General Electric first introduced fluorescent lamps at the 1939 New York World's Fair. They were immediately a hit with industries because the lamps had a long life and therefore cost less to install and maintain. But they weren't so popular with ordinary people because of that darn light buzz and the harsh light the lamps emitted [source: Adams]. Where does that come from?
Fluorescent lights basically are tubes filed with a mixture of an inert gas, such as argon, and some mercury. When electrical current is pumped into the tube, the electrons collide with the mercury atoms, exciting them and causing them to release ultraviolet light [source: Adams]. Material called phosphors, which lines the inside of the tube, converts the ultraviolet to visible light. The problem is that if left to its own devices, the current would keep rising in the tube to dangerous levels, until it tripped the circuit breaker in your house. A device called a ballast keeps that from happening, by creating a magnetic field that obstructs the flow of current just enough to keep you safe [source: Adams].
Particularly in older fluorescent light fixtures, the ballast's magnetic field has a tendency to cause an effect called magnetostriction. That means that the magnetic field actually squeezes the ballast's core, altering its shape slightly. That makes your fluorescent fixture squeak over and over, about 120 times per second [source: Adams]. You probably couldn't design an everyday technology to be more annoying. That's why it took a whole new technology to get around it.