I had my first run-in with the infinite bulb most of the way through “Gravity’s Rainbow.” His name is/was “Byron.” This was before I began to suspect that I owned Byron. Just to give you enough to keep you reading, I suspect that I’m on to something because my bulb is a 1920s, old-style incandescent lamp that has lasted me now through two and a half years straight of frequent use-of-desk. Byron the Bulb, for the uninitiated, was given the gift of immortality (which, naturally, put him square in the crosshairs of the international light bulb cartel). The cartel is called, in fact as in fiction, “Phoebus,” and was founded (in fact) 95 years ago.
Phoebus, to its credit, invented that affliction from which your phone still suffers today — planned obsolescence — and singlehandedly ruined the incandescent lamp. How did they do the dirty? ‘Twas two nights before Christmas, when all through Geneva, not a creature was stirring but several corporate executives. If you were a CEO in the European lighting market in 1923 (and worth your weight in tungsten) you were guaranteed a seat at the table. All the major players in the market gathered round and, in a sort of 20th-century Tordesillas, carved up the world in several — Osram, Philips, even the patriots at General Electric. Anyone who’s anyone in the business is/was in on it, and they all have/had an interest in ensuring we all keep buying bulbs with the lifespan of the average pygmy goby.
Now, how does the cartel actually work? Think OPEC for light bulbs, but with hired assassins. In ostensible fact, the cartel was out of the game by the mid-1930s. It set prices, as cartels tend to do, and intentionally worked to shorten bulb-spans on a global scale. In fiction, Phoebus survived at least into the mid-1940s and worked on shortening bulb-spans from both ends. Your bulb breaks on through the 1000-hour mark, and you’re sure to be paid a midnight visit from a Phoebus “technician.” Odds are, you still have to change your bulbs more often than you’d like. Odds are, there’s still some conspiratorial Davos type behind it.
As history would have it, 1923 is also right around the time that Byron the Bulb reputedly entered the world. So when I say that my 3-year-old bulb might be Byron, I don’t mean to suggest that I really own him. For one, Byron — who is certainly out there, somewhere, probably shedding a few lumens over the years as he slouches toward the infinite — isn’t exactly a standup guy. “My” bulb, as you’d know if you ever met him yourself, is 100 percent class.
Byron started his working life in a ladies-only opium den.
Of secondary importance is the fact that Byron is fictional. Which is not to demean Byron, who — as you likely surmised — has been on the socket-end of several botched assassination attempts. Fictional or factual, I’m inclined to believe that my bulb, if not the “real” Byron, is at least closely related to Byron — they’re both incandescent; maybe their filaments came from the same Spanish open-pit mine.
But of primary importance, there still remains the fundamental-philosophical question of ownership. Between an immortal electric being wrought from Bulb Heaven and a fleshy mammal wrought from my mom, who has the upper coil? Me? I’d give the advantage to the bulb. For now, though, I’m keeping Byron in his place. Because here’s the kicker: Byron, existent or nonexistent, born three years ago or circa ’23, wouldn’t even be the oldest bulb in California. All fact, no fiction, a 100-plus-year-old bulb is positively glowing and only an hour’s drive away. I’d recommend taking a trip to see it soon. After all, it’s only a matter of time before she gets assassinated.
Contact Chapman Caddell at jcaddell ‘at’ stanford.edu.