by Mike Dunstan
LIVERMORE - It glows and glows and glows ...
For nigh onto three-quarters of a century now the light bulb has shed its soft pinkish glow day and night over the men and equipment of the Livermore Fire- Department.
And as the filaments in the odd- shapped transparent globe burn on they may well be those in the oldest light bulb still burning in the world.
Weeks of research and inter- views with probably all of those in Livermore who have any authoritative say about such old matters have given much proof that the bulb was installed, and lighted in 1902.
It's a long story, but here's what I've found.
In a recend reply to the Herald & News query, Norris D. McWhirter, editor of "Guiness' Book of World Records," wrote that the oldest burning light bulb on record is 68 years old. "Guiness" records it as being in the Palace Theatre in Fort Worth, Texas.
"We are writing to the theatre again shortly," McWhirter said, "but have every reason to believe that the bulb is still burning."
Rather than wait for Texas to reply to McWhirter in England, the Herald & News wrote the Palace Theatre. That was over a month ago. To date, no answer. Whether the Texas bulb has burned out or not, it's not certain.
BUT ONE thing is: There are a lot of facts about the Livermore light bulb which Mr. McWhirter doesn't know.
In fact I wasn't even sure until this week. And then, the reaffirmations of oft-repeated stories made in such a manner, and clarified by earlier questions, reduced the importance of the Fort Worth bulb.
The whole story, hopefully as complete as it will ever be, involves a lot of lives.
In the years it has hung there, old firemen and young in the Livermore department have talked about the remarkable bulb. Its age has been disputed. Some said it was 40 years old, others guessed 60.
ONE POINT in the light bulb legend over which there has been no dispute is that it was donated by the Livermore Power and Water Co.
The Livermore Power and Water Co. was Livermore's first power company and owned by the late Dennis Bernal in 1892. In 1884, the first of five children-a daughter, Zylpha-was born to Bernal and his wife.
Mrs. Zylpha Beck, 88, still a Livermore resident, recalls her father and the hectic business amidst which she grew up, and that he sold his business to the Contra Costa Water Co.
"Well, he sold it when my sister was 9 years old, and she was born in 1892. . .so he sold the company in 1901," Mrs. Beck recalled.
MRS. BECK is the source apparently closest to the light bulb's start in history. She says that at the time her father sold his power company he gave away a lot of things-equipment and personal items. She thinks-but she can't be absolutely sure-that the bulb was among numerous items given to the Livermore Fire Department.
She might be the most authoritative source, but far from only. bits and pieces of the bulb's history have been provided by many others, and tend to confirm her memories.
If she's right-and so far no one has disputed her-the bulb, donated in 1901, has been in use for 71 years-making it three years older than the 68-year-old globe in Fort Worth, which to date has been considered the world's oldest.
LIVERMORE Fire Chief Jack Baird has heard most of the versions, seldom told twice identically, of legend which has grown up around the sturdy old globe. One of the versions, he says, is the most consistently heard.
"Years ago, it was donated to the department by the Livermore Power and Light Co. It was left on 24 hours-a-day to break up the darkness so the volunteers could find their way," Baird says.
"It was never turned off, except for about a week when President Roosevelt's WPA people remodeled the fire house back in the '30's and a few times when we had power failures," he recalls.
"IT'S PART of another era in the city's past," Baird continued. "It's served its purpose well."
For years, the old bulb has been thought by some to be a "Mazda" brand light and a "Thomas Edison" bulb by most others. But after examining Herald & News photos of the globe for nearly a week, General Electric's Nela Park experts concluded it was made by Shelby Electric Co.
Its odd, pear-like shape is really not so odd. "Back in those days, they were all hand blown like this one," B. E. Schaller, a Nela Park, G. E. spokesman, said. "It's not unusual."
G. E. EXPERTS further explained that the curly filament inside the bulb is made of carbide. "They sure don't make 'em like they used to," quipped Schaller.
Livermore's three oldest living volunteer fire fighters and Mrs. Beck enlarge on the bulb's tale.
Ripley's is aware of the challenges to the age of the Livermore bulb, but so far hasn't taken away its title.
"It's the number one as far as I'm concerned and I'm speaking for the company," Meyer said.
The Bulb's longevity was authenticated by first hand research by Ripley's. The bulb can be matched to catalogs from the early 1900s.
"When push comes to shove we come down to people's words...that these people are telling the truth," Meyer said.
John Jensen, 85, fought blazes with the Livermore "fire boys" back in 1905 as a volunteer. He recalls the old light bulb and its legend.
"We got that old bulb from the Livermore Power and Water Co." recalled Jensen.
"I actually joined the department in 1910, but it was here long before that."
THE WATER AND POWER company was located across on First Street in those days, according to Jensen. It was then Jensen thinks the light bulb was donated to LFD. "I don't know where else it could have come from." he said.
Bill Wilson, 85, came to Livermore in 1905. As a new arrival to the small farm community, he was quick to join the ranks of fire-fighting volunteers, battling blazes at Jensen's side.
But for Wilson, the memories are vague and few of the now famed light. Wilson couldn't recall just when the old bulb was first put to use.
"I wouldn't know and wouldn't want to hazard a guess," said Wilson. "When the things was put up, nobody gave it a thought at all."
ALTHOUGH TEN years younger than his fellow retired volunteers, John Anderson, 75, recalls the old globe well:
"I passed it every day on my way to school."
"They moved that old bulb to three places," continued Anderson. "First it was in a hose cart house on L Street then in the Second Street fire house; and finally moved to where it's at now (First Street). It don't give much light, but it's a light."
Yet Anderson, like the two older firemen, doesn't recall when the bulb was first put in its socket. "I don't doubt it was put up in 1901," Anderson explained, "but I don't know exact dates."
THE DOUBTS shared by the three firemen are not shared by Mrs. Beck. "I truly think that light bulb was given to the fire department by my father in 1901," affirmed Mrs. Beck this week.
Her emotions on the light bulb run deep. "My father was a very generous man, and he never publicized the things he did for other people," Mrs. Beck said timidly.
Her pride in her father is strong and she feels the light bulb is just a kind reminder of his generosity to others.
For Mrs. Beck and the rest of the world, a small part of Dennis F. Bernal's generosity burns steadily in the Livermore fire house as the oldest light bulb on earth.