Life on the Farm. Click here to find out how a new mower turned a chore into a pleasure.

Rural Missouri Magazine

Emulating Edison
Incandescent light bulbs continue to shine thanks to Missouri couple

by Jason Jenkins

A replica of Thomas Edison’s 1890 hairpin carbon filament light bulb is one of John and Lynda Casey’s best sellers. For nearly 40 years, the couple have built authentic carbon filament incandescent light bulbs.

It’s not exactly Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park research lab, but the large white steel-clad shop that adjoins John and Lynda Casey’s home near Simmons is a place of lighting innovation.

Like Edison before him, John has learned at least a thousand ways not to make a light bulb, something he’s been doing on and off for nearly 40 years. Inside the shop, box after box of John’s experiments, some successful, some not, line the walls clear to the rafters.

“I never throw anything away. I keep it all,” John says. “You never know when you might come back to an idea.”

Edison often gets the credit for inventing the incandescent light bulb, but it’s a feat he did not actually accomplish. His true achievement was creating the long-lasting carbon filament that made electric lighting practical for everyday Americans, allowing them to snuff their sooty kerosene lamps for good.

Today, John and Lynda build authentic carbon filament light bulbs that vary little from those Edison and his lab created around the turn of the 20th century. Their company, JLD Inc., is one of only two in the United States that supply light bulbs for historic building restorations, movie and television sets and other special applications. They exclusively use filaments created from carbonized cotton fibers.

John’s first job out of high school was at Kyp-Go, a small light bulb factory in St. Charles, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. He learned the techniques for making bulbs from Robert Kyp, who began manufacturing carbon filament bulbs in the 1950s. In addition to traditional bulbs, John also learned to create specialty bulbs, such as “flicker” bulbs whose filaments flutter like flames. John moved up quickly in the company and soon was Kyp’s right-hand man.

John uses a large magnet to straighten the hairpin filament inside a replica of Edison’s 1890 light bulb.

“He’d give me a project, and it was my job to figure out how to do it better or faster,” John recalls. “I learned everything about making bulbs.”

John met Lynda at Kyp-Go. They married, and after their daughter Dina was born, the couple moved to Texas County in 1976. In 1979, John took a job as a training officer with the Cabool Fire Department, where he stayed until 1990.

The Intercounty Electric Cooperative members incorporated their own light bulb business in Cabool in 1989, purchasing some equipment from Kyp-Go. They began making novelty bulbs, including one with a base on both the top and the bottom. Only the top base functions, and when the bulb is screwed into a socket and turned on, it looks like it’s burning upside down.

“We built some of the upside down lights and put them on top of a Bud Light can,” John recalls. “Someone from Anheuser-Busch saw one down at the trout farm at Rockbridge, and the next thing, they’re wanting to know if we’d make them some for their products promotional division. We did about 5,000 of them, and that really started us back into the light bulb business again.”

In 1995, knowing that Kyp was nearing retirement, the Caseys built their current shop. The next year, they moved all of the bulb-making equipment to Simmons and started supplying specialty bulbs to a number of companies, including major motion picture studios. Their bulbs can be seen in such films as “Casper,” “Batman Forever,” and “The Postman.”

A series of gas torches fuse the completed stem assembly to the outer bulb of a replica 1893 Edison bulb. The air inside the bulb will later be vacuumed out, a step necessary to prevent the filament from burning out.

Perhaps the Casey’s most prominent movie appearance occurred in 1999’s “The Green Mile.” During the scene where John Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, is executed, seven bulbs they built are gradually illuminated to visualize the powering up of the electric chair after Paul Edgecomb, played by Tom Hanks, gives the order, “Roll on one.”

“Usually, we don’t know what movie the bulbs are for,” Lynda says. “The one exception was ‘The Postman.’ They had those shipped overnight for shooting the next day.”

Today, the Caseys sell most of their bulbs wholesale to companies that specialize in historic restoration, including House of Antique Hardware and Rejuvenation, the largest manufacturer of reproduction lighting and house parts in the country. They also supply bulbs to the Thomas Edison & Henry Ford Winter Estates Museum in Fort Myers, Fla.

Two Edison bulbs — the 1890 and the 1893 — make up the majority of orders these days. The 1890 contains a single large hairpin carbon filament, whereas the 1893 model features an anchored double-loop filament.

“They thought that if they put more filament in there it would make the bulb brighter, but I don’t think it really did,” John says.

Lynda loads a completed stem assembly and outer bulb into the carousel of a machine that uses a series of gas torches to fuse the two together.

The Caseys take extra steps to ensure their Edison replicas are as authentic as possible. This includes adding a small glass tip to the top of each bulb.

“Instead of using a glass tube in the stem like we do today, they would have pulled a vacuum inside the bulb through the top,” John explains. “When they heated the glass to seal the bulb, it created that little tip.”

While the Caseys no longer manufacture the individual components for their bulbs, each is still handmade. It’s a family affair as both John’s 82-year-old mother Primrose and Lynda’s 86-year-old mother Jewel help. John estimates that from start to finish, they can manufacture about 10 bulbs an hour.

With so much time invested in each bulb, they are more expensive than their modern mass-produced cousins. Prices range from $12 to $16 per bulb. They currently are not producing the “flicker” bulbs, though “they’re screaming for them,” Lynda says, noting the bulbs are time-consuming to make.

Up until this past year, John and Lynda produced an average of 1,000 to 1,200 bulbs each month, but two recent events have cut that number almost in half. First, Robert Kyp came out of retirement and began producing bulbs in Florida; and second, a mass-produced imitation carbon filament bulb made in China is now on the market.

“It’s actually a tungsten filament that’s wound to look like a carbon filament,” Lynda says. “If you can get the same look from China so much cheaper, I don’t know if people are going to buy true carbon filament bulbs.”

Although the traditional incandescent bulb has served mankind well, its days as a primary source of lighting in American homes are numbered. Because more energy-efficient lighting products are now available, namely the compact fluorescent light bulb, the old technology is being phased out.

Lynda pastes carbon filaments to the stems for their replica of Edison’s 1893 double-loop filament bulb. The tabletop revolves, allowing the filaments to pass under a series of lamps that help the paste to dry.

Congress passed an energy bill late in 2007 that included efficiency standards for lighting. It requires that by 2012 to 2014, all general service lights must use 25 to 30 percent less energy. While many types of specialty incandescent bulbs are excluded from the new rules — including the Casey’s carbon filament bulbs — the standard 100-watt bulb will be phased out by 2012 and the 40-watt bulb by 2014.

“If somebody knows how, you can do a lot with a carbon filament,” laments John. “They can add warmth and ambiance to a room, but I guess you still need lights that you see with, too.”

To learn more about the Casey’s authentic carbon filament light bulbs, contact John and Lynda at 417-962-3882 or jld@fidnet.com. They also have a Web site under development at www.oldlightbulbshop.com. Until March 1, mention you read about their bulbs in Rural Missouri, and they will give you a 10 percent discount and free shipping on your order.

 

Rural Missouri Magazine Digital Edition
2014 Missouri Snapshots Photo Contest
 
Rural Missouri Merchandise Out of the Way Eats Subscribe to Rural Missouri Rural Missouri Prints Store

Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives

Rural Missouri
2722 E. McCarty Street
P.O. Box 1645 • Jefferson City, Mo. 65102
573-659-3423

Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri's Facebook Page Rural Missouri's YouTube Channel Subscribe to Rural Missouri's RSS Feed Rural Missouri | Pinterest