Retrotechtacular: 100 Watts 120 Volts

If you read our recent feature about the Tal-y-Llyn Railway, the world’s first preserved line, you may have taken a while to watch the short film about the railway in the early 1950s. It was the work of an American film maker, [Carson “Kit” Davidson].

His other work includes some films that might be of interest to Hackaday readers, including one filmed in 1977: “100 Watts 120 Volts”. In it, he follows the manufacture of Duro-Test 100-watt light bulbs through all the stages of their assembly as neck, filament and envelope are brought together in strangely beautiful twentieth century production machinery.

It almost comes as a shock that something as ubiquitous as an incandescent light bulb should be the object of a retrotechtacular feature. You might say that without being the object of attention themselves they and their fluorescent cousins had a hand in most of the events and inventions that shape our lives today. Could you imagine NASA Mission Control lit by oil lamps, for example?

But in a world in which incandescent light bulbs are fast being legislated out of existence it is likely that factories like the one shown in the film are rapidly heading the way of the wrought iron mill or the coal gas works. You can still buy incandescent bulbs, especially those made for industrial rough-service applications or for places where the mercury of a CFL tube might be a hazard, but how long will it be before they too are replaced by LEDs and the world’s oldest light bulb has outlived the factories that made bulbs like it? Probably not too long.

It may be a measure of a technology’s suitability for a retrotechtacular feature: how few times it features in the Hackaday archive. With a possible exception of Nixie tubes, that is. In the case of incandescent bulbs there seem to be few projects using them, instead most mentions of them come from replacing them with LEDs in old projectors or other devices. There is this rather nice Vegas-style chaser sign, though. Nobody has yet seen the lightbulb as retro enough to remanufacture. Who knows, perhaps artisanal lightbulbs are the Next Big Thing.

If you liked the video, be sure to read more about Carson Davidson and his work.

33 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: 100 Watts 120 Volts

      1. There are some with LED filaments, yes, but search for ‘Edison’, or ‘squirrel cage lightbulb on ebay, for example and you’ll find some putting out something on the order of 120lm at 30W, so they’re definitely incandescent, though more for mood lighting or decoration than anything truly …illuminating.

          1. Hipsters. As someone who has seen his hometown (Nashville) infested with them over the last decade, let me tell you that these are bought by the boxcarload.

          2. When it comes to clocks there are different preferences. I even would say “why do people still use clocks with hands? 7 segment displays are around for a long time” As I strongly prefer digital clocks. But if I want a weak, “mood” light, I can still use an efficient lamp of very low power.

  1. I don’t know for sure, but I have my doubts there’s not much of the Model T assembly line still being used to build Fords today. Much effort has gone into insuring that that world’s oldest light bulb remains just that. That lamp for much of it’s life never seen the typical household duty much less commercial duty particularly since it became famous. IMO it shouldn’t be used as some sort of standard time moves on. Beyond that incandescent lamps that meet efficiency standards to exist, is there any reason the productions lines that tears are being shed over would be scrapped, if they can produce modern lamps?

    1. It still suffers from the limitations of the melting point of Tungsten. You can not get color temperatures above 2700K or at best 3000K. There are some rooms (kitchen, electronics lab) where I love the high color temps available with modern LEDs (or CFLs). With incandescent bulbs for me it is the same as with Steam engine locomotives: They are not used in regular service anymore. And soon this will be the same for most of the people, except some hopeless nostalgics.

      1. I’ve actually been glad to have a stash of incandescents to draw from over the last few years while they’re working the flicker, fire hazards and other kinks out of government mandated alternative lights. That’s allowed the price to come down to more realistic levels as well.

        1. Fire hazards? Flicker? Quality LED lamps are already incredibly inexpensive (when realizing what’s inside) with an operating life far beyond that of incandescent lamps. While I realize it isn’t the common case where I am voltage spikes kills standard bulbs fast while (quality) LED ones keep on working so _here_ they already are less expensive in the long run. That’s not even comparing to General Electrics bulbs that have to be the worst kind of shit ever produced – dying as soon as they see a light socket…

          1. Quality LED lamps also cost $20 a pop, and they’re -more- susceptible to line voltage variations and noise that stresses the power converter and filter. It’s usually the case that CFLs and LEDs die faster than regular bulbs where power quality is low.

            I bought a $2.99 LED bulb and it was literally just two strings of diodes in opposite directions and a resistor. Waving my hand or watching any moving object underneath it creates a clear stroboscopic effect. The color rendering and light quality is atrocious, and I’m now mostly using it as a plant light.

        2. Any LED Bulb sold by a retailer (i.e. brick and mortar store) in the USA has to meet strict requirements of UL8750 as well as energy star requirements. That was not the case a few years ago but now it is the law.

      2. High color temps should only be paired with high light intensity, some 10x more than typical room lighting. Otherwise it just looks bleak and colors fade out, because of the Purkinje effect.

  2. Just yesterday my girlfriend asked me for a little “vanity mirror” i.e. a mirror surrounded by tiny (cute) lightbulbs. Turns out they outperform the “obvious” choice – the LED strips – in color rendering, which is of highest concern in makeup (who am I to argue). Seems I would use 25 12V/4W Ba9s bulbs powered by that old 100VA halogen toroid. Some retro Hollywood glam for the lady!

      1. That’s not how it works. LEDs are inherently narrow-band emitters, and using RGB leds won’t improve the CRI significantly because there’s still huge gaps in the spectrum. Secondary emission and reflection off of objects depends on the full spectrum of light being present, or else you just can’t tell one shade from the next.

        The best color reproduction out of LEDs actually come from fluorescent hybrids which have blue/uv and red LEDs, and fill the gap in between with wideband yellow-green phosphors that are excited by the blue/uv LEDs.

    1. I still have some bulbs sitting in the corner, have been just too lazy to throw them out. But I will not use them any more. You can have them if you come around in Europe. :-)

  3. Incandescents (and halogens) are really a niche product these days, and there is nothing that comes close to replacing them… think high temperature environments, excellent CRI. And then deliberately life-span crippled.

    But few people would ever think that the ‘ever-so-simple’ light bulb would take such an amazing array of machinery to make! That is one impressive factory (machine wise, maybe not technology wise). And newer technology light bulbs are at least an order of magnitude more complex!
    Putting a filament, or LED, into a glass bottle sounds pretty simple – and the filament part is. But go back to the very start… digging it out of the ground… tungsten vs silicon. Making an LED is probably *two* factors of magnitude more complex than making a filament!

    Technology has become so complex that there is no way any one person can understand it all.

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