‘Save your Burnt-out Lamps. Repairs guaranteed equal to new.’ This line appeared in Sydney newspaper ads from 1918 to 1920. The small ads included an eye-catching drawing of a light globe with ‘OLD LAMPS MADE NEW’ written inside it. The Electric Lamp Repairing Company had a receiving depot in the city and a factory in the inner suburb of Redfern. The company could repair both metal filament lamps like this one and the original type of lamp, which had a carbon filament.
Clients could have their own globes repaired, or they could sell old globes to the company by the dozen. Some ads included the caveat: ‘Japanese lamps not guaranteed’.
In 1917, by agreement with the Allies Lamp Repairing Company of London, the Sydney company had obtained the right to use a patented machine that could cut a globe in two. This gave nimble-fingered employees access to the filament so they could repair it before rejoining the parts of the globe and removing the air inside it. At that time, several companies in Britain were doing similar repairs.
With millions of light globes in use around Australia and a proportion of them burning out each year, the business model looked economically sound. Today we would also consider it to be environmentally sound, unless people drove to the city just to hand over old globes.
But note the vacuum tip on the globe, where air was removed at the end of the repair process. This delicate feature of lamps was disappearing by 1920, when manufacturers began to seal them at the cap end instead, making them more robust. This and other innovations improved lamp lifetime, making repair less economically attractive. The company’s founder, Robert Fox, died in October 1922, the company was put on sale in March 1923, and soon after that it was wound up.
This story is a mere break-out box in the long and complex saga of electric lighting, which can be read as a search for lower cost, higher efficiency and corporate success in a very competitive field. Electric lamp entrepreneur Thomas Edison famously said ‘genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration’. This quote is very apt as it reflects the ratio of light to heat production in his first commercial light bulbs.
The efficiency of incandescent lamps later increased to 5%, but fluorescent lights and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are much more efficient, so they use less electricity, are cheaper to run and dump less waste heat into building interiors. This is why the incandescent globe is disappearing.
And what of those Japanese lamps whose repair could not be ‘guaranteed equal to new’? In 1884 Ichisuke Fujioka met Thomas Edison and determined to set up an electronics company, starting with light globe manufacture. By 1911 his company, which later became part of Toshiba, was making tungsten-filament globes. In 1921 its engineers invented the coiled-coil lamp, which became the industry standard and set Japan on its path to being a major producer of lights, from incandescent to fluorescent to organic LEDs (OLEDs).
Written by Debbie Rudder, Curator