Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Nernst Lamp

The more I hear well-meaning but misguided souls blather about the "carbon footprint" of incandescent bulbs and how it will "obviously" help save the Earth if we switch to pet-killing toxic Mercury-filled CFL bulbs, the more I think it's time somebody went back into the Nernst Lamp business.

The Nernst Lamp, invented in 1897 by the German physicist Walther Nernst, was twice as efficient as carbon filament bulbs and emitted a superior natural-color light. Unlike tungsten-filament bulbs, it did not require a vacuum to function, which means anyone could make one in their garage if they knew how. The only reason they're enclosed in a bulb at all is to protect users from touching the workings.

They operated by way of a ceramic rod that is superheated until it glows, giving off a more effective light source than you might expect. The device has an elegant and ingenious built-in heating element, which gets the ceramic hot enough to begin conducting electricity on its own.

George Westinghouse saw the potential for Nernst's invention, obtained the U.S. rights to the patent, and set about manufacturing them himself, from his newly-formed Nernst Lamp Co. based in Philadelphia. To obtain sufficient quantities of the best Gadolinite to manufacture the ceramic rods, he ended up in a competition with his (and everyone's) evil arch-enemy Thomas Edison for a place in Texas called Barringer Hill. This was an amazing treasure trove of rich mineralogical specimens, which was tragically and stupidly flooded permanently when the construction of the Buchanan Dam in 1939 turned the area into what is now Lake Buchanan.

By then, Westinghouse had given up on the Nernst bulb anyway, and had fallen in line with everyone else moving toward vacuum-sealed tungsten-filament lighting anyway. Nernst's magic lamp, which had been used for everything from microscopes to early fax machines to dazzling crowds at the Paris Exposition of 1900, was all but forgotten, except for a few lab-coated monks of research who continued to invoke the term "Nernst Glower" to describe other applications of the glowing-ceramic-rod concept.

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