revealed they did so in 2014, a mere year after I bought my bulb – it was still only guaranteed for two years from date of purchase.

I should probably describe this bulb. It was handsome, to the extent that light bulbs can be described as handsome. For starters, it was really solid. With a heavy brushed metal base, it weighed as much as a small barbell, lending it a sense of invulnerability. If anything was going to survive a nuclear blast or an asteroid hit and keep on shining it was this bulb. Also, its thick frosted glass dome contained cutting edge technology. Rather than one large LED it had a dozen little ones arrayed around the sides of the bulb. The combination of its attractiveness and innovation is probably what attracted venture capital.

Mr. Brooks, who sounded like he had a long line of customers waiting, said that no one had asked about the Switch bulb in years but that similar LEDs today tend to last three or four years. And that the 100 watt equivalent of mine costs $8.95 at his store.

My initial skepticism about LEDs, halogens and compact florescents has waned as their technologies have improved. I’m convinced nothing will ever beat a 25¢ incandescent bulb – about what I was paying when they were phased out – but there is something to be said for energy efficiency and extended lifespan, even if that life turns out to be somewhat abbreviated.  

I’m in the process of replacing my conventional outdoor spots with 250 watt LEDs that also promise 22 years of illumination. I won’t get fooled again and include instructions in my will about which child I’m leaving my light bulb to. The only real guarantee that comes with a super long-lasting bulb is that you’ll have lost your receipt by the time it dies. No matter what the fine print says.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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