The Incandescent Light Bulb

After an unbroken 125-year reign as illuminator of choice, the incandescent light bulb has finally abdicated the throne. Its days in our nights were glorious, though ― bathing the dark in a comforting glow, yet common as cane was this small proxy sun. How many more words were read, plans were laid, or labors extended because of the light bulb? Ordinary and extraordinary in equal measure, the incandescent light bulb leaves no shortage of sockets behind, with more than 4 billion Edison-base light bulb sockets in use in the U.S. alone.

“Light Bulb 00050C,” Unique Polaroid Print, 20 x 24 inches, (© 2001 Amanda Means)

The demise of the incandescent bulb was greatly expedited with passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). The legislation set efficiency standards for light bulbs and was phased in between January 2012 and 2014. In short ― the production and import of incandescent bulbs in the U.S. is now prohibited by law. There are a few exceptions; 3-way bulbs, appliance lamps, rough service, colored lights, and specialty bulbs have been given a reprieve.

Why legislate light bulbs? For one, the incandescent bulb is notoriously inefficient. This product of the 19th century wastes nearly all of the electricity flowing into it. A mere 10 percent of the energy it consumes is transformed into light, with fully 90 percent lost as radiant heat. Heaters should make heat, and lights should make light. The switch to newer technologies reduces energy production demands and lowers utility bills. This is all quite obvious and, anguished bulb hoarders aside, is a common sense measure in a world of finite resources.

“Utopia,” Lambda Print, 62.9 x 26.6 inches                                   (© 2006 Catherine Wagner)

At a more esoteric level, as newer and far more energy efficient technologies such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) become commonplace, the everyday language of light itself is changed. Artificial light sources are more quantified and qualified than before. Terminology such as the 40-watt, 60-watt, or 75-watt bulb carry little meaning in a home where glow is now measured and sold in lumens. People adapt. A recent report by the EPA cited strong support among American consumers for CFLs and LEDs.

CLOUD CEILING - Chicago, (© 2013 Caitlind r.c. Brown)
CLOUD CEILING – Chicago, (© 2013 Caitlind r.c. Brown)

In these waning days of the tungsten filament some have found inspiration in all those discarded bulbs, such as Canadian artists Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett. Their work, CLOUD, first exhibited at Nuit Blanche Calgary (Canada) in 2012, began as a large-scale interactive sculpture created from 6,000 light bulbs and a slew of pull-strings. In scouring their community for the thousands of new and burnt-out incandescent light bulbs required for the piece, new and organic relationships developed between artists and audience. The sculpture and its iterations have since been exhibited across the globe, with showings in Chicago, Moscow, Prague, Singapore, and Jerusalem. CLOUD is a collaboration that transcends the boundaries between what is cast off and devalued, repurposed, and ultimately reconsidered.

The sculpture is a direct response to the phase-out of incandescent bulbs in the European Union, the United States, and nations the world over. As the artists explain:

“Around the world, the sculpture gains new meaning as a beacon of transitional technologies and changing futures – where are we going next? On a more symbolic level, CLOUD relies on the universal language of environmental imagery – despite language barriers, cultural differences, and geographic distance, rain clouds are understood by people all around the world.”

CLOUD: An Interactive Sculpture Made from 6,000 Light Bulbs from
Caitlind r.c. Brown on Vimeo.

© 2014 – 2018, David Sprouse. All rights reserved.


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