Author: Zuniga, Nancy

Longevity, in its many forms
In 1972, I was home from college visiting my parents when we turned on the evening news. There was a segment of “On the Road” with Charles Kuralt, always one of our favorite features of the broadcast. Kuralt’s brief photojournal essays brought to the American public obscure stories of unsung heroes and oddities found along the nation’s backroads. In this particular episode, the featured story was that a lightbulb was burning somewhere in California. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a story; What made this particular lightbulb newsworthy is that it had been burning almost continuously since 1901. The reason for its longevity was determined to be an extra heavy amount of carbon filament. I remember my dad’s pragmatic response to the story; He wondered aloud, if the technology existed in 1901 to invent a lightbulb that would last for years, why weren’t lightbulbs still made that way? Then in the next breath, Dad answered his own question with the obvious response: If lightbulbs were made to last a lifetime, the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell as many of them.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to look up the “longest burning light bulb” and refresh my memory regarding some information that had become cloudy in the years since I watched that broadcast of “On the Road”. And I learned that, remarkably, the hand-blown 4-watt bulb, having now been in nearly continuous use for 107 years, is still shedding its glow in a station of the Livermore Fire Department; In fact, the venerable bulb, dubbed the “Centennial Light”, even has its own web cam: ( In spite of the apparent explanation for the bulb’s longevity, the mystery remains as to why this one particular bulb lasted when other, presumably identical, bulbs burned out long ago.

The lightbulb story came to mind in a stream-of-consciousness a few days ago, when I read the sad news that a black cat named Baby had passed away on March 28th in Duluth, Minnesota . What made Baby’s passing notable is that the cat had lived to the age of 38, making him the Oldest Cat in the World prior to his death. Unlike a glass light bulb with observable heavy filament, it’s not as easy to guess at reasons for the longevity of a sentient being, in this case a cat. Although theories abound regarding diet, environment, and human interaction, there is no quantifiable answer to the conundrum, as other cats receiving comparable care seldom live half that long.

Now for the bluegrass content: Continuing with the stream-of-consciousness, I wonder: What is the oldest known song that has been performed as a bluegrass tune? Two candidates that comes to my mind are “Froggy Went a-Courting” (recorded by Red Allen), and Greensleeves (recorded by Mike Auldridge). Both tunes date back over four-hundred years. And another question: Why do some songs survive indefinitely while other equally good (or better) songs disappear along the way? Whether the subject is living creatures, inanimate objects, or intangibles, the reasons for longevity will be debated by scholars, philosophers, and the rest of us for years to come.
Posted:  4/3/2008

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