By Jaime Lutz/For The Star-Ledger
Larry Birnbaum has a special power. Every night, all over the country, he erases stars.
Don’t be too angry at him: Birnbaum invents and distributes lightbulbs. “Basically, I guess you can call me a lampologist,” he says.
Lightbulbs, of course, have transformed technology, reduced crime and expanded the economy. But as lightbulbs grew brighter through the years, the stars faded from view.
Birnbaum helps explain why in “The City Dark,” a new PBS documentary premiering Sunday. The documentary looks at the serious consequences of an over-illuminated world — at one point, it explores a possible link between artificial lightand breast cancer.
How unlikely, then, that the filmmakers find an ally in Birnbaum, a seller of bright lights who is also deeply nostalgic for a dimmer age.
Here’s how you know: At the front of Birnbaum’s South Hackensack shop, you can find dazzling, blinking, ultramodern bulbs of all types. But on the second floor, in his office, he stores a collection of antique bulbs. Most are oddly shaped to the modern eye, with spindly filaments and lumpy glass. One in particular stands out.
“It was handmade by Thomas Edison,” Birnbaum says proudly.
Birnbaum’s grandfather was an electrician who worked in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1914, the elder Birnbaum was awarded the bulb by Edison for winning a General Electric sales contest.
The bulb still glows, amazingly. It’s dimmer than a modern incandescent bulb, with a warmer glow than any of the fluorescents available now. The coiled filament is made from carbon, not tungsten, making the bulb cloudier, the light softer. The bulb turns on not with a switch, but with circuit clips that must be attached to thick knobs.
Birnbaum turns it on only for a second or two. It’s surprisingly beautiful. And, as Birnbaum points out at every opportunity, it’s a sight Americans get further from every day now that manufacturers have largely stopped producing incandescent bulbs in favor of harsher (and more efficient) fluorescents.
“You, I and everyone else grew up with incandescent lightbulbs,” he says. “They produce a color that’s about 2250K (Kelvin). We’re addicted to that color. That color makes us feel good.”
Of course, Birnbaum would say this — he continues to manufacture these bulbs under an exception in federal law that allows for “rough use” incandescents (e.g., bulbs used on subway cars). Through some clever marketing, he has a following that uses these “newcandescents” for ordinary home use. The fix seems to be particularly popular among anti-government conservatives, if Birnbaum’s appearances on Rush Limbaugh’s and John Gambling’s radio shows are any indication.
Still, Birnbaum’s love of antique bulbs seems genuine. You can tell by the way he knows every detail of how they work, or the way he gets excited talking about the century-old lightbulb that still illuminates a California firehouse.
And, of course, there’s the way he treats his beloved Edison bulb. It is incredibly, unimaginably valuable — but Birnbaum says he would never sell it.
“You would have to shoot me,” he says.