In an unassuming strip mall in Owings Mills, Maryland, sits one of the greatest collections of its kind in the world. Chad Shapiro's day job is running a home automation business, but his obsession is nurturing his collection. And what he collects is old light bulbs.
OK, antique light bulbs and associated equipment.
Correspondent David Pogue asked, "Does everybody immediately appreciate the seriousness and the scholarship and the history of it?"
"No," Shapiro replied. "Most people who aren't collectors think it's a little silly."
"I don't mean to disrespect the pursuit, but … light bulbs? It seems like a utilitarian thing."
"Well, yes, but if you think about it, the concept of artificial light opened up so many possibilities<' Shapiro said. "It allowed lifestyles at home to change at night. Electric lighting allowed businesses to run well into the evening and increase production."
"Is there anything aesthetic or beautiful about light bulbs?" asked Pogue.
"If you look at the different shapes, the forms, colors of glass, and internal components, I think they're quite beautiful."
And that kind of beauty can drive a man to extremes. Shapiro said, "If it's a really important piece, you travel to get it. And I've traveled as far as Austria."
"What? You went to Austria to pick up a bulb?"
"Correct. So, there's no place I won't go!"
And there's no price he won't pay, either. In this business, the Holy Grails are bulbs designed by Thomas Edison. Shapiro owns many Edison bulbs, and has paid as much as five figures apiece. He showed Pogue an Edison prototype that was never produced for sale.
"And that makes it more valuable?" Pogue asked.
"Absolutely. And this is a bulb – at the time, they called them lamps, electric lamps – that was designed to be used in a mine. It was displayed by Edison at the Crystal Palace Electrical Expo in 1882, and it's the only one in the world."
And although Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb, Shapiro said it's not true: "I cannot tell you who invented the light bulb – and nobody can. There are experiments all throughout the 1800s, and we don't know who actually invented the light bulb. Edison took the concept of an incandescent light bulb, and he perfected it."
Believe it or not, Chad Shapiro is not the only person obsessed with old bulbs. His annual conference attracts 30 fellow aficionados from all over the world.
Charley Hummel told Pogue, "It is a disease, and I do have it. And I've been doing it for 55 years."
Jason Allen was asked why he attends: "Primarily to marvel at the new acquisitions of Chad. These pieces that you see are incredible."
For Dennis Rothouse, Shapiro's partner of three years, the relationship has been an illuminating experience: "On our first date, you know, he spoke about light bulbs for 90 minutes straight. And I'm just sitting there nodding my head. … He could look at any light bulb, any piece, and really know the history of it, and how it works, and I think that's amazing."
Pogue decided to test that with Shapiro, plucking a bulb at random: "Tell me about this bulb."
"This is a light bulb made under the name of the New Type Edison, but this was actually a General Electric product. So, a bulb like this would have been made about 1895," Shapiro said.
Now, at this point, you may be wondering: how many light-bulb collectors does it take to screw in a light bulb? You might be surprised to learn that it's none. No one wants to risk blowing out a century-old bulb!
But Shapiro still wanted to show us that he can light up a room – and plugged in an Edison light bulb made between 1883 and 1885. "We're going to give it a go," he said.
He didn't turn it up to its full brightness ("It's just too risky"), but after more than 130 years, it still glowed beautifully.
Shapiro would love to see his collection featured someday in a museum. But for now, he's happy to light the way for the rest of us.
"Yeah, it's, 'You collect what?'" he laughed. "There's, like, standards of collecting – baseball cards, coins, stamps. Like, 'Where'd you get light bulbs? Why would you collect light bulbs?' But once you explain the importance of them [to] people, the light bulb goes off, right?"
For more info:
- Antique incandescent lamp/light bulb collectors (Facebook group)
- Sterling Sound & Vision, Owings Mills, Md.
Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Carol Ross.
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