Their Twitching Was Bewitching, but Now It’s Twilight for the Incandescent

As the evolution of technologies go, the expiration of the incandescent light bulb is right up there with the end of analog TV broadcasting and the coming windup of gasoline-powered vehicles. All three technologies revolutionized society but at costs that didn’t reveal themselves until decades later. Conventional TV was a huge waste in bandwidth and petrol-fueled mobility a threat to our very existence.

Of course, those who benefited in the 20th century from these technologies didn’t see it that way. It took digital compression and battery-powered vehicles to make obsolete what came before. In the case of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, it took the invention of cold cathode fluorescent lamps and, more importantly, light emitting diodes to show how inefficient a burning filament could be.

The Department of Energy estimates that LED lights last 50 times as long as incandescent bulbs and use a tenth of the electricity. That’s a huge win for stressed garbage dumps and energy conservation.

According to The Washington Post, the new Energy Department rules mandated by the Biden Administration will save consumers $3 billion and cut annual carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over 30 years.

Incandescent bulbs were destined for the dump heap before. But the Trump Administration bowed to industry pressure to delay taking them off the market. Now, the Biden Administration's April 26 mandate calls for phasing out the sale of most incandescent and halogen bulbs in 2023. Those who prefer to continue paying higher electric bills may want to stock up now at their local Dollar Tree. An obvious casualty: light-bulb changing jokes.

To appreciate the impact of incandescent technology on work and play in American life during the last century, consider that celebrations were planned for Oct. 21, 1929, the 50th Anniversary of the bulb’s invention. “The lights of the `Great White Way’ will flash in a special demonstration for their creator,” declared The New York Times. “A hook-up of radio stations and the assembling of all electrical interests throughout the country are contemplated and every city will stage some form of electrical demonstration.”

No greater public display of incandescent ingenuity on the planet could be seen than in Times Square. As celebrated in this 1938 radio portrait from the documentary-like tour, Crosstown Manhattan, this is what listeners heard on the Columbia Broadcasting System one Thursday night in December:

Clip From "Crosstown Manhattan" (1938)
"For here these two great north and south arteries, swiftly converging a few blocks below to make Times Square--are still at their greatest, whitest, most incandescent. Mocking the night with a battery of a billion bulbs. Shaming the stars with a cacophony of incandescence. Bombarding the eyes of the passerby with a thousand feverish, frantic messages. The electric signs of Broadway."

The translation of twitching lights to prose in the broadcast was indeed poetic. But the bulbs also furthered commerce, electric advertising that the broadcast mocked. “Why do we spell? We spell in order to sell, you see.

“We offer you shows. And vend you clothes. Advertise booze. And flash you news. Sell you tires. And make you buyers. Of coffee and gum. And toffee and rum. And sugars and spices. And flavored ices. Tobacco and wood. And ham and cotton. Goods that are good. And goods that are rotten.”

Crosstown Manhattan had no sponsors. No commercials. No one to offend. Also, Thursdays meant must-hear radio that was not on CBS. Most of the country was tuned to the rival National Broadcasting Company, affixed to the Bing Crosby Comedy Hour.

Electricians who could rig thousands of bulbs by installing time-delay switches were the programmers of their day, and their techniques were seen lighting up movie marquees and billboards for decades to come. Consider this opening sequence from NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, a TV staple in the sixties. It’s almost as if the design was taken straight out of the Crosstown Manhattan script in which bulbs blinked, winked, went down sideways and around curves. Their twitching was indeed bewitching.

Today, LEDs carried aloft by choreographed drones are replacing fireworks. But missing are the crackle, the boom, the smell. For the digital generation, it may be hard to imagine the awe produced by Edison’s invention when it first lit up America. But, hey, that’s progress.

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