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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

The Year of the Bulb by Sylvia Holt

The science revolution struck our old farmhouse on August 15th,1958. I was eleven and the oldest of five siblings. That night all of us stood reverently with Mom and Dad around the kitchen table staring up at the single light bulb fastened to the ceiling. A long string with a little metal tab hung along side of the fixture, falling to within easy reaching distance of a standing adult. Tension was building. It was getting dark outside. I had finished pumping up the three gas lanterns an hour ago, as I did every day ““ two for the house and one for the barn. But neither Mom nor Dad had lit them. “Okay, here goes.”  said Mom. She reached for the dangling metal tab and pulled it. The bulb flashed to life, flooding the room with light. It was exciting and we clapped with delight, bombarding Dad with questions about what made electricity and trailing him and Mom around the house as they went from room to room pulling the long string attached to each bulb. Even our bedroom upstairs had been equipped with one of these miraculous lights, only the string was longer.

I had seen electric lights before. Our school had them. Houses in town had them. But home seemed very different now. My special and very important job, as the eldest, was fuelling and pumping up the lanterns. Now it was over and I missed it. It was nicer to read books and do homework at the kitchen table with the new light. But it was cold and silent. I missed the comforting soft hissing sound of the lantern, the radiating warmth, and its gradual dimming light warning it was time to close the books and head for bed. The new light never wavered. When the string was pulled it was instantly bright or instantly dark ““ no gentle easing into the transition. The family spread out now, playing a game in the living room, reading a book in the bedroom, working in the kitchen. Before electricity we always gathered together around the big kitchen table in the evening, orbited around the glowing gas lantern. We played checkers and Snakes and Ladders. Dad told stories. Mom helped with homework and mended socks, sometimes getting coaxed into a game of Rummy. We were always all together until bedtime. Now it was different.

The changes electricity brought to family life had only just begun. By December we had a new television set and all the living room furniture was rearranged to pay homage. Little coloured lights twinkled on the Christmas tree, but we hardly noticed. We were watching Mickey Mouse and toy commercials, drawn into the flickering black and white screen and barely aware of the rest of the family. The magic of electricity would bring many wonderful things into our lives, but I think we lost something that year, something families still search for to this day.


Sylvia Holt is from Chemainus, BC 

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