The Phoebus Cartel: The great lightbulb

At Livermore Fire Station No. 6 in California, there’s a lightbulb that has survived 120 years. Even though it was made by hand, this lightbulb has been switched on for more than a million hours. That’s way longer than the lifespan of most conventional lightbulbs.

So, does this mean that customers were sold inferior lightbulbs on purpose? Yes, that’s right. An everlasting bulb would make for terrible business because there would be no repeat customers. Let’s take a deeper look at this conspiracy and understand how corporations were able to pull it off.


The formation of the Phoebus Cartel


In 1879, Thomas Edison had made a bulb with a cotton filament that lasted 14 hours. Soon, different materials like carbon and tungsten were used to increase its life-span. By the early 1920s, the average lifespan of a bulb jumped to 2000 hours. Some bulbs even lasted 2500 hours. Obviously, such longevity was not good for business.


To find a solution, top executives from the major electric corporations in the world held a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland just before Christmas 1924. Philips, GE, Tokyo Electric, Osram and AEI were the corporations that got involved and collectively, they formed the Phoebus cartel. It was named after Phoebus – the Greek god of light.


The major outcome of the meeting was that everyone agreed to produce lightbulbs that lasted just 1000 hours. Such a drastic step was necessary for survival. To give you an example, Osram sold 63 million units in 1923. In the following year, they sold only 28 million units. After the agreement was made, companies needed to ensure that no corporation would break the rule. To do that, they asked every organization to send sample bulbs and tested them. If a bulb lasted more than 1000 hours, they were fined. Engineers put themselves to work to decrease the life-span and they succeeded. By trying different materials, different filaments and thinner connections, they were able to steadily decrease the life-span of a lightbulb.


By 1934, lightbulbs lasted just 1205 hours. Even sales went up considerably and corporations were now able to sell an inferior product (using cheaper materials) for the same price. Understandably, all of this was hidden from the consumers. They were told that the purpose of the Phoebus Cartel was to increase standardization and efficiency of lightbulbs. Initially, the cartel was supposed to last till 1955 at least. However, the second World War made it impossible for the members to collaborate. On top of that, there were problems like non-compliance among some of its members.


Finally in 1940, the agreement was nullified. Thankfully, lightbulbs have evolved since then (especially in the last 20 years). We have LED bulbs that uses less electricity and can last upto 10 to 50 times longer than a traditional bulb. That means a person is more likely to sell his house than replace the lightbulb he’s using to light it up.


Planned obsolescence


Even though the cartel is long gone, its methods survive till today. It’s a method known as planned obsolescence. In a movie called The Man In The White Suit, the protagonist (Alec Guinness) develops the perfect fibre that won’t stain or break. While everybody is initially excited about the hero’s scientific breakthrough, trouble follows him when factories realize that they won’t be able to sell as many products made out of the everlasting fibre. In the climax scene, factory workers congregate to confront the scientist and put an end to his wonder product. Interestingly, the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

Companies like Apple, software updates have been known to slow down older models and make them obsolete. The cost of repair is too high and it makes better sense to just buy an updated model.

When it comes to companies like Apple, software updates have been known to slow down older models and make them obsolete. The cost of repair is too high and it makes better sense to just buy an updated model. Even though Apple has denied such allegations, they’ve had to pay millions of dollars in settlement for using this tactic. On February 28, 2020, Apple had to shell out $500 million to settle the infamous scandal.


Another industry where planned obsolescence is very common is fashion. You buy new clothes because the older ones are out of fashion. What happens when a company runs out of trends? They just look at what was trendy a few decades ago and introduce it again. This creates a cycle of demand and supply that helps fill the pockets of fashion brands. In the words of Dr. Myles Munroe, “We live in a disposable, 'cast-off and throw-away' society that has largely lost any real sense of permanence. Ours is a world of expiration dates, limited shelf life, and planned obsolescence. Nothing is absolute.”


Despite the prevalence of planned obsolescence, some companies do produce everlasting products even though they are extremely expensive. For example, a Rolex watch would not diminish in quality even after years of use.


The Urruda take


At Urruda, we are against corporations using planned obsolescence as a tactic to increase their sales. We feel that certain laws should be made (like the right to repair) to ensure that people don’t have to buy the same product repeatedly. These days, there’s a lot of electronic wastage and very little of it is recycled. That said, we understand that we are not living in utopic times and planned obsolescence is here to stay. We encourage our readers to research about the durability of a product before investing in it.