Thursday, May 17, 2007

Byron the Bulb

I got a kick out of an article I read the other day in a recent number of Smithsonian, a magazine I've subscribed to on and off over the years. The article was about the rise of the compact fluorescent light bulb and the pending demise of the incandescent bulb, due to energy inefficiency. We are a transitional household in that sense, too, mostly still incandescent but with some fluorescent bulbs.

The article mentioned Byron the Bulb, the immortal light bulb in Gravity's Rainbow. In the spring of 1983, in the dying days of college, I wrote a paper about Byron the Bulb for Donald Ault, then an English professor at Vanderbilt. I don't know if I have a copy of the paper, I don't remember what I said in it, and I can't recall any of his comments, just that I wrote it. I might have been assigned to read Gravity's Rainbow for that class, or parts of it, but I didn't read very much, except for the pages about Byron. How I found out about him, I don't remember either. Nor why I picked that subject at all.

Yet I'm somehow happy that I remember so little about the circumstances of meeting Byron. It seems fitting. Over the years, on rare occasions, I've mentioned this character, and few have heard of him. But there he was, the subject of about a paragraph and a half in an exceedingly mainstream magazine.

Of course, now we have the Internet. Everything is on the Internet. So I spent a little time looking around, and there are surprisingly few mentions of Byron on line. Some band called Byron the Bulb released an EP in 2001 called Ottoman Empire, which is intriguing, but obviously it sank like a stone. Byron the character is mentioned in a few blogs and in an index site to Gravity's Rainbow. Most tellingly, there's no Byron the Bulb entry in Wikipedia. Not yet. Maybe I should create one.

Naah. I have the book on my shelf. It's unlikely that I will ever read it cover to cover. But I can always look up Byron there: pp. 647-655 in my edition. I'd link to the text but it seems to be nowhere linkable, and it's too long to transcribe. But Byron is introduced this way: "Statistically (so Their story goes), every n-thousandth light bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q's piling up just right, so we shouldn't be surprised that this one's still around, burning brightly. But the truth is even more stupendous. This bulb is immortal!"

Then follows a tale of Byron's time before he was manufactured -- in a place called Baby Bulb Heaven -- his creation and youthful ideas of organizing all the bulbs to torment the human race (for light bulbs seem to have a sentience, but are essentially slaves). "Is Byron in for a rude awakening! There is already an organization, a human one, known as 'Phoebus' the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland."

Phoebus keeps track of the world's bulbs, to make sure none last too long. "The Phoebus Surveillance Room is located under a little-known Alp, a chilly room crammed full of German electro hardware, glass, brass, ebonite, and silver, massive terminal blocks shaggy with copper clips and screws, and a cadre of super-clean white robed watchers who wander meter to meter, light as snow-devils, making sure that nothing's wrong, that through no bulb shall the mean operating life be extended."

Byron, who is in Berlin, burns more than 1,000 hours "and the procedure is now standard: the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies sends a hit man to Berlin. But here something odd happens. Yes, damned odd..." Through a series of improbable events, especially for a glass object, Byron escapes the hit man and burns on.

But for what purpose? "He learns how to make contact with other kinds of electrical appliances, in homes, factories, and out on the street. Each has something to tell him... Someday he will know everything, and still be as impotent as before."



At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's been a while since I've seen a story on it, and I'm much too lazy to google and find out, but there was a light bulb in a gas station somewhere that had been burning for at least 75 years, the last I heard. One of those chestnuts the evening news used to dig out back in the days B.O.--before O.J., after which news became nothing but pandering to the lowest common denominator.


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