Paul Jacob

Thomas Edison must be rolling over in his grave. Nikola Tesla is spinning in his. Yes, switch on the politics for the Battle the Bulb: The light bulb faces a government ban.

Edison worked up a sweat to find a filament that would “burn” long enough to make electric light economical for households everywhere. A few decades later one of his employees came up with an even better filament, tungsten. Civilization has been lighting its nights and darker corners with light bulbs ever since.

Genius may be x percent inspiration and y percent perspiration, but Edison’s x wasn’t the same as Tesla’s x. A few year’s after Edison’s first light bulb, Tesla introduced fluorescent lights, which sprouted from his head like Athena from the brow of Zeus, or hair from a follicle — that is, without much sweat. And by the 1920s this technology had developed well enough to become a major competitor to the incandescent bulb.

Fluorescents were much cheaper to brighten a room, and many businesses put them in warehouses and even show rooms, despite their slightly strange, deranged white light.

A few decades ago, Tesla’s lamps went through another design revolution: the compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL. The familiar tube of the standard fluorescent lamp was decreased in size, twisted into a convenient swirl, and attached to a control gear (to limit the current) in just such a way as to enable the CFL to be screwed into a light bulb socket. Voilà! Finally, a real challenge to the incandescent light bulb!

CFLs cost less to run, in most uses. A lot less. You can save more than $30 in electricity per the average life of one of these devices, in the time that you’d run a series of incandescent bulbs.

The trouble with cost-saving technology is often that you have to pay more up front. This means that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to save money over the long haul: the outlay costs deter you from long-term savings. (That’s a problem the poor have on all sorts of things. The long term might be said to be the chief problem of the poor. But that’s another story.)

But the situation is getting better. CFLs were expensive in their early days; they are not so costly now. Not long ago each commanded prices higher than a Compact Disc; now one can be had for as low as an iTunes download or two. So even the most hedonistic, present-moment, time-horizon-deficient lout can now be tempted to buy them.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.