Planned Obsolescence: The Light Bulb Conspiracy

I’m writing a series on planned obsolescence, inspired by the documentary – The Light Bulb Conspiracy. I’ll begin with its history up until the mid-20th century, to be followed by reflections on more modern examples and applications, before discussing the more recent backlash from the anti-consumerist perspective and its implications for our global economy today.

When was the last time you changed a light bulb? While a simple and menial task, it is a job that technological innovation has solved to a large degree. Earlier this year, Philips released an LED light bulb with a life span of 20 years. While deserving of recognition, it is not the tour de force in indoor illumination. The real marvel is the Centennial Light in Livermore, California – an incandescent light bulb manufactured back in the 19th century. The world’s longest lasting light bulb still shines today uninterrupted after a century of use. Indeed, early light bulb innovators like Thomas Edison and Adolphe Chaillet had always pushed for products with the utmost longevity. So decades-lasting light bulbs existed in the early 20th century, and only now are we returning to form with the popularization of LED technology. Where did our ability to make long-lasting light bulbs go?

Enter the Phoebus cartel. Established in the 1920s, light bulb manufacturers like Philips, General Electric, Osram and others across the globe decided to collude in the light bulb market. As technological advances improved and pushed out the life span of incandescent bulbs, sales volumes would be negatively impacted. Fewer, infrequently burnt out bulbs meant less need for replacements – less demand for their products. While price fixing was a natural result of cooperation in an imperfectly competitive market, the Phoebus cartel strived to do more than hike prices. They went beyond limiting product innovation – over the gradual course of a few years, manufacturers actively lower the life span of light bulbs. The industry standard of 2,500 hours in 1924 would eventually drop to 1,000 hours by 1940. Light bulbs were deliberately made more fragile, and competitors would be closely monitored (and if necessary, fined) to ensure strict adherence to product degradation. The Phoebus cartel would eventually dissolve due to increased external competition and the disruptions of World War II, but it had successfully demonstrated a very important point. Stifling innovation and product quality was a feasible means of sustaining consistent consumption and profits.

Couched within this time frame would be the Great Depression through much of the 1930s. Whilst the most famous economic contribution of the time would come from John Maynard Keynes in the form of Keynesian economics, one other man suggested an idea that would eventually be much more pervasive in our social mentality. In 1932, Bernard London proposed that to solve the Great Depression, all goods were to be produced with planned obsolescence – that everything would only be useable for a finite time before rendered obsolete. Obsolete goods would be forfeited to the government, and consumers would have no choice but to go and buy new goods, as a means of creating demand and stimulating the depressed economy. This farfetched proposal understandably failed to gain traction, due to its unpopular and rigid nature, but his musings did not fall on deaf ears.

What was shot down in the 1930s would adapt and come back stronger in the 1950s, thanks to industrial designer Brooks Stevens. With an ideology that centred on designs that felt ‘new’, his influential status in America directed the focus of consumers to the way products looked. Distanced from the notion of a product’s functional obsolescence, Stevens would rather push to instil in the consumer the willingness to chase the latest trends, to sooner abandon their old products in favour of the newest design. This propensity to purchase the latest novelties would be a big force in developing a consumerist society, one that has carried on to something we still strongly subscribe to today.

That said, the story of the sabotaged light bulb from the early 20th century is not rendered irrelevant. Although obsolescence may now seem to be a simple matter of design and tastes, beneath the surface there are still many cases of intentionally dysfunctional products. Indeed, even Philips’ 20-year LED light bulb – a recent capstone marking functional innovation, can be explained by some underlying forces. In my following articles I will continue to shed more light on planned obsolescence.