Edison’s art collection
Righi Licht AG, Europe’s last remaining light bulb production plant, can be found in Immensee, in the Swiss canton of Schwyz. This manufacturer continues to produce decorative and specialist lamps, mostly destined for the Swiss market. How long it can continue is anyone’s guess. Light bulbs have been under pressure for years, from a technological as well as a political point of view. Life at Home visited the factory at Zugersee and found a place where Edison’s achievements are preserved and continue to be produced with dedication and nostalgia.
When Thomas Edison submitted his patent for the light bulb on 27 January 1880 in the USA, he ensured the triumphal procession of electric light. Many other engineers before him had registered numerous patents for similar inventions, but it was he who managed to significantly improve the quality of the filament and pave the way for the serial production of light bulbs.
With his breakthrough, history took its course: night-time could suddenly be put to better use and the electric light had a lasting effect in changing people’s lifestyles, as the fact that light was simply available significantly reduced our dependency on daylight. People in every corner of the world witnessed the triumph that this technical revolution kindled. And so the light bulb earned its place in the museum of history. Indeed these days, a museum is the last place it can still officially burn: as a cultural asset, as a lighting product of our history, banished to the art gallery.
Moving through the production halls of Europe’s last light bulb manufacturer inevitably feels a bit like walking through an exhibition. And although production continues in the Righi Licht AG factory in Immensee, the industrious activity of the company’s employees cannot hide the fact the invention may soon be confined to our museums. When the EU introduced a regulation in April 2009 to gradually implement the ban on member countries manufacturing and selling lamps with low energy efficiency, Righi Licht AG was still employing around 70 people at its Immensee factory. These days it is just 17, as manager Christina Taiana remarks with a touch of nostalgia. In spite of huge efforts in the fight to save the light bulb, she is powerless to fight against the decreed economy in electricity consumption and the ban on light bulbs and has no choice but to look on as these influences erode her business.
The Swiss government’s decision to accept the EU ban on light bulbs and to implement this in Switzerland by 1 September 2010 also contributed to job losses. From this date, the timetable was set whereby light bulbs in energy classes G and F had to be removed from circulation, while with effect from 2012, the sale of lighting products in energy class E was also prohibited. The end of the light bulb had been justified from a political perspective with energy efficiency arguments; after all, new LED or OLED lighting products use far less electricity. And the industry, particularly the major manufacturers, argued that LED lighting had a very long operating life. A conventional light bulb burns non-stop for between 1000 and 2000 hours, whereas today’s sophisticated LED light sources can last at least 100 times longer.
Nevertheless, a few specialist retailers continue to sell light bulbs in Switzerland. This is made possible by a loophole in the law: the aforementioned regulations only apply to household lighting and not to special or decorative lighting, as used, for example, in industry or in restaurants. These forms of lighting look like conventional household light bulbs, the only slight difference being in their internal parts, where the bracket holding the filament is reinforced to counter vibrations.
The fact that people still like light bulbs, despite their relatively greater energy consumption, is because of the light. The key argument put forward by light bulb enthusiasts is that the quality of the light they emit is soft and more natural. Christina Taiana supports this argument with reflections from a medical perspective: “Many customers place orders because they have experienced health problems with new lighting products such as LEDs.” In fact, in certain circumstances, LED light may pose a risk, as suggested by recent studies published by the Swiss Federal Office for Public Health. This is because LED light sources, such as those used in industry, emit a lot of blue light in particular, which, in comparison with the light from a conventional light bulb, is significantly higher in energy. This blue light can trigger chemical reactions between biological molecules, giving rise to highly reactive compounds, which can damage retinal tissue irreversibly.
However, it is only a matter of time before industry solves this problem and all LED light sources emit a completely harmless light spectrum. Regardless of this, Cristina Taiana continues to produce light bulbs with her team at the Immensee plant. Because, in her eyes, the light emitted from light bulbs cannot be replaced by any other light source and she believes that the light bulb should be retained as cultural asset of our lives.