Elegy for the Incandescent Light Bulb

At the hardware store recently I bought a package of incandescent light bulbs, you know the roundish kind that are lightbulb shape. Even though they have been phased out of production since last fall, I can still find them.

If you were to draw the icon an idea or a flash of inspiration and you were my age, the generation before, I don’t know how long ago, but for decades, you would draw a light bulb. But the light bulb has become suddenly a fusty piece of past technology like the wall phone, the cathode tube screen, and the Victrola. I find myself surprisingly alarmed at the passage of the incandescent light bulb for the curl of a cool neon tube. I finally bought my first package of neon lights at the grocery store because the incandescent light bulbs were more expensive. When I went to Ace Hardware a while back the incandescent light bulbs were still less expensive and the clerk kind of made fun of my lot of light bulbs. “Pretty soon you won’t be able to buy these anywhere.” I did notice they were tucked into the back of the aisle. It didn’t even occur to me purchase the fluorescent lights bulbs.

The fluorescent bulbs have several draw backs even though they are the new technology. They are bulky compared to the spherical slip of glass of the incandescent light bulb. The incandescent bulb generates its light from electricity passing through a filament that glows hot. The light it casts is cast from this hot metal. It is rich amber yellow color and it is the color I’m used to being thrown against the page of type when I am reading a book. And here I am taking about a paperback that dates from my existence in a purely analog word where the ony mail was mail that arrived daily in the mailbox carrying the dust of distant locations and the marks of ink in the passage of the envelope through the conveyor belts, sacks, and bins of the mail system. My books came from the library and bore the stamps of previous lenders in the back. We had a telephone that was owned by the telephone company and contained metal and it was this metal that relayed the signal. To listen to the phone was to listen to this metal vibrate. When the phone rang an actual bell was agitated and the entire, heavy black object vibrated.

Much of the physical, analog world has liquified into the digital. It was impossible to predict in the 1970s. There were computers, but even the prevalent display on the first generation of video games was vector graphics which are digital but wonderfully free of rasterization and a product of the cathode tube into a ray right into your eyeball. The raster image strikes me as a fully digital phenomena. That there is and there is not at the same time, pixels drawn, erased, redrawn, making the screen flicker. This flicker has become what we live in. An incandescent light blubs does not surge and flicker. It burns like a fire burning very slowly for hours and hours and casting its warm substantial analog light.

I am not convinced that the fluorescent light bulb is better or a technological improvement over the incandescent light bulb. I am not saying this as someone who enjoys the analog depth of vinyl records compared to the rasterized audio information stored on a data-file or compact disc, although I do actually prefer the seasoned technology of vinyl over digital, the digital however in information is much cheaper and this translate into convenience. It is too easily carried, stored, shared compared to the physicality of LPs.

Florescent isn’t digital, I’m aware, but it has that same chintzy feel without any of the advantage of the compact disc over the LP. The fluorescent light bulb is actually larger, more complex, and produces a light that is vastly inferior to the incandescent light bulb. Due to the size of the bulb I am not convinced that is actually greener than the incandescent bulb. While the incandescent bulb uses more energy, it uses this energy to produce a superior light. And the bulb must use half as many resources to incandescent as the complex twisted glass and bulbous base of the fluorescent.

The fluorescent bulb is supposed to last for a much longer period of time, and yet I find in the sockets in my house they last about the same amount of the time. A light on my porch incandescent or light bulb lasts about two months. For a time the fluorescent light bulbs were more expensive but they have since become less expensive than the incandescent bulbs as the incandescent price increases and fluorescent falls. I fear that given the cost and gradual lack of availability even though I’ve been tempted to stock up on them, incandescents will become a technology of my past, like the metal ring of a telephone, the rattling pong of a phone modem making a connection, a clack on a television set knob.

What will ideas look like when they incandescent light bulb has finally passed into the past?

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