Men Doing Manly Things: Shopping for Light Bulbs

This is the story of one man’s journey to have properly working light bulbs in his living room.

In the early 19th century, chemists, engineers and inventors were fascinated by everything electrical. In 1802, Humphrey Davy proved the concept behind the light bulb at the Royal Institute of Britain by running a current through a strip of platinum. Though the strip did not provide bright light, it provided the foundation for many scientists to pursue study. Creating the light bulb was a 19th century equivalent to the space race, with James Bowman Lindsay receiving the credit for the first incandescent light bulb in 1835, Frederick de Moleyns receiving the first patent for the device, and Thomas Edison purchasing the Canadian owned patent in 1879, leading to the commercialization of the light bulb.

Classic incandescent light bulbs work by running an electric current through a coiled filament wire, which acts as a resister. Heat caused by the resistance leads to incandescence, the emission of electromagnetic radiation as the thermal energy charges particles and is converted into electromagnetic energy. The electromagnetic radiation travels from the heated element through the vacuum of space or the particles in a room, and bounce off objects where it reacts with the proteins in our eyes to generate an electrochemical response in our neurons and the ego’s perception of light. We grew up with incandescent light bulbs, and I’m sure some of us burned our hands on their near-molten glass, made cakes in an easy bake oven under their hot glow, or even had our houses burned down by these electromagnetically inefficient death traps.

Incandescent light bulbs were reliable, though, and could be easily modulated by dimmers to increase or decrease their voltage. This resulted in the increasing or decreasing output of light from the bulb

Then we had to go and get safe and energy efficient by inventing fluorescent light bulbs, and therefore making my last week incredibly difficult. As I stated earlier in the post, I wanted to replace the current light switch in my living room with a dimmer, so that the mood on my couch with my lady could be set as much by the level of the light itself as by the sweet sounds of Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross I like to pump through my excellent new sound system. (Who says the romance dies in long-term relationships?)

In my attempt to emulate the behavior of a responsible human being, I bought fluorescent light bulbs to use with these new dimmers. Fluorescent light bulbs follow similar principles as typical incandescent light bulbs, but are filled with inert Halogen gas that lets materials more efficiently turn electricity into light than old light bulbs. Essentially, these bulbs take less power to generate equivalent light.

As I returned electricity to the circuit of the living room, I heard a high-pitched buzzing sound from the light switch I had just installed. This high-pitched sound is due to arcing of the electricity within the switch, a result of using the lower powered light bulbs. It is also a dead giveaway that something is very, very wrong. In this case, it turned out that the new light switch dimmers I bought was built for older light bulbs, not the new energy efficient ones.

No problem! I went back to the hardware store and got the proper light switches. With my lady eagerly waiting on the couch, I installed the fluorescent-ready dimmer and turned the power on. BAM!

The light was working, no buzzing. I gave my lady that special look (you know the one) and went to turn down the lights. I slid my hand onto the dimmer and gently coaxed the bar down the switch… and the light bulbs continued to shine like the sun. I consulted the light bulb box for a clue, only to discover that I had bought super efficient, non-dimmable fluorescent light bulbs, instead of slightly less efficient (but still safe) light bulbs that work with dimmers.

Time for another trip to the hardware store…


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