Glowing in the heart of fire department in the city of Livermore, California, the oldest working incandescent lightbulb in the world stands strong. Known as the ‘Centennial Light’, this lightbulb has been burning for 118 years. So the obvious question, which I’m sure you are thinking too, is why don’t all lightbulbs last this long? We often have to deal with the hassle, and financial burden, of replacing our lightbulbs on a fairly regular basis. So why do our lightbulbs break when there is evidence that they could last beyond our lifetime?
The lightbulb was the very first victim of planned obsolescence. In 1881, Thomas Edison produced the first commercial incandescent lightbulb which had a lifetime of around 1500 hours. This continued to improve and by the 1920’s lightbulbs were advertised to last up to 2500 hours. You would assume that increasing the lifetime of the lightbulb could only be a positive thing, however this improvement was not welcomed by all. If lightbulbs were lasting longer, people would buy replacements less frequently. This had a very negative impact on lightbulb manufacturers as the demand for their products had reduced, resulting in a serious loss of profit.
In 1924, a group electric businesses across the globe formed the first world-wide cartel. They were known as the Phoebus Cartel. The aim of the cartel was to take control of the longevity of lightbulbs to ensure that they could continue to make profits. In 1925, the ‘1000 hours life committee’ formed. Their job was to adjust the technical design of lightbulb so that it would fail after 1000 hours of operation. The cartel actually took it so far that they imposed fines on members whose lightbulb’s average lifespan exceeded 1000 hours. This forced planned obsolescence did translate into increased sales for the lightbulb manufacturers however the negative environmental impact is hard to ignore.
Reducing the lifetime of a product has lead to the throw away culture we find ourselves in today. The fact that such a universal, everyday object has been affected by planned obsolescence is very disheartening. However, all hope is not lost. In the 1980’s, the Compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) was made available, you’ll probably know it as an ‘energy-saving lightbulb’. Not only does it use significantly less energy, but the lifespan is also well above the 1000 hours of its incandescent equivalent. CFL’s claim to have a lifespan ranging from 6000 – 15000 hours. That’s almost 2 years compared to 41 days of traditional lightbulbs. In recent years, LED’s have trumped the lifetime claims of CFL’s. Lasting for at least 40 years under average use, these lightbulbs are fighting against the Phoebus Cartel’s planned obsolescence policy.
Although improvements are being made, planned obsolescence is no longer limited to the lightbulb. The influence of the Phoebus Cartel’s ideology has impacted the way products are made and sold today. Throughout history, lightbulbs have been a symbol of ideas and innovation. Ironically it turns out the lightbulb was the pioneer of planned obsolescence, something that I believe contradicts contemporary design.