Monday, November 20, 2023

Unbreaking the Light

As I puttered about in my half-finished basement this morning, I went to turn on the overhead light fixture in the workroom/workout room where I keep my seed stock.  I'm trying some indoor growing this winter, and was ready to put more seed into soil.

I gave my usual tug on the pull chain, but the light stayed off.  Instead, there was a pop, and out came the chain from the fixture.  It's one of those peculiar pull-chains made from tiny little metal balls, for which I'm sure there's a technical name.  They do break on occasion, and can usually be snapped back together with a teensy little joint.  I clambered up on a stepladder to look at the damage.  No dice.  The chain had broken off inside of the cheap Home Depot LED fixture itself.  Inside the switch.

Drat.  It'd only lasted us about three years, as I'd put it in back during the pandemic after the previous seventies-era fixture failed.

Twelve bucks.  That's all.  All it'd cost to replace.  Guess I'd be installing a new one today, I thought.  I took it down.  It was plastic, all plastic, cheap as can be.

But when I took it down, I looked at it.  So much to throw away, for a single point of failure.  I popped off the plastic light diffuser, and looked at the mechanisms underneath.  The LED array was a complex and beautiful concentric assemblage of dozens of tiny diodes, embedded in a disk-shaped plastic circuit board.  When I was a boy, such a thing would have been a technological marvel.  They'd work for the next twenty years.  The plastic housings and clear LED shield would last for centuries.  All of that, wasted.

Just more debris in the human waste stream.  More trash.  All because of that one tiny part.  Just that one.

I decided, absurdly, to try to fix it.  It was Monday, after all, technically my day off, although what that means when you're a part time pastor and occasional author is a little hazy.  It was my time, and it'd be like model-building back when I was a pup.  At which I was not particularly good.  I'm handy-ish, just enough to get me into trouble.  I'd likely fail, but why not?

I examined it.  The light had clearly been assembled by hand.  There were screws, and if a thing is screwed, a thing can be unscrewed.  So I carefully disassembled it, bit by bit, until I could access the switchbox itself.

The box was tiny, with two little snaps.  I could see the remnants of the pull chain inside it.  Good.  That meant it wasn't the switch mechanism that had failed.  I disconnected two wires, popped the switchbox open, and inside, it was remarkably simple.  A set of contacts, spring loaded.  A rotating pull mechanism, with a teeny tiny spring tensioner.  An equally teeny plastic housing, to which the remnants of the pull chain attached.  I saw how it worked, more or less, and gave thanks for my reading glasses.  

Somewhere in the world, all of these delicate bits and bobs had all been put together by human hands.  Likely in Asia, likely by little hands guided by young eyes, hands that probably had to assemble these switches and screw these mechanisms together hundreds of times a day.  I thought about the drab daily labors of the last soul to have touched these pieces, and what their life is like.  It made me considerably more motivated to put it back together.

After some fumbling and a few failed attempts to fit a spring no larger than the nail of my pinky onto an equally small plastic post, the switch came back together.  The end of the pull chain snapped into place. I plugged it back into the switchbox mechanism, threaded the chain out of the unit, and then began the process of reassembling the light.

The whole process took just over an hour, far more than I'm sure it took that underpaid worker to assemble it in the first place.

I reinstalled it, and said a little prayer that it might give light again.  Marvel of marvels, it actually worked.  The workroom filled with light, along with my pleasure at unbreaking a thing.

It is so very much harder to unbreak things.