Next up in our series of special shape blogs is the Philips light bulb built in 1995! Mark Lockwood, Creative Director at Virgin Airship & Balloon Company during the 90s, tells us about the complex lighting process of the 149ft tall special shape and standard add-on 90, unveiling to the Philips team in London, an impressive tether outside St Paul's Cathedral and flying from the Southampton Balloon Festival.
You can also watch YouTube video on the build of the light bulb and find recent photos of inflations in Ireland further down. Many thanks to Mark for writing. We hope you enjoy!
Since Thomas Edison first enlightened a select group of guests gathered in a blacked-out room in 1878, the world emerged from dim flickering odorous candle and gas lamp lit darkness into the bright glare of incandescent tungsten filament bulbs. We have bathed in their warm glow for years however their thirst for electrical power, and our blind need to be able to see in the dark, led to a proliferation of non-sustainable fuel hungry, coal and gas munching power stations, belching out tons of carbon dioxide and other non-desirable side products into the atmosphere, clogging up our lungs, warming the planet and incurring the wrath of an angst ridden sixteen year old teenager in Sweden!
But there was an alternative. Discovered and developed almost at the same time as Edison’s vacuum tube, the ability to excite a bunch of mercury and phosphorous atoms in a tube with an electrical current to provide a brighter, cleaner, less power hungry, fluorescence became mired in a series of patent disputes and didn’t shine its light from under a bushel until the early 1920s. When it did, it revolutionised the requirement to light the increasingly vast industrial enclosures we needed to feed the consumerist society we were becoming. Night became day as production lines went from limited daylight hour diurnal operations to round the clock churning output to feed the growing need for cars, washing machines and cuddly toys. All under the daylight glare of the ubiquitous fluorescent tube.
Our greed and need for increasing amounts of electricity became an exponential equation as the technological revolution of the late 1990s kicked in. Homes and businesses demanded increasing numbers of amps and watts to power the proliferation of home computing, Hi-fi, Wi-fi, gaming, appliance based lifestyle we had become accustomed to in a very short period of time. All this demand had an associated cost as our electricity bills burned holes in monthly domestic budgets and we, the consumer, looked at ways to bring them back from the stratosphere. The problem was the traditional fluorescent tube did not fit into bayonet equipped lamps, ceiling rose fittings and chintz covered bedside lanterns.
I don’t actually remember when I first met Nick Mallinson from Philips Specialist Lighting Division; it may well have been at a seminar or even a random call one day. Nick was the recently appointed marketing manager for a revolutionary new product that Philips boffins had been cooking up in a backroom in Holland. It was a fluorescent light…in a format that would fit into the majority of standard light fittings, but it looked a little weird to the consumer eyes and he had a problem with early adoption despite the outstanding energy saving advantages it offered. Here was a bulb that operated with only 10 Watts and produced the same output as a standard 60 Watt electricity guzzling incandescent one. Its full name was a ‘Phosphorescent Low Energy Tube’, abbreviated to PLET. The numbers were pretty impressive. If every household in the UK adopted just one energy saving PLET bulb, the UK would not need to build another 9 power stations over the next 10 years! An innovative product needed an innovative marketing solution.
Visiting the Philips offices in south London, I was sworn into secrecy and taken into an extremely well-lit Aladdin’s cave where they displayed all the highly specialised bits and bobs in their arsenal. From tiny very early concept LED lights for point of sale, to amazing programmable fibre optic displays, right up to the landing and runway lights for airports and deep ocean underwater units for use in seabed exploration. Not being a ‘lampy’ but having had my day hauling and setting up huge stage lighting rigs, it was quite enlightening (sic.) Being presented with the PLET bulb for the first time, my head started running some preliminary numbers regarding available volume against active lift and weight. My first impulse was to look at a way of enclosing the space withing the curved tubes and creating a more viable hot air space at the top of the balloon, but this immediately detracted from the unique shape of the thing. I even considered a clear fabric either side of the tubes but the materials available at the time were a semi opaque finish and, from some experiments already carried out, yellowed, and increased their opacity very quickly with heat. This was potentially a ‘3 Jack’ problem, based on the number of shots of Jack Daniels finest ‘Thought Provoker’ needed to solve a particularly tricky problem.
Returning to base with 2 precious rare sample bulbs, one was immediately dispatched to the studio and into the hands of wizard artist and designer Mark Urey. The other went to Cameron Balloons and into the hands of designer Steve Wallace. Like me, his initial reaction was a sucking of air over teeth and asking if the void could be somehow compromised. Once we unanimously agreed this was not an option, out came the calculators and it was quickly established that the combined lift available from the tubes and the main body of the bulb would actually be sufficient without it becoming an inoperable beast. Then I threw them the curve ball that I wanted it to light up like the real thing. In free flight. I could hear the face palms and rending of hair from my office in Telford!
