Hot Electric Metal Encased in a Sphere of Glass

Illustration for article titled Hot Electric Metal Encased in a Sphere of Glass

LEDs are efficient. But by choice, my house is still bathed in the warm glow of hot electrified metal, in a bulb of glass and inert gas.

We take the miracle of the lightbulb for granted. We've been doing this for probably almost 100 years now, within a generation or two after the world figured out AC was the way to send power over distance, and the subsequent widespread adoption. But as LEDs get better and studies are done, the old regular lightbulb is going to villainized as an energy hog. Which it is.

A study covered by the NYTimes today drives the point home even further. Done by lightbulb company (of the old and new kind) Osram, it went beyond the typical lumen-per-watt analysis and studied the entire lifecycle, from manufacturing to disposal. And it was damning. Even considering the relative complication of an LED lightbulb's design, the equivalent life of incandescent bulbs are not as green. Five times less green, they say.


I lament every study like this that passes the news wire. Some others are skeptical of LED lightbulbs today, even while believing in the future of them. Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boingboing covers LED lighting as a beat and says that the best lights are commercial—that the 20 dollar kind at Home Depot are basically, a big fat lie. The thousands of hours they're supposed to live are often off by factors of 20, and that throws the whole green equation off, if you assume Osram didn't do real testing of LED life. And I doubt they did since they're the manufacturer of bulbs, but have no data here. Let's believe that for a moment, ignoring the vague conflicts of interest that may exist in a company that sells lightbulbs, even if it sells both. No matter what you say, LED lightbulbs are efficient as hell. And the new and efficient must replace the old.

This desertion of technology where raw energy is being wasted has a side effect of eliminating the beauty that comes from devices closely harnessing and taming the most primal forces. In the last half century, I feel as if we've turned away from wanting to know where untamed power comes from, much like we stopped wanting to know where meat comes from. First the nuke plants went boom in Chernobyl, and then our dreams for a safe, nuclear-powered future go with it. And steam-powered devices, even in play, are ok, as long as we don't talk about the majority of steam powered devices being powered by ugly, sooty coal. Electric cars are seen as far more futuristic, efficient and cool than the muscular cars that harness fire—fire!—in blocks of metal, powered by sipping pickled dinosaur juice. Electric ranges are being used in the most tech'd high end restaurants for sake of control and efficiency, and although BBQ will never die, I would find it hard to argue with the efficiency of electric range if I were building a new home. We think "fire"—smoke or smokeless—is primitive and has no place in our future. Consider this all more man vs nature conflict, where man further tames the wild and natural. And another step in the suppression of an analog world by digital means. This decade, the lightbulb, driven by hot filament so ready to ignite if only it were given oxygen and a chance, finds itself under this same scrutiny. This coming decade will find it a relic and a terrible thing to have around, given a greener alternative.

Somewhere along the line, because of these treehuggers and the energy bean counters and studies obsessed with efficiency, we forgot about how wonderful lightbulbs look. The hot light you'd find in a blacksmith's forge as he hammered away at horseshoes. Or a miniature Sun, (although nothing alike) because of the way the yellow lights brand marks into your eyes if you stare directly at them. Like the fire of a hundred candles, on demand. I like this. But never mind that, the studies say. We will come leaps and bounds forward with LED lightbulbs. For efficiency!


Most of this does not concern me, or move me to object in any way to LED lightbulbs, as much as the thought of LED light itself, so alien, in my house. In wikipedia, we get a description, under the disadvantages of the problems of white LEDs that "spike at 460 nm and dip at 500 nm," causing objects to be "perceived differently under cool-white LED illumination than sunlight or incandescent sources, due to metamerism." I don't know what that means, exactly, but it's easy to imagine and be horrified by the thought of my home filled with the kind of blue/white lighting more appropriate for the bridge of a space ship than the place where my intimate life occurs. I cannot imagine and would not read, make love, bathe, have friends over, eat dinner, listen to music or play with my dogs under LED lighting blue enough to make hospital or high school lighting fixtures look as natural as skylights after sunrise.

The general trend is that LEDs get twice as bright/efficient every 36 months, but brightness is not the issue here. They should stop this research, and focus on whatever it takes to make LED lightbulbs look like they're powered by hot tungsten on the verge of incinerating itself to illuminate our private night lives. That kind of raw power and energy might be a wasteful relic of our past, but quality of glow is something we should be mindful of measuring, too. Lightbulb makers, you should not forget where we came from when building the future.


*OLED lights like this one are supposedly closer to traditional bulbs in quality but if regular LED isn't price or energy efficient yet, um, OLED lights like this one aren't going to be closer.

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A well-written article, but I simply can't disagree more with one of the main points: Incandescent lights are not beautiful.

At least, they aren't more natural. At best, they're an approximation of fire, man's most primitive artificial light source (artificial in the sense that we harnessed it and used it for light), but they are not any more or less artificial than LEDs. If you want to talk color temperature and lighting angles- If anything, LEDs will actually bring us closer to "natural" light. There's way more that can be done with LEDs in terms of fixtures and integration into our homes and workplaces that optimize the effect lighting has on our lives (and it IS a big effect)