The Electric Bulb
Daniel D. Grafton
To the everyday user of electricity, still, the means of the provision of light are obscure. We know vaguely that behind each light globe there is a factory somewhere that somehow produces the agency for us to illuminate our places. It is for our occasional benefit that power plants run 24 hours a day. They are part of a complex infrastructure consisting of gigantic shapes and endeavours: enormous structures that suspend high voltage cables, a coalface burrowed two kilometres into a mountainside and the workers who confront it daily, workshops and maintenance, and finally, its administration from where a quarterly bill is generated and posted.
These systems and events are evoked when an electric light switch is ‘thrown’, and this is why a fragile light-globe is such a powerful figure for progress. It is one thing to possess an electric bulb, it is quite another to have the means to make it light up.
The resources needed for an electric bulb's ignition do not come cheaply or easily, hence an electric light globe produces civilised cultures. As such, the idea of a ‘civil’ illuminated society is marked by the ability to electrically light places and spaces, and to do so abundantly.
As a consequence, a defining aspect of our electric lighting technology, in addition to its miraculous burning, is its potential for extravagant usage. Whether in use or not, an electric bulb is a symbol for excessive material consumption; whilst one can use the utility of artificial light in small measures, it is impossible to use it sparingly. Thus, regardless of whether a bulb is ‘on’ or ‘off’, ideas of abundant availability and waiting–capacity are behind each light globe. These traits are reflected in its expendability, which at little over 50 cents each, means that thousands upon thousands of globes can be found on supermarket shelves, stacked up and waiting to be used, burnt out then replaced by another.
One glaring instance of this luminant superabundance is the way lights in city buildings are left on at night, well after their dweller–workers have gone home. A ‘rational’ explanation for this lighted madness is that power is inexpensive at these times. However, this is only half the story. According to one letter writer to a Sydney newspaper, electricity companies in all states in Australia need electricity to be used at night to keep power generators running at a continual rate. It follows that nocturnal city lights and illuminated yet empty office buildings help in this regard by drawing down power from the network. This is important, otherwise large fluctuations in power demand, such as whole office blocks simultaneously ‘flicking the switch’ in the morning, might cause large-scale power surges. In theory this would overload the generators and substations in the grid and cause the entire system to shut down — a scenario that would make electricity engineers nervous in the night.
Hence, we have ‘off-peak’ electricity to maintain what is termed a good ‘loading’ on the grid. The same letter writer states that ‘Off-peak electricity is dirt cheap,’ and suggests that ‘most likely the buildings that light up at night are free, at the electricity company’s expense’
In this scene, illuminated city buildings are used merely to draw ‘a load’ from the power grid. A type of city light is depicted here which, for the most part, is useless except for keeping the city’s electricity supply stable and operational for the next day. And at this point I have an image of a Victorian housemaid trimming an oil lamp wick so to counter as best she can the contingency of the lamp not working in the evening to come. This is a task that Mrs Beeton advises in her 1861 Book of Household Management ‘involves occasional scalding’.
After discussing the fragility of our civilised power network it becomes apparent that the concepts of utility, uselessness and surplus are conflated in a contemporary civil night, with the electric bulb at the centre - most likely a fluorescent ‘tube’ at that.
The electric bulb’s excessive nature, then, assumes divergent ‘forms’. There is excess in the means of light production, such as the extraordinary infrastructures needed to make and deliver electricity (often in oversupply); and there is excess in its consumption, where a fraction of the light used in present culture would suffice for its needs. Yet these points do not account for industrialised culture’s profligate use of lighting technology.
It may be that our electrical, illuminated overabundance is influenced by the electric bulb’s materiality and how it functions.
