A Forgotten Neon Bulb Burned For 77 Years
Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles opened in 1935. A couple years later, owner Clifford Clinton set up a nook in the downstairs bathroom, with a neon bulb backlighting a landscape painting. Seems kind of fancy for a basement bathroom, and Clifton must have been very proud of the setup. Because when he turned the bathroom into storage, and blocked the nook off with plywood, he never dismantled the setup. He never removed the bulb. He never even switched the light off.
Generations later, in 2015, the cafeteria was still open, and the current owner got around to renovating the place. He spotted a light shining in the storage room, and when everyone switched their flashlights off, the light remained, leaking through the plywood. He got a hole open and stuck a phone in to snap a picture of the light source. Then he ripped the wood down and got to really look at the nook. There was that old landscape painting, having been backlit by the same bulb for 77 years.
Neon lights last longer than the other option for lights back in 1935, incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs have filaments inside, which inevitably snap, but a neon bulb has nothing in there but gas. It pretty much lasts so long as the glass holds firm. A neon bulb even lasts longer than all the alternatives we have today. A CFL bulb (the kind with the little tube spiraling around) lasts 10 times as long as an incandescent bulb, but neon has it beat.
Still, no one expected this bulb to keep shining this long. The upper limit for one of these is supposed to be around 40 years, and that's not even while being used continuously. Maybe it helped that this bulb stayed totally untouched and sealed away all those decades.
The owner was of course delighted by the discovery, and only slightly less delighted when he did the math and realized the electricity bill on that one unseen bulb had cost the place $17,000.
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Top image: Difference engine/Wiki Commons