Monday, October 29, 2012

A Better Light Bulb

I'm going to miss the old incandescent bulb.  After all, it was the invention that started young Tom Edison on his way to becoming Wizard of Menlo Park, the bulb that appeared in a bubble when a character in a comic had a great idea, the kind of bulb that epitomized the old slogan that General Electric "brings good things to light."

We're about to enter, kicking and screaming of course, the post-incandescent era.  And that's as it should be -- it's an era that my Dad, Dr. Ralph M. Potter, who spent his career in the lighting research department at GE, saw coming a long time ago.  After all, as he was fond of pointing out, most of the energy from such bulbs was thrown away as heat.  Back when he worked for the company Edison helped found, there really truly was a constant search for a better light bulb.

My dad worked on new kinds of illumination whose efficiency and durability would eventually far surpass that of any incandescent light of its day, such as the light-emitting diode or LED.  In the laboratory furnaces at GE's Nela Park facility in East Cleveland, he oversaw the forging of immaculate crystals of gallium arsenide, crystals which -- encased in plastic -- would emit light in the visible spectrum.  Red was easily obtained, and he and his laboratory colleagues were among the first to develop yellow, green, and color-changing LED's.  They also worked on a new sort of lamp for large outdoor lighting, the "Lucalox" high pressure sodium arc lamp whose coppery golden color was remarkably close to the Sun's natural spectrum.  This kind of lamp is now so common that, when you fly over any large city from Boston to London to Tokyo, the cityscape below you is outlined in their pinkish glow.

LED’s and high pressure sodium arc lamps are also, as it turns out, extremely efficient, although General Electric wasn't initially interested in efficiency. It wasn’t until the energy crisis of 1973 that the demand for a more efficient light gained ground, and not until 1975 that GE management asked their researchers at Nela Park to quickly come up with a more efficient light that could replace the traditional incandescent bulb.

My dad was one of the key people on this team, and I vividly remember the prototype lamps, which we had in our living room.  They used both a low-wattage coil and a series of tiny arcs coated with different metallic halides that -- eventually -- produced a lovely warm white light.  The only trouble was that the halides were triggered in sequence as the light got warmer; when you turned on one of the test bulbs, a glass of milk placed beneath it would first turn blue, then pink, before assuming its proper white coloration.  These lights also required an electronic ballast, which back in the 1970's was thought to be ungainly and a sure loser with consumers -- which shows you how little anyone anticipated the compact flourescents of the future.

Still, despite all these issues, GE pressed ahead with the new bulbs, setting up a plant to manufacture them and putting together a marketing campaign to convince home consumers to use them.  The bulb finally debuted in 1981, but by then the energy crisis had passed, and no amount of marketing was going to convince your typical American to replace their 69 cent incandescent bulbs with newfangled $15 ones, even if they had been ten times as efficient.  And there was the blue milk to consider as well.

This past fall, my daughter and I went to a special exhibit on the history of lighting at the Smithsonian.  I was thrilled to see a mention of the Lucalox light, and I searched for my dad in the photos of the GE researchers that were included in the exhibit.  And then, quite by surprise, I saw my dad’s bulb -- under the heading “The Halarc Adventure: When Promotion Fails.” There was a quote from a GE engineer at Nela Park, Gilbert Reiling, who though he believed in the principle of the new bulb, regarded the results as “a disaster.”  At the end, a placard reminded the museum-goer, “as Edison often said, failure is part of the learning process.”

What GE learned, apparently, was that it wasn’t worth their while to keep a laboratory full of high-paid scientists dedicated to making a better light bulb. They decided that it would be cheaper to close the old lab and outsource the work to a bunch of low-paid Hungarian Ph.D.'s; my dad was among the first to take the "golden parachute" and retire.  The ivy-covered brick walls of the "campus" at NELA Park turned into a mausoleum of sorts, and GE even moved the making of its trademark bulbs overseas.  They could, had they wanted, have made more efficient bulbs much sooner -- but they had started too late, rushed the process, and ended up with a product that nobody wanted.

My dad died twenty years after the Halarc debacle, the victim of a variety of Parkinson's disease that he came to believe might have been triggered by some of the chemicals he worked with.  And now, seeing the last small displays of incandescent bulbs dwindling away in the corner of my local Home Depot, I almost feel like crying -- once for the better bulbs that lived in my father's thought-bubbles, and once for the departure of our old and warmly incandescent friend. But after all, most of its energy was thrown away in the form of heat -- it was past time for it to go.