As with fire, candle, or the gas burner, the action of an electric bulb is fungible, that is, it perishes by being used. The Latin base, fungi means ‘to perform’, and is also the base for the word ‘function’. This is a reminder that concepts of performance and function are intermixed in our use of light. As Nikola Tesla showed in his dramatic displays of electricity in the late nineteenth century, the ‘performance’ of voltage is a dangerous business, so too the ‘performance’ of a domestic light-bulb filament involves a certain type of risk and peril. For one thing, an electric light globe is self-destructive; although the tungsten filament produces light and heat, its material ‘resistance’ of electricity weakens its form. Its light, then, is a form of self-death. In its frenetic act of self-extinguishment — a stunning performance that gives light — the electric lamp consumes itself, slowly.
Yet in this excessive, self-expiring presentation, the electric bulb also consumes the darkness that surrounds it. In this way the electric bulb is not only a danger to itself but also a danger to the night. This is a different relationship to the night than that produced by earlier forms of artificial lighting. One could say that early illuminations such as fire, candle, oil, and gas were concomitant with the dark that humans lived with, due mainly to their low candle-power or lux. This was a workable adjacency, where the corners and edges of a room or space lit by candle or gas would still be in some form of shade or shadow. In other words, prior to bright electric interior light, one lived with the dark in one’s intimate living spaces. In making light so absolutely, the electric bulb consumes the entire darkness to the extent that its only traces are shadows under tables and chairs or a crevice of darkness here or there. This is another of the electric light-bulb’s material excesses, where light proceeds from its central filament and out to the edges of rooms and spaces to completely efface the dark, chasing shadows up against walls until they become dissipated. For these reasons a light-bulb is not merely switched on but is set-loose upon the night.
And so, the light bulb’s material function, extravagant by nature, represents the values and tendencies of the society that uses it. This is why an electric bulb is not merely an isolated, neutral technology but also an object and medium through which the ideology of culture emanates or becomes ‘material’. In this way electricity and light is an idea. In its present form and our usage of it, the white-hot electric overabundance of the light bulb simultaneously maintains and produces developed culture within the night. At such times it displays within its form the bias that a technological society has against obscurity and its preference for superfluent clarity, but also its need for excitability and of becoming overheated.
In late eighteenth and early twentieth century culture the introduction of new and bright electric lighting re-made the dark into something new, radically re-organising and modifying human patterns and perception within the night. This is our precedent night-time. This is what our night has ‘learned’, so to speak, as a mode of nocturnal practice. In other words, the way we light our places is necessarily accretive but perhaps unnecessarily imitative of an earlier mode of lighting human actions.
Despite such broad views upon technology and illuminated culture, thoughts still return to a small yet concentrated event within a delicate sphere of glass: an intense burning filament – the electric light globe – functioning now as it has done so for over 100 years. Whether resulting from fire or electricity, the transformation of darkness into light is a momentous achievement – astonishing, even — yet in addition to being a positive and miraculous event the production of electric light involves a certain unease. For instance, the ignition of an electric bulb is materially traumatic and is always a loss of the form that gives light. As well, such illuminations subjugate the night within which they occur, hence, both the night and the material of light making are offered up to a greater electrical good. And while the electric bulb has become one of the key markers for the idea of a civil culture, enabling and defining industry, social space and private life, its surplus light casts a shadow over less technically developed parts of the world who cannot reach for a light switch.
So, in an industrialised culture, electric light defines built forms and human routines within the night, indeed, electric light defines the night itself. Yet the impact of the electric bulb upon social life is disproportionate to its physicality; it is a fragile object with its delicate tungsten filaments precariously suspended within a thin glass envelope. However, the humble and naked electric bulb ‘burns brightly’ in the collective psyche of industrialised culture, materially and figuratively, and both aspects are present in the act of switching a light on at the wall. It makes things materially clearer and as an object represents the idea of transparency and capacity to cut through obscurity and reveal the ‘meaning behind things’.
So it is worth restating our rational, mad, marvellous and primal relation to the electric light-globe. Through its tungsten hearth–fire and the electric night that it makes, the bulb provides a potential and extemporal link between the dweller-at-the-light switch and life in archaic times. Here too, here there was also an urgent and primal need to manage the phenomena of night, yet in our night – tonight – the quiet darkness outside is replaced by a frantic, cadaverous light and an overheated, yet archaic, buzz.