Light Bulb Cartel


They secretly fixed light bulb life in 1924 at a thousand hours

Today in Fortnightly

The IEEE Spectrum article posted by Markus Krajewski of the University of Basel, Switzerland, opens like a mystery thriller (posted September 24, 2014). The secret meeting in Geneva 92 years ago still haunts how we light our world today.  

All the major manufacturers of lightbulbs met to split up the world market among them. Soon enough they found a way to accelerate the market's expansion as well:

"In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence."

In 1924, the life span of the lightbulbs was at least 2,500 hours. The so-called Phoebus cartel formed in Geneva directed their engineers to cut that to 1,000 hours, which the engineers did by adjusting voltage and current.  

The cartel fell apart in the early 1930's as GE patents expired, competition grew from companies not members of the cartel, and conflicts arose among members. World War II put an end to cooperation among the members from the warring countries.

The traditional lightbulb, incandescent with a life span of 1,000 hours or so, is of course being phased out now. Taking its place are more energy-efficient lightbulbs with far longer life spans.  

Krajewski points out that these life spans are so long that:

"... few people will complain, or even notice, if a bulb burns out 9 years after it is installed rather than 14... the allure for businesses to cooperate in such a market is strong. And the Phoebus cartel shows how it could succeed."

To me, there's an upside to the cloak and dagger of the Phoebus cartel. Not only were the incandescent bulbs energy-inefficient, they had absurdly short life spans before burning out. Absurdly and artificially short life spans.  

This means the compact fluorescent and light-emitting diode bulbs coming out now are that much better than what they're replacing. Any consumer can see that. 

Starting with the February issue, we're bringing back Off Peak to Public Utilities Fortnightly, on the last page of the magazine, featuring quirky stories about how we use, pay for and value electricity and natural gas service.

Steve Mitnick, Editor-in-Chief, Public Utilities Fortnightly
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