On Tube Lights, Nostalgia, and the Death of Technology

My home no longer has tube lights. It has those warm-yellow LED lights that give the house a sophisticated, upper-class glow, put flush against false ceilings and hidden behind notches throughout the house. I’ve always wanted those. And now I have them.

But no tube lights — no source of the white light that jaded my senses for decades — narrow, white cylindrical tubes that flickered to life and indicated that the sun had gone down. Inside the home and outside in the streets. In Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and Bhubaneswar.

Sometimes during my evening walks, I spy one in someone’s balcony or inside their house through their windows or, rarely, on a street corner, and I feel a bit nostalgic. I mean they practically put me through my entire schooling! But nostalgia apart, I really miss how clearly one could read in the white fluorescence of the tube light.

Tube lights excelled over incandescent bulbs in three ways — how their light painted the entire room in an equivalent glow, such that people near and far could read fairly comfortably; how they cast soft shadows unlike the hard ones of the bulb; and the fact that a voltage fluctuation would normally not blow them off, which was a big problem with bulbs back then.

But there’s something off about them. Something devious; like an unkept promise, like a hidden truth.

Yes, there are white LEDs now — even ‘tube lights’ that are actually white LEDs inside and stare at you unblinkingly — and I could read in their light. But there’s something off about them. Something devious; like an unkept promise, like a hidden truth. No, I’d much rather read in the warm golden glow of the yellow LEDs than the white ones.

I especially loathe the fact that white LEDs have replaced the amber-coloured sodium-vapour street lamps. We’ve traded out the fireplace-like glow of sodium lamps for the clinical artifice of white LEDs. Utterly sad and depressing! I would rate this as one of the worst contrivances of modern society. And it might actually be harmful to us as well as other creatures.

Those things are expensive! Especially when you’re down on your luck.

I hated it when a tube light began to flicker. I’m sure everyone hated it. It jarred the visual sense so much! Like unsolicited strobe lights when you’re racing through a twist in Murder on the Orient Express. But at the same time, I loved diagnosing and fixing it. Were the edges blackened? No? Was it the wiring? No? Was it the starter? No? Was it the choke? Maybe. Let’s test them out one by one. Fix the tube in another room’s fixture. Working? OK. Repeat with the starter. No? Then it must be one of the other reasons. And I hated it the most if the choke was broken. Those things are expensive! Especially when you’re down on your luck.

[Side note: What did the starter do anyway?]

Bollywood henchmen (and heroes too) loved to beat up their rivals with tube lights. I know why. It made such a spectacle! Glass shards flying in all directions while leaving an explosion of white powder (that’s the Phosphor coating inside, the magic ingredient of a tube light) — and best of all, with minimal (real) damage to the thrashed.

Well, when I was more adventurous and less inhibited, i.e., in my childhood, I have experimented with wrecking a tube light against a wall or with a rock. It makes a ‘pop’ sound, you know — it actually implodes! Why? Because there’s a vacuum inside it! Vacuum, gases, electrons, fluorescence, chemicals — so much drama!

[That’s the science lesson for today. For more information, check here.]

‘Tubelight’ was a common insult for calling someone dim-witted. Because, unlike filament/incandescent bulbs, it took a few moments for a tube light to turn on. Metaphorically, somewhat slow, i.e., slow to understand something, slow to catch up with the others. Come to think of it, even dim-witted is a ‘light’ metaphor. There must have been a time when lamps low on oil or wick glowed dimly. And naturally, people found a way to use that as an insult.

During long power cuts of the ’80s and ’90s India, we commonly used kerosene hurricane lanterns (called ‘laaltain’ in Hindi). Apparently, even a hurricane couldn’t blow them off. But technology could — and did.

What happened to lamps and lanterns? What happened to the filament bulb (that has lent its image to the much-loved icon for ‘idea’? Will we ever go back to them?

The history of technology is a long series of brutal patricides.

LEDs have killed the tube light the way MP3 killed the compact disc, which killed the tape cassette, which killed the vinyl record. The history of technology is a long series of brutal patricides. Just like human history, I guess. One day LEDs will meet the same fate. And I’m sure I’ll be around to see the carnage.

(Featured image by Sayantani De)

Published by Anupam Choudhury

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger from New Delhi, India.

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