Incandescent

cellar light

I will miss the incandescent light bulb, its hairless, faceless, chinless head as if from a gelded angel. I will miss that single, glowing synapse. That one bright idea appearing above our heads in the comics, quintessence of the thought balloon. I wouldn’t mind if light bulb jokes died along with it, but I’m sure they’ll persist in some form as long as the obtuseness of other people seems worth a laugh.

There’s no denying the compact fluorescent bulb’s comparative sobriety, though — it’s as blandly utilitarian as a radiator coil or a wastebasket. I’m sure there are those who will miss the radiator coil if electric cars take over, and wastebaskets probably already have their aficionados, but neither comes close to the incandescent light bulb’s fungal charisma. Flea market booths that today specialize in antique glass insulators will someday do a brisk business in burnt-out bulbs. Little girls will stop for a closer look: Daddy, what sort of doll did this come from?

And Daddy will say, its body was hidden from us, we didn’t think about it much. Its limbs were long seams of a greasy midnight that used to be trees, and had been buried halfway to forever in the hearts of mountains. And when we moved the mountains to disinter them, streams and rivers died, the lungs of miners turned black, deadly mercury spread across the earth. This was the dangerous kind of doll. We were happy not to have it around the house.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

15 Comments


  1. Love the photo and the words, Dave. We’ve grown up with the incandescent bulb and I still prefer its warmer light. The mercury content IS scary, and you make it even scarier. I wonder if the upcoming new LED ones will satisfy us on all counts. Change is hard for us older folks, eh, while the grandkids take it all in stride and wonder what the elders are complaining about. Now if we didn’t have electricity…

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    1. Yes, I hear the LED bulbs will be an improvement over florescents both in terms of nergy use and lack of mercury. But some of the florescent bulbs out now have a pretty warm light — Dad was showing me one the other day.

      I don’t think I’ve ever liked change much, except in theory. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

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  2. That was tremendous. You bring to light a thing not much thought about until it’s gone, and the greater layers of it.

    Beyond your words I think of the rippling sound of the beaded chain attached to the string that turned the bulb on and off.

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    1. Thanks, Hugh. Yes on that sound: your mere mention of it sets off anticipatory nostalgia!

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  3. My supply of incandescent bulbs is slowly running out. The first energy-saving bulb has been installed in one of the lamps in the living room. Its sickly grey light makes me feel slightly queasy.

    I foresee a resurgence for the candle industry.

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    1. Don’t forget about kerosene lanterns. The ones with the circular wicks, though a bit tricky to operate, give off a very bright light. And the thing with kerosene is, you are confronted directly with the burning of a fossil fuel (and its smoke). You have to think about whether it’s really worth wasting the fuel to stay up another half an hour just to read something you’re too tired to fully absorb anyway. Beeswax candles are of course much nicer, but hard to read by.

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  4. I can really feel into this, being such a creature of habit myself…these small changes can pack themselves full of so much supposition and recollection for me. I really like “long seams of a greasy midnight.” This piece is great.

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    1. Glad you liked. I had planned to write something entirely different right up until the moment I started writing. The photo made me do it.

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  5. I’m just doing a bit of catch-up reading while I have a net connection. This and your last post are super.
    I was using mostly compact florescent around my house – had been experimenting with the different ones for quite some time. Have to admit that, from an aesthetic viewpoint, I still prefer incandescent light. Since going on the road, I rarely use lights at all other than LED flashlights or a rechargeable florescent lantern. I tend to live in synch with sunlight. I go to sleep when it gets dark and rise at dawn. It’s a very different existence being out here on the road where the use of energy has to be carefully considered — at least, the way I’m traveling which is usually boon-docking at dispersed campsites without use of a generator.

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    1. Hi Bev – It’s nice to think of you reading Via Neg on the road! Thanks for sharing the details of your vagabond-monastic lifestyle. I’ll admit I do get better sleep when I’m camping because there isn’t an internet to tempt me to stay up too late, and reading by flashlight gets old.

      Drive safely.

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  6. This is, yet again, one of those “wish I’d said it” essays. While the beginning was sure-footed and had me stepping right along with the nostalgia, the last para surprised me.

    Nice to twist it (no bad-joke reference to the compact fluorescent shape) and make me think a bit.

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    1. Glad you thought so. It really enacts a conservative to liberal twist, doesn’t it?

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  7. Somewhere around when the little girl shows up, I remembered making papier-mâché maracas from burned out light bulbs – plastered with paste-soaked newspaper strips, dried, smacked on something to break the glass inside for noise, and then painted with some colorful acrylic paints. I guess that’s something we could do with all our old bulbs.

    I was searching online recently for low-light bulbs for the chandelier in my dining room and could only find incandescents that were low-light. The compact fluorescents might fit, but they were all offering bright light for low wattage. Alas the table candles aren’t bright enough to see dinner by.

    Reply

    1. Light bulbs into maracas! Great idea.

      Years ago my parents bought this hanging kerosene lantern enclosed by an ornate, red glass box with brass fittings. Very Victorian. To light it, you just grab a handle on the bottom and it comes down on chains and pulleys. Very cool, right? But it’s so dim, it’s completely useless. We only ever light the thing on Christmas.

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  8. its fungal charisma! ~ yes!

    and yes, i will miss them do. thank you for memorializing incandescent bulbs

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