The 2010 documentary The Light Bulb Conspiracy examined planned obsolescence and products that are designed to fail, including light bulbs. Have you ever wondered why light bulbs burn out so often?
The Phoebus Cartel was a global alliance between major light bulb manufacturers in the 1920s that imposed heavy fines on those that created light bulbs with a lifespan of over 1,000 hours. At the time the life of incandescent globes was around 2,500 hours. The cartel reduced competition in the light bulb industry and prevented technological advances that would have produced longer-lasting light bulbs.
The film includes American industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, who traveled across the United States preaching planned obsolescence as the solution to keeping business booming and the economy growing.
The New Yorker in 2016 ran a fascinating story on light bulbs, describing one that has stayed on for more than 115 years.
The light bulb that has brightened the fire-department garage in Livermore, California, for the past hundred and fifteen years will not burn out. Instead, it will “expire.” When it does, it certainly won’t be thrown out. It will be “laid to rest.”
The bulb has been on almost continuously since 1901. In 2015, it surpassed a million hours in service, making it, according to Guinness World Records, the longest-burning in the world.
It was manufactured sometime around 1900 by Shelby Electric, of Ohio, using a design by the French-American inventor Adolphe Chaillet.
The thousand-hour life span of the modern incandescent dates to 1924, when representatives from the world’s largest lighting companies—including such familiar names as Philips, Osram, and General Electric (which took over Shelby Electric circa 1912)—met in Switzerland to form Phoebus, arguably the first cartel with global reach.
The bulbs’ life spans had by then increased to the point that they were causing what one senior member of the group described as a “mire” in sales turnover. And so, one of its priorities was to depress lamp life, to a thousand-hour standard. The effort is today considered one of the earliest examples of planned obsolescence at an industrial scale.
Giles Slade, in his book “Made to Break,” traces the term “planned obsolescence” to a 1932 pamphlet, circulated in New York, titled “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.” The term gained currency in 1936, through a similarly themed essay in Printer’s Ink, “Outmoded Durability: If Merchandise Does Not Wear Out Faster, Factories Will Be Idle, People Unemployed.”