Philips were adamant that the colour temperature of the internal lighting should exactly match that of the actual bulb, which created some huge logistical problems as the only lamps suitably powerful enough to produce this were big, heavy, hot and cost £1000 each, a huge amount back in the 1990s, and only had working life of about 100 hours. They also slurped a vast amount of Wattage which meant providing a generator power source in the basket. We had already gained a lot of experience doing this from the Virgin Galactic Airlines UFO balloon, built for Branson’s April Fool’s Day stunt over London, but it was still fraught with problems. With the technicians at Philips, we worked out that a 3.5KVa generator would give sufficient running power and there was a neat little Honda unit on the market that fitted the bill precisely. This was mounted with the exhaust venting through the basket foot hole and a metal heat shield put around the opening. The lamps would need a much larger charge on start-up, which would need a series of ballast units mounted to a board built into the basket between two of the fuel tanks. The next issue was the power getting to the lamps themselves as the normal cable required was extremely heavy duty and plastic coated, a problem when exposed to the extreme heat inside the envelope. Head office in Eindhoven sent over a hideously expensive roll of experimental cable that used a conducting fluid, instead of the more traditional copper wire, and featured a heat resistant silicon armoured coating. Apparently, this stuff was only being used in military applications.
The build was fully underway at Cameron’s together with a standard shape 90,000 cubic foot back up envelope. I decided to blister inflate the bulbs from the side of this and, as they were much smaller, we were able to use a car battery operated internal lighting system for these. As the tubes were completed on the sewing room floor, we arrived with the technical team from Philips and later experimented with the lights during a cold air inflation for the first time. It quickly became apparent that the lamps were super delicate, and we would need to protect them from the rigours of ground handling and inflation/deflation. Steve Wallace came up with a simple mounting pad that protected the lamp to a degree but, most importantly, avoided them melting the balloon fabric.
Delivery time approached and we took the balloon all the way up to Birkenhead and test inflated it indoors at the Cammell Laird shipyard, a regular test space that was big enough to inflate most taller than average special shapes. There were a few tweaks and some problems to iron out and then we were ready to unveil the balloon to the Philips management team in a park close to their offices. Obviously, this needed to be after dark and pilot Graham Dorrell and the team were duly dispatched to light up their lives.
Having only inflated in a perfectly calm environment, one of the first things we found with the shape was any wind passing through the open space under the arching tubes, created an oscillating low pressure area that built up into a harmonic swing and caused the envelope to spin. Wildly. The launch was very successful and highly impressed the top brass but the tether was brought to an abrupt end after they left when the balloon spun itself around so many times it closed the mouth and tied all the flying wires into what appeared to be a single steel hawser. The traditional single crown line was not sufficient to stop the rotation, so we immediately modified and added 2 additional strengthened ‘D’ ring points either side of the tubes and used 2 handling lines when tethering. This gave the crew the ability to hold the envelope stable and stop the wild swinging but proved hard on their arms.
The Energy Saver Light Bulb was the star of that years Bristol Balloon Fiesta Night Glow, standing proud and bright in the middle of the arena surrounded by all the other standard shapes.
Used extensively over the next 3 years, there were one or two media opportunities that popped up. In conversation with Nick one day I found out that the specialist lighting division was providing all the architectural lighting for the newly restored and renovated exterior of St. Pauls Cathedral in the City of London. Co-incidentally I knew the official architect for the cathedral, Sir William Whitfield, and with his contacts and help from the office of the Mayor of the City of London, we were able to secure a tethering space in front of the building, something that had never been done before. Getting police permits and permissions for photography proved a lot harder but with perseverance and doggedly not taking ‘No’ for an answer, we waited for a suitably calm weather slot. It came up and everything had to be mobilised at extremely short notice. The police barriered off the space we were allocated and provided a whole squad of officers to patrol, and the inflation process could begin. Our photographer had found a perfect vantage point in the offices of American Express that overlooked the site, however getting an after hours permit was possibly the hardest thing we had to do. Security escorted him to the closed and deserted CEO’s office and the picture window overlooking the site and watched him like a hawk for the whole 30 minutes needed to get the shot. It was worth it!
I personally had the pleasure of flying the 90 standard shape one year from Southampton Balloon Fiesta and it turned out to be an interesting flight for the press I had on board. The wind was a north easterly and carried us from the Common over the centre of the city but unfortunately directly towards the estuary. The New Forest on the other side of the water was strictly a no landing zone so I had to make a positive pilots decision and descended upon the container cargo depot, dodging huge light poles, cranes and stacks of shipping containers to a gentle landing on the tarmac apron. A memorable flight!
Above: another exclusive, this is the schools resource pack we sent out as part of the educational process. We did a limited number of school visits but produced and distributed these in their thousands.
Both balloons still exist. The light bulb is in the careful hands of Malcolm White, who is working on a new LED lighting solution that will only require a battery operated power source and resides in Ireland, whilst the standard shape is with the Balloon Retirement Home.
Most importantly, energy saving light bulbs and the new generation of LED based lamps are now the predominant source of lighting around the world and I am proud to have been at the spearhead of this movement and the global benefits it has brought to the environment.
Watch BBC 2 documentary about the development and making of the balloon on YouTube.
Thanks to Ballooning Pictures UK and Malcolm White for supplying many of the photos in this blog.
Here are some extra photos of a more recent inflation in Ireland.
Read more about special shape balloons on MJ Ballooning
You can read more from Mark about many of his other special shape creations including Action Man, Bic Chick, Monster.com and Sonic the Hedgehog by following this link. Look out for a very special one coming soon...
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