The Lights Went Out

I just read in a lengthy and uncharacteristically informative article in the WaPoo (h/t RMP’s News Blast…), explaining why and how GE was closing its last American plant that makes incandescent light bulbs, eliminating hundreds of grueling but well-paid jobs, once again, in America’s rust belt.  This time, the decision was actually, rather than just rhetorically, due to government meddling; incandescent light bulbs will be essentially illegal by 2015.  I think that, aside from the job losses, banning the light bulb that has been part of America’s industrial glory since 1870, and still has many applications for which it cannot be adequately replaced, is just the sort of big-government stupidity that breeds Republicanism and other social diseases.

Having worked in the theatrical lighting industry twenty years ago, when the halogen technology that originated in television and theatre was first making the leap to commercial and residential applications, I found it to be a marvel; a whiter, but still warm light so powerful that it could be focused, colored, and manipulated in endless ways for use in the home, far more efficiently than incandescent.  Incandescent light had been long been banished from theatrical applications because of its inefficiency and low color temperature (even at full blast, it reads amber; thus making it appear white requires color correction that further reduces its already laggard intensity…).  At the time, I didn’t think it unrealistic, or even undesirable, that halogen would gradually replace incandescent for most applications; it is beautiful light that can be made into bulbs that would suit lamps, sconces, chandeliers, and all the sorts of luminaires in which the light source is part of the show.  The lamps could be tiny, and their famous intensity made less blinding with frosting and glass design. But when incandescent died, it wasn’t that clear, lovely halogen that replaced it, but rather the most ugly, unnatural light ever invented: fluorescent.  This is what happens when bean-counters rather than experts design things.

You see, one can use all sorts of instruments to measure light, and thus conclude that fluorescent is the most efficient light, in terms of energy consumed vs. candlepower produced.  This ignores the fact that the whole point of light is for the human eye, which sees things rather differently than do instruments.  Sunlight and even most artificial light can be measured on neat arcs between hot and cold color; fluorescent is a bizarre zigzag of competing colors; it must be corrected ruthlessly to produce anything the human eye can tolerate, thus lessening its vaunted efficiency.  Further, its technical requirement of long tubular structure and its clunky, mercury-laden ballasts make it only practical for our corporate masters to produce in third world countries with cheap labor and weak environmental regulations.  Thus, calling CFL’s “Green” is pretty rich, and pretending that they’re the sole answer to the light bulb question flies in the face of reality.

Anyone who has spent time basking in the blue-green chemical glow of fluorescent light knows what dreadful light looks like, just as anyone who has watched a well-produced opera, ballet, or rock concert knows what beautiful light looks like, and it can’t be measured solely by its output.  GE seems to recognize this; they are converting one of their incandescent plants to produce halogens.  But the ship has already sailed; fluorescent, made in China (or worse, since wages are rising there…) seems to be what we’ll get whether we like it or not, and color it pink and call it “warm white” or whatever you will, we’re still getting a clunky, messy thing that produces bad light that can’t even be dimmed except with expensive and specialized equipment, shoehorned into everything from marquees to candelabras that we must look at every day, in the name of “progress.”

I’m glad I got out of the light bulb business, and not just because of the low pay, long hours, and bad management.   I always hated trying to sell shitty products, and no matter how extravagantly promoted, if “new” is the exact opposite of “improved,” I’d just as soon leave the job of selling it to someone else.


  1. nancy says:

    I have been hoarding incandescent lightbulbs for months in anticipation of this new helpful environmentally-correct legislation. Having worked for years in the bowels of a university library with florescent lighting which, I’m quite sure, affected my health adversely, I am not about to have these things lighting my home. No bulb in my home is of a wattage higher than 100, so as you might imagine, the pantry space required for my hoarding is vast. But like the gun-lovers like to say “you can pull my cold dead fingers…” or some such, I will not be parted from tolerable lighting sources. (Can’t wait to see what this does to life in the bedrooms around the country). The problem with halogen at home is of course the expense, and retrofitting isn’t possible (bye-bye flea-market, antique-store finds). This reminds me of the legislation that made all of the televisions in my home obsolete–no more rabbit ears–wedding us to the cable company at my expense. More evidence that legislation rarely undergoes the “average Joe” test.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Most of my house is halogen; I pulled out the hideous fluorescents in the kitchen a long time ago. But I still have lamps and sconces which just must be something less forceful, not to mention the flatter factor… (Blanche DuBois voice, “Mitch, could you put this paper shade over that harsh light bulb?” I’ll be stockpiling, too; the cocktailhag militia, and all. My delicate and rather depleted beauty can’t stand a strong light, much less a crazy, obnoxious one. This is war.

  2. Annice says:

    Now I guess I will never be able to one day use my Grandmother’s chandelier!

