Tom Purcell: Elegy for the incandescent bulb
Farewell, old friend. I am going to miss you.
You had a fine run, my friend. Perfected by Thomas Edison some 135 years ago, you stand as one of the greatest inventions of all time.
Your brilliance was in your simplicity. By sending an electrical current through a thin filament, which is sealed in a gas inside a bulb, you produce light.
Several inventors worked on the concept until Edison produced a carbonized-bamboo filament that could last up to 1,200 hours. Thanks to him, the cheap, long-lasting bulb was born.Oh, how we took you for granted over the years. Because incandescent bulbs are so cheap and plentiful, virtually every home in America has had dozens of them. You walk into a room, flip a switch and, presto, there is light!To be sure, you have been so successful, it took the government — not better lighting products — to kill you off. That’s because, some argue, you are causing the Earth to warm.As electricity passes through your filament, you see, the filament gets white-hot. That is how light is created — but in the process,you also create a lot of heat, and heat is wasted energy.You require more electricity than other lighting alternatives, such as fluorescent bulbs, halogens or LEDs. Since electricity comes from the electric company, which may be burning coal to produce it, you are causing more greenhouse gases to be emitted into the atmosphere than other lighting sources would.Already I miss you.I am no big fan of the alternative lighting sources I must now use. The compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs take forever to get bright. They lack the warm glow unique to incandescent lighting.The fluorescents are a wee bit dangerous, too. They are filled with mercury vapor. When electricity passes through the vapor, ultraviolet light is produced. But these bulbs sometimes explode for no reason.I was sitting in a coffee shop when one went off. Luckily, nobody was sitting at the table beneath it. It fell from the lamp and crashed onto the table — the manager was unaware that it was unhealthy to touch the shattered glass without rubber gloves or that the shattered bulb required special disposal.But these are the kinds of bulbs we must use now.I am something of an agnostic where the global-warming debate is concerned. It is surely possible that human activity is contributing to a greenhouse effect. We are pumping vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.Then again, the science is not conclusive — it is not a closed case, as some journalists and politicians would like us to believe. The models that predict complex future weather patterns are fallible. The news reports are incredibly confusing and frequently contradictory.Nonetheless, the global-warming issue has become a giant political football and power-hungry politicians hope to use it to pass lots of new laws and controls that further limit what we can and cannot do — and what light bulbs we can use.Sure, I’m all for new technologies replacing older ones. I’m all for energy efficiency and cost savings and minimizing electricity usage. My science friends tell me LED lighting offers great promise.Tom Purcell is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.