Are lightbulbs built to fail?
Are lightbulbs designed to fail after a certain time? The short answer is: yes.
It’s called planned obsolescence and it’s how manufacturers ensure that the public has to keep buying more of their product. But it wasn’t always this way.
The filament-style bulb that hangs today in the fire station in Livermore, California has been working since 1901. It has been turned off only a handful of times since first being installed and is near to clocking up a million hours of usage. Manufactured by the Shelby Electric Co. of Ohio it cost 40 cents. That bulb was designed by Adolphe Chaillet — a contemporary of Thomas Edison — who wanted to create a more efficient, long-lasting bulb. He certainly did that.
Shelby was bought out by General Electric in 1914 but a number of its lightbulbs still exist today in working order. In the early part of the 20th century the use of electricity was rapidly spreading and with this came a huge demand for lightbulbs. The big companies that created them, like General Electric, were making a lot of money, but they soon realised that once consumers had installed their lightbulbs, they didn’t need to buy any more bulbs (baring accidents) for quite a long time. This impacted profits.
The Osram lightbulb company saw a drop in German sales from 63 million lightbulbs in the financial year 1922–23 to just 28 million the following year. So the head of Osram, William Meinhardt, proposed an arrangement between the major manufacturers that became known as the Phoebus cartel. Manufacturers like General Electric, Osram, Philips, Tungsram, Associated Electrical Industries and others colluded to control the market and shorten the lifespan of bulbs, effectively agreeing to make a poorer quality product to ensure they would need to be replaced more frequently.
Guinness World Records certifies that this lightbulb in a firestation in California has been working for more than 100 years.
In 1924 the average household lightbulb would last for a minimum of 2,500 hours (and in the case of the Shelby bulbs, many more), but now the companies got together to find a way of making them fail after a set time. The cartel put in almost as much effort in perfecting this new lightbulb as those before had in trying to improve upon the existing product, and there were strict rules that were enforced. As a result, the life expectancy of light bulbs was reduced drastically, ensuring replacement bulbs were needed far sooner.
Members’ bulbs were regularly tested and fines were levied for bulbs that lasted more than the allotted 1,000 hours, which is still roughly their expected lifespan today. The Phoebus cartel eventually dissolved, largely due to the disruptive effects of the Second World War, but the point had been made: by restricting innovation and product quality it’s possible to create a market of consistent consumption and therefore maintain profits. It’s an idea that many other corporations would employ.
Manufacturers colluded to control the market and shorten the lifespan of bulbs, effectively agreeing to make a poorer quality product that would be replaced more often
By the Fifties, the industrial designer Brooks Stevens had popularised the term “planned obsolescence” and taken it a step further. Rather than create poor products that would need replacing, he pushed for “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, and a little sooner than is necessary”. This is the propelling force behind our modern consumerist culture with “must haves” and “latest trends”, but the mass production of items designed to fail started with the lightbulb.
In recent years there has been a slight reversal of this trend. A compact fluorescent bulb (the curly ones) lasts 8,000 hours and an LED bulb lasts 50,000 hours. In 2012 Philips released an LED bulb with a lifespan of 20 years. The downside is they cost more and they emit a harsh light best suited to industrial spaces, but we are returning to a long-life lightbulb. Meanwhile, the bulb in the fire station in Livermore reminds us that this has already been possible for over a century.