  3. dirigo says:

    A sense of romance about this sort of thing doesn’t amount to much I know, but, in the future when you watch a certain period film, or rummage through your own memory and hoist to the surface the image of a lamp with a beige shade, preferably with tassels, sitting in the corner of a den, library, your bedroom or living room, with a 40 watt bulb bathing the table or desk it sits on, remember how warm and seemingly safe it was when bulbs ruled.

    Nice fat lamps, topped by their glorious shades, may also be gone with the demise of the bulb.

    Will people regret it?

  4. michlib says:

    I can’t think of anything – not one thing – made more appealing by flourescent light. And so the Age of Ugly begins …

  5. The Heel says:

    I am surprised the assumption is that halogen or fluorescent will replace light bulbs in household applications.
    LED light bulbs should be the answer, no?

    They fit right into existing fixtures and come in all kinds of colors, shapes, light intensities.

    They use less than 10% of the energy, last 10 times longer and should be a perfect replacement, even for enlightened interior designers.

    Since this option exists already (yes they may cost 10 times as much for now), I don’t see a point in whining about the disappearance of incandescent lights. Those things are 90% heat source and 10% light source.

    And I also hate to say it but market forces once again did not bring the change by themselves. Governments in Europe banned incandescent lights and low and behold, manufactures all of a sudden were able to mass produce LED lights.

    So don’t you worry, you will get laid on your kitchen table bathed in forgiving, warm amber light (be careful with those chairs, I remember they are fragile).

  6. I agree with the Heel. Good lighting is out there; good standard lighting not so much; good standard affordable lighting even less so. Pity me, my place is all done up with recessed lighting in the ceiling with bulbs that look like old automobile headlights, and they’re all on rheostats. I may have to go to candles if I live long enough.

    • The Heel says:

      to get laid, candles are still the best, anyway. So romantic – Light-em up!

      Good to hear from you Bill. Still waiting to have you as a guest in Paso!

      • At my age, I’m more likely to get rolled than laid — how much light do you need for that?

        And yeah, one of these days I’ve simply got to get away from these bigots and spend at least a few days back in my beloved CA, but I can’t do it in good conscience until after the election. As one of the 25 or so liberals (loosely defined) still left in AZ, I feel as though I’m bound to stay put here until then and help show the flag.

        God, it’s been a depressing year — not least because the Democrats are such a tainted brand these days. (The AZ state party is actually pretty good, but AZ Democratic voters are another matter. If what I hear doing phone banking is anything to go by, they don’t seem to like Mexicans any more than Republicans do. They seem to want to hang a cerrado sign on the border, and go happily back to being white people. SB 1070 is just dandy with them.)

    • cocktailhag says:

      They are just like headlights; halogen filaments contained in a PAR (parabolic aluminized reflector) lamp. At least they’re dimmable.

  7. mikeinportc says:

    I’m hoarding lighning bugs (beetles, actually) & Jack-O-Lantern mushrooms. :)

    ps: Re the previous post, Chris Floyd summed it up perfectly today. Petraeus,Gates, Obama, et al have burned thousands of Korans, and their readers.

  8. retzilian says:

    GE was a big customer of my father’s and later of mine when we were in the industrial parts business. There were a million different custom roller chain combinations running through the 4 or 5 lamp plants in Cleveland. It was probably a hazardous waste dump (which is why they don’t tear down the buildings) and I’m probably going to die young from the mercury exposure, but it was a helluva plant.

    We also did a lot of business with GE Chemical – which made god knows what, and GE Tungsten that produced the hard metal wire that went into lamps – halogen ones, if I’m not mistaken.

    I remember when the halogens first came out how beautiful and exciting it was. Seriously.

    If you want to horde light bulbs, they sell them cheap at the dollar stores. Start buying a few boxes every time you are in there. I prefer 60 watts myself. The dimmer the light, the better.

    • cocktailhag says:

      When I was at Hollywood Lights, we had a grandfathered contract with GE that let us stock their lamps and not pay for them until they sold, and we stocked millions of dollars worth. Still, we sold more Ushio, from Japan, because they were cheaper and just as good. It was another in a long line of a big, fat American corporation overconfident of its monopoly, only to lose it. Hollywood Lights did the same thing, in later years, albeit on a smaller scale.
      Yes, tungsten is the filament and halogen is the gas in which it burns…. Great technology. Glad I don’t work there anymore; I spent too much money.

  9. retzilian says:

    I think that was supposed to be “hoard.” It still doesn’t look right. Anyhoo, I am mistaken about something else, now that I am thinking about it. GE made the halogens first for the car industry. The headlights are halogens, IIRC. There were some domestic uses for the bigger halogens – I remember they had a square top instead of a round top, and were very expensive.

    • Meremark says:

      retzilian, (that still doesn’t look right), oh lord, don’t fall on your sword, get aboard toward ever on word … (-:

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