The light bulb conspiracy 8



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How often have you been irritated by the failure of a light bulb and have had to change it well before its advertised life-span?

Consider this – a light bulb in the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department in California is still burning about 120 years after it was manufactured. Originally a 30 or 60 watt hand-blown carbon filament bulb, it now continuously emits the equivalent of a 4 watt nightlight and it is still working despite having been shifted several times.

So much for advances in technology.

The history of the light bulb provides an insight into what has become known as planned obsolescence. In 1924, the world’s major light bulb manufacturers met in Geneva and founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that carved up the world-wide market with each manufacturer assigned its own production quotas as well as engineering of a shorter life-span bulb. By 1925, this was codified to a maximum 1,000 hours for the pear-shape household bulb, down from the previously common 1,500 to 2,000 hours. And they cost more.

It was an industry responding to the challenge of a market close to saturation point.

In the USA, the domestic automobile market was reaching saturation in 1924 and to maintain sales, General Motors introduced annual model-year design changes to convince car owners that they needed regular new vehicles. With his engineer’s notions of simplicity, economies of scale and design integrity, Henry Ford resisted this trend and, by 1931, GM surpassed Ford in sales.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 1932, the American economist Bernard London authored “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence” which proposed that the government impose a legal obsolescence on consumer articles to stimulate and perpetuate consumption. No governments had to do this – manufacturers had already embraced the idea.

Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer, gave a speech in 1954 entitled “Planned Obsolescence” which he defined as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary”. He could have added “and a bit more expensive” but that was clearly implied.

It is a strategy that manufacturers across the widest spectrum have relied upon for years – a classic case was the nylon stocking which inevitably laddered thus forcing women to buy new pairs and for years this discouraged manufacturers to look for a fibre that did not ladder. In any case, the fashion industry is deeply committed to built-in obsolescence – who wants to be seen wearing last season’s styles?

The Economist has noted, “The strategy of planned obsolescence is common in the computer industry too. New software is often carefully calculated to reduce the value to consumers of the previous version. This is achieved by making programs upwardly compatible only; in other words, the new versions can read all the files of the old versions, but not the other way around. Someone holding the old version can communicate only with others using the old version. It is as if every generation of children came into the world speaking a completely different language from their parents. While they could understand their parent’s language, their parents could not understand theirs”.

Some parents might think that is happening already but you get the point.

The Economist noted, for example, that Intel, the US semiconductor company, is working on the next generation of PC chips before it has even begun to market the last one.

Now that major manufacturing countries have – to a greater or lesser degree – laws against anti-competitive behaviour and that life cycle of many products has increased due to improved excellence, planned obsolescence has to be approached more carefully.

All sorts of tricks are used. For example – some inkjet manufacturers employ smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold (number of pages printed, time of use etc) even if the cartridge still contains ink or could be refilled.

Planned obsolescence is not a strategy for high-end manufacturers supplying niche markets – Rolls Royce trades in many ways on the idea that their cars are tomorrow’s antiques while Patek Philippe advertises its watches are something that the owner only conserves for the next generation. They, and other similar luxury item manufacturers, appeal to the upwardly socially mobile. They have snob value.

My mobile phone is probably a decade old. It works as I want it to work and allows me to make and receive calls and sent and receive texts. One young friend – who will queue up all night to get the latest technology phone – asked me once why I didn’t upgrade to a “better” and “newer” model. He had no answer when I asked, “Will that mean to get to hear from newer and better friends?”


What do you own that you think has been planned to become obsolete by its manufacturers? What is it that makes that product so unreliable? Do you prefer new over used? Discuss below.

Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. I have been in this unit eight months and had to change bathroom and kitchen bulbs. Kitchen ones twice. These are bulbs I put in when I came here. I found this article interesting, thanks.

  2. I thought this page was for Australians. I am sick of reading about things from the U.S. I have been in this house three years and I have still got the original light bulb in some of the lights.

  3. I bought a light bulb in in 1978 paid $30 for it and it is still going

  4. Thanks, Russell. Good article (but a pity some seem to read and comment on the blurb rather than the article itself).

    1 REPLY
    • Thanks John – I do appreciate your feedback and comment.

  5. I have been noticing this more and more. Microsoft only give 8-10 years on their windows. By the time I have become familiar with all the ins and outs of my window at the time a new one comes out and can no longer get updates on my old one. My second hand mobile had to be replaced because it could not pick up in blind spots and there appears to many of them. My one year old phone is going the same way. DVDs and CDs are wonderful at the beginning but play them a few times and cracks start appearing. Clothes are the biggest problem. Look good on but give them a wash and poof, they fall apart or get mis-shapen, so back to buy a new one. My printer has fell down with its legs in the air after I put generic cartridges in it. Obviously the manufacturers of the ink cannot be bothered to tell us that they are not compatible even though they say they are. I am going to have a vehement complaint about that one. The list goes on and on and I understand why manufacturers need to do this. After all, who would be able to make huge amounts of profit if something lasted for 120 years.

  6. So much so that the last time I purchased a $10 globe I kept the packet and the receipt, just waiting for the time to take it back to Woolworths.

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