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The Truth Behind the Light Bulb Conspiracy

Did you ever wonder why traditional incandescent bulbs burn out after about 1,000 hours or so? Is it just the limitations of the technology, or the result of a secret plot? Conspiracy theories abound and many of them are pure fiction. However, the light bulb conspiracy of the 1920s and 30s was all too real, according to some researchers. It helped shorten the life of lamps and affects the way we buy and use products to this day.

A meeting in Geneva

A cartel, according to Stocking and Watkins in their classic study Cartels in Action is an arrangement of firms "engaged in the same line of business designed to limit or eliminate competition among them."

On December 23, 1924 a group of businessmen representing the leading companies in the lighting industry met in Geneva, Switzerland to form such an arrangement. Members of what became known as the 'Phoebus cartel' included International General Electric, the Dutch company Philips, Germany's Osram, the French firm Compagnie des Lampes and Japan's Tokyo Electric Company.

The group had an ambitious agenda to stabilize markets, set standards and share technical information. Among the organization's stated goals were "ensuring and maintaining a uniformly high quality" and "increasing the effectiveness of electric lighting."

A secret agenda

On paper, it all sounded good. However, according to Watkins and Stocking, the organization had some hidden objectives. One of these was the "limitation of, and on occasion a reduction in, the life of lamps to increase sales."

"The assorted businessmen discussed the problem of poor sales turnover that resulted from the general trend of increasing lifespan," wrote Mark Paterson in Consumption and Everday Life. "Accordingly, one of the priorities of the cartel was to "standardize the lifespan (of bulbs) to around 1,000 hours, a dramatic decrease from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been the case."

How did it all work? "Each factory bound by the cartel agreement had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland," wrote Professor Markus Krajewski in his article The Great Light Bulb Conspiracy. Factories submitting bulbs that failed to meet the regulated life for its type were obliged to pay a fine.

Cartel members justified the reduction in lamp life as a technological necessity to provide consumers with more efficient and economical lamps. However, some cartel members admitted that increasing sales was a primary objective of lamp standardization. In 1924, J.M. Woodward of General Electric reported that "our formula for arriving at the economic life of expected to double the business of all parties within five years."

Stocking and Watkins point out that some manufacturers made a deliberate effort to conceal their reductions in bulb life. For example, in 1939 a General Electric official wrote to a company licensee that "the design of the 2330 lamp has been changed from 300 hours back to 200 hours...It is understood that no publicity or other announcements will be made of the change."

A lasting influence

Whatever its impact on shortening the life of bulbs, the cartel essentially dissolved by 1939, as the onset of World War II made cooperation among the international companies impossible.

Phoebus may have had a relatively short lifespan, but its influence has been long lasting. Author J.B. MacKinnon in his article The L.E.D. Quandary stated the cartel is "today considered one of the earliest examples of planned obsolescence at an industrial scale."

Planned obsolescence is the practice of intentionally designing products with a limited life so they become obsolete after a certain time period. The idea is to generale more sales by shortening the time between repeat purchases. You'll notice the effects of this strategy whenever you see crowds lining up to purchase the newest smart phone.

The latest LED bulbs, however, might have sent the cartel leaders into a panic. They're designed to last 25,000 hours or more. Operating at an average of five hours a night, they won't become obsolete for at least 14 years!

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