let there be light

a brief and personal history of the lightbulb


First memory of a lightbulb: a yellow glow slid underneath my bedroom door. A letter from the world of wakefulness: the hallway where my parents’ feet creak back and forth, cutting shadows across the one lit stripe on my bedroom’s hardwood floor. A second memory: A light swoops in and out the window, sweeps the silhouettes of tree branches and the square of the windowpane across the walls, lances the mirrors and lets the silver out. Then, gone. The distant hush of an engine fades as a car drives down the block.


It is strange that all these memories come before any memory of the sun. Sun: too big, too constant, too monosyllabic to shrink down to remember. So I remember instead the smaller pieces, smaller orbs of light and heat, which light up a smaller darkness. There are incandescent bulbs fit into every lamp that I make up with my memories. The bulbs are a collection of lumens and watts, thrown out onto the books that my father read to me, on my brother’s crooked nose, on what’s for dinner. And then there are the yellow shadows where the incandescent bulbs can’t reach, beneath my mother’s cheekbones, in the stairwell that I hate to climb at night.


Here is the lightbulb: A bulb (glass or quartz) covers a filament (carbon or tungsten). An electric current heats up the filament until the filament glows. There’s no air inside of the lightbulb, only the filament and the heat and the light that they make together. There’s no air so the filament does not oxidize and evaporate like it did over and over again while Edison was trying to invent a working lightbulb in the 19th century. He was looking for the perfect filament material, the stuff that wouldn’t melt and disappear. He settled on carbon, which someone else replaced with osmium. Then tungsten, then CLF. Then LED.

 Almost all of the energy in the electric filament turns to heat. Only five percent of the energy becomes light. The principle of the incandescent bulb is the principle of the sun: Something very, very hot gives off a little bit of light.


A pillow in our closet caught on fire, once, shoved up against an exposed incandescent bulb. We saw the smoke, a black inverted waterfall spreading soot on the ceiling. My brother ran to the sink, filled a glass, opened the closet door and doused the nascent flame. Don’t you touch the bulb, a girl we know burnt her finger off when she touched the bulb, said my mom, stumbling in a rush down the stairs.


I have a boyfriend in college who hates LED lights, hates fluorescence. He likes incandescent bulbs, the kind with the looping cursive filament, the kind that colors everything sun-faded. What a hipster, I say. Next I’ll be helping you haul a turntable up here—wait, no, a gramophone. Later, I say that I like the way the light makes my skin look, his skin look.


Winter has changed since LED. Fewer Christmas trees catch on fire. Nighttime in the city is punctured by a cold steel white or blue or red. Light emitting diodes last longer and use less energy. They are the new light by which to see the world, to see the sidewalk in front of you wearing a blue-white veil of light.


I am reading chapter books and I read in the dark too much. Let there be light! says my father, and flicks the light switch up. And there was light. You must think you’re very funny, I say. He does.

Let there be light, let there be light. On/Off, On. We repeat, we repeat, we repeat.