Shining a light…on light bulbs

Written by: Lisa Bright

Primary Source : MSU Campus Archaeology Program, December 18, 2015


Incandescent light bulb

Incandescent light bulb

Light bulbs, everyone has them in their homes, work, and public buildings. And although light bulbs have changed in recent years with the introduction of LED and CFL bulbs, for the most part when you think of a light bulb a specific design comes to mind: an Edison style incandescent light bulb.  Historic archaeologists often encounter the material remnants of various electrical artifacts, such as the white porcelain knobs, tubes and cleats used in knob and tube wiring systems (see Myers 2010 for an excellent overview).  We also encounter light bulbs, although perhaps less often due to their fragile nature. Just as electrical systems have changed over time, so has the light bulb.

In 1879 Thomas Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb. However, in the early years of electrification Edison wasn’t the only game in town. Inventors had been creating “light bulbs” since 1802, but they were often flawed designs that burned out quickly, or only partially worked.

Other Notable dates:

  • 1906 –  General Electric patented method to make tungsten filaments used in light bulbs
  • 1920s first frosted bulbs and adjustable power beam bulbs produced
  • 1930s – one-time flashbulbs for photography
  • 1940s – first soft light incandescent bulbs
  • 1950s – Halogen light bulb first produced
  • 1980s – low wattage metal halides
  • 1990s – long light bulbs and compact fluorescent bulbs first produced

Gunson Unit A light bulb

Gunson Unit A light bulb

Thus far while cataloging the Gunson assemblage we’ve encountered several complete and fragmentary light bulbs, including ones with paper labels. Most of these are laboratory light bulbs produced by the Shelby Electric Company. We were able to figure this out because remarkably two of the bulbs still have their paper labels (pictured to the left).

Shelby Electric Company Labels

Shelby Electric Company Labels

Perhaps the Shelby Electric Company is ringing a few bells (or flipping a few light switches). It produced what can easily be called the most famous light bulb in the world, yes a famous light bulb. Known as the Centennial Light, it is the world’s longest-lasting light bulb, still glowing in the Livermore, California Fire Department building.   The Shelby Electric Company manufactured the bulb in the late 1890s, and it was installed by the fire department in 1901. Since then it has only been turned off a handful of times, and you can watch a live streaming video of the bulb.

The Shelby Electric Company was founded in Shelby, Ohio in 1896. The factory in Ohio closed in 1914, but lamps were still produced under the Shelby Electric Company label through 1925.  Newspaper accounts rave about the high quality nature of the lamps produced, and note that many women were employed in the factory.

Shelby Electric Co. building and bulbs

Shelby Electric Co. building and bulbs – source

Although I have been unable to locate an example of the specific bulb type found in the Gunson collection, it does closely resemble several patents and other bulbs curated by museums.  As we move forward in cataloging the rest of the collection, perhaps more examples will be encountered.


  • Adrian Myers. “Telling Time for the Electrified: An Introduction to Porcelain Insulators and the Electrification of the American Home” Society for Historical Archaeology Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology 5 (2010): 31-42.
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Lisa Bright is a first year PhD student in the Anthropology Department, here at MSU. Her specific research interests include mortuary archaeology, bioarchaeology and paleopathology. Her current research focuses on paleopathology in a late 19th/early 20th century paupers cemetery in Northern California. Although Lisa is new to CAP, she participated in the first Saint’s Rest field school during her undergrad years here, back in 2005. Lisa is very excited to be reconnecting with the program and assisting with the history of MSU exhibit that will be in the newly renovated Chittenden Hall.