How Many Authors Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?

In which The Author starts to go off the 21st Century

In Straightforward? Pah! I told you of the nightmare I endured while trying to do what should have been a simple DIY job at home. This week, life got even more complicated. The bulb in my bedside lamp burned out on Monday night.
‘Well,’ I hear you say, ‘what’s complicated about that?’
And that was pretty much what I thought.
I’ve been using low-energy bulbs since I moved in anyway, so I’ve only had to replace a couple over the years. I assumed that replacing it would be as easy as it used to be when I was about fifteen. Thirty years ago, I’d have just strolled up to Mansel’s shop on the corner of Mill Street, bought a new 60W bulb and swapped them out.
But, needless to say, it’s the Twenty-first Century and everything’s changing. I remember Matt H. set a quiz question a couple of years ago, about an item which it was now illegal under European Union law to manufacture or sell. The answer was ‘100W incandescent light bulbs.’ (By an odd coincidence, my pal Alun P. was doing the crossword earlier on and asked me how to spell ‘incandescent’, as he apparently had a c left over in the anagram. I told him to think of a Peruvian rolling downhill when ‘lit’ [i.e. drunk] – an INCAN DESCENT. That made another of the regulars laugh out loud. I can’t take the credit for that. I think I first came across that wordplay in Don Manley’s Chambers Crossword Manual.)
Domestic light bulbs used to come in a fairly limited selection – 25W, 40W, 60W, and 100W. They were either clear or ‘pearl’ glass with bayonet fittings. It didn’t really make much difference what sort of light fitting you were using, either. I fitted a pair of wall lights in the front room of our old house when I was about seventeen. Even taking account of the weird backplate affair where the cables ran, the lampholder itself still took a bayonet fitting. I once replaced a close-ceiling fitting for a neighbour named Dora, who’d mentioned to my mother that she couldn’t find an electrician. That also took a bayonet fitting.
There were occasional departures from the norm, of course. You could buy red bulbs to go into a coal-effect electric fire (like the one in my front room) or above the fanlight of the door of a knocking shop (I’m told). Craft shops also sold ‘daylight simulation bulbs’ in a pleasant blue hue. Apart from that, buying a light bulb was relatively straightforward. See, there’s that word again! It seems that these once ubiquitous household items, like mothballs and mangles, are now the stuff of memory.
I knew that there were other types of bulb in the world somewhere, of course. The first time I came across an Edison Screw fitting was in the electronics kit I had for Christmas one year. It was a baby one. The first time I saw a fully grown one outside the DIY manuals was in a carved wooden lamp in the shape of a dolphin. We bought it as a souvenir of our holiday in Yugoslavia. (The Dalmatian coast resort where we stayed is now in Croatia. Yugoslavia’s the stuff of memory as well.)
There’s a nice irony here. Nikola Tesla, the pioneer of Alternating Current and many other landmark developments in electricity, was a Serb. I think it would be more fitting (no pun intended) to call it a Tesla Screw, personally. After all, his great rival Thomas Edison took the credit for so much of Tesla’s work, it seems only fair. The bitter argument between them (which features in Christopher Nolan’s film of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige) is not just artistic licence.
Mind you, changing old-school bulbs was still a damn sight easier than swapping the bulbs in the old pendant lights in Dillons. That involved at least three people on a bad day. If you were lucky, someone would have left a really big paper clip lying around, which could be bent into a hook and used to fish for the wire clip which held the shade in place. If not (or if you were too ham-fisted) the shade would crack and end up in the bin. The ceiling lights were even worse. Once one of the threaded rods supporting the shade broke, you were stuffed. There was no way the shade would go back on. Towards the end, we had more bare bulbs than shaded ones.
Laurie and I had fun one day out in Goods-In, mind, trying to change a strip light. He was standing on the packing bench holding the blown one, and I was standing below him with the replacement. As we went to exchange the tubes, I assumed a James Earl Jones voice and said,’Obi-Wan, we meet at last.’
He just rolled his eyes and said, ‘It’s going to be a silly day, isn’t it?’
Anyway, the one I was replacing had an Edison Screw fitting. Or so I thought. Yesterday I went into Wilkinson’s in Aberdare and was confronted by an entire display of light bulbs. There were the traditional bulb shapes, of course. I discounted them straight away. They would have been too fat to fit inside the shade. I still can’t fathom out why low-energy bulbs are so much larger than their forebears. In fact, the low-energy bulb in my living room lamp sticks out of the top in a slightly rude fashion. It’s just a good thing that the shade is shaped like a truncated cone, and not a cylinder, otherwise it would resemble a circumcised penis. The bulbs in the uplighter shades throughout the house don’t fit properly either.
How things used to be
In the Twentieth Century, you’d unscrew the end of the pendant fitting, thread the ring of the shade over the spindle as far as the black line, screw the end back on, and finally insert the bulb. But you can’t do that with uplighters, because the bulbs are too long. Instead, the ring of the shade has to sit on the base of the bulb itself. Whoever designed them hadn’t really thought it through.
There were smaller bulbs, which would have fitted comfortably in an uplighter, but the amount of light they threw out was minimal. I think I found one equivalent to a 10W bulb. The ones we used in our electronics set were 1.5W. I might as well have wired seven of those in series and have done with it.
[A digression: When we were doing our A levels, some of the boys in our science group were helping our teacher Malcolm Sims set up the stalls for the school Xmas Fayre. One of the things we wheeled out every year was one of those loop-on-a-wire contraptions to test how much you’d had to drink the night before how steady your nerves were. I wasn’t doing A level Physics at this stage. I’d signed up for it after getting a B at O level, then crashed and burned in the Xmas exam with a mighty seventeen marks. The funniest part was that the exam had featured mostly the theory of electromagnetism and its related fields (no pun intended). I fought Ohm’s Law and Ohm’s Law won. But the guys who were still studying Physics were standing around this contrivance, trying to figure out how to get the bell to ring and the lights to flash at the same time. After watching them potch for several minutes to no avail, I eventually took pity on them and suggested connecting the two components in parallel. Blank looks all round. Anyway, I stepped up and sorted it out in about two minutes flat, much to everyone’s (including Mal’s) surprise. These guys had spent months studying electric/electronic circuit diagrams, but actually jury-rigging a set-up in the real world was beyond them. Maybe the exam had just been an off day.]
There were other varieties of bulbs as well: small curly ones, long thing ones, halogen ones to fit in spotlights (my next project), and candle bulbs which would be ideal for my bedroom lamp. Better still, they came in pairs, so I’d only have to go through this adventure half as often as I’d feared.
Eventually, I settled on the 42W variety, which apparently were equivalent to a 55W incandescent bulb. That was only 5W below my old one, so it would do for reading in bed. I found one with an Edison Screw fitting and paid for it. Unusually for me, I decided to keep the receipt. Normally I tend to bin them on the way out of the shop, but I must have had some instinct that things would go wrong.
Last night I put the new bulb into the lampholder and it didn’t fit. On closer examination, it turned out to take a Small Edison Screw. So, I was back in Wilkinson’s this morning, exchanging them for the right ones. I hope. The young girl on the Customer Service desk laughed when I said, ‘Buying light bulbs used to be so much easier years ago.’
She wouldn’t remember those halcyon days, of course. She’s grown up with this bewildering array of choice every time she’s confronted with changing a bulb. Or maybe (like at least one woman I know) she just gets a bloke to do it.

One thought on “How Many Authors Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?”

  1. I either send the wife (who knows all about these new fangled fittings) or I take the old one with me and ask a member of staff to match it up for me and buy a few at a time. Life’s too short to waste an hour or so trying to get bulbs that fit.

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