Obsolescence: Origins and Outrages:
Cosmia Dannoritzer, The Light Bulb Conspiracy
“Anyone who believes that infinite growth is compatible with a finite planet is either a fool or an economist.” This statement by French economist and advocate of “degrowth” Serge Latouche comes about midway through The Light Bulb Conspiracy (directed by Cosima Dannoritzer, Arte France, Televisió de Catalunya, Televisión Española, 2010, 75 min.), and it nicely captures the central point of the film. Unfortunately, the quotation—lifted without any attribution from the works of American economist Kenneth Boulding from the 1950s—also can stand for the lack of originality and careful vetting that characterizes the film.
The Light Bulb Conspiracy is subtitled The Untold Story of Planned Obsolescence, and it seeks to show the origins and the significance of widespread manufacturing and marketing practices, centered largely around the design and selling of products that are, in the words of one of the featured authors, “made to break.” The main message is that planned obsolescence is a powerful force for profit and for environmental destruction, both in the short term, as it creates mountains of often hazardous waste (typically shipped to third world locales), and in the long term, as it accelerates the exhaustion of resources and the creation of industrial pollutants and waste.
As a description of the patently unsustainable nature of Western consumer capitalism, I have no problem with the message of this film. As an exploration of the origins of this mess, however, the film is deeply flawed. The makers would have us believe that their “untold story” is a tale of secret conspiracies, corporate conniving, and government cravenness, foisted on an unsuspecting public. Wouldn’t it, in fact, be so nice and simple if this were truly so?
But students of technology bear a responsibility for unveiling and recounting the complexity of the real world, and particularly of the histories that underlie the development and uses of the material world around us. The central flaw of this film’s simplistic approach is highlighted by its title. The filmmakers would have us believe that we can see the origins of planned obsolescence and the manic consumerism it spawns in the cabal of lightbulb manufacturers who met to divide up the lightbulb industry in one of the first global cartels, beginning in the 1920s. These manufacturers supposedly wanted above all to squelch the progress that was being made in producing lightbulbs that lasted many thousands of hours before burning out. Lest we doubt that such bulbs were around before the conspiracy, we are treated to a visit to a firehouse in Livermore, California, where there continues to burn a lightbulb first lit in 1901. So momentous is the longevity of this bulb that one of the featured moments of the film is the bulb’s hundredth birthday party, complete with songs and cake.
Other evidence is provided to show that, before the cartel stepped in, both corporations and independent inventors were devising bulbs of similar miraculous longevity. But this worked against the corporate interests, and the large corporations thus banded together to make sure that no manufacturer produced bulbs lasting “longer than 1,000 hours” in normal use. Secret archives are unearthed documenting the limits set by the cartel; large testing banks are shown to demonstrate how the manufacturers “carefully recorded how long each bulb burned for”; tables of fines exacted to transgressors demonstrate the inexorable march of the cartel to its enforced 1,000-hour limit, a target finally reached in 1932. The cartel behind all this was called Phoebus, and we are told that it officially never existed, frequently changing names to avoid detection.
Phoebus S.A. Compagnie Industrielle pour le Développement de l’Éclairage most certainly did exist, established in Switzerland by members of the electric lamp cartel to oversee prices, market shares, technical information, patent rights, and standards. Most of the world’s electric lamp manufacturers were members of the cartel, with the spectacular exception of the world’s leading maker of bulbs, General Electric. But, as Leonard Reich pointed out in a 1992 article on the cartel, GE worked closely with Phoebus, particularly in setting prices and sharing information. This cooperation also extended to technical standards. There was nothing particularly secret about the cartel, either. Its working was constantly the subject of government scrutiny, and at least since the 1940s its basic framework has been thoroughly studied.1
It would appear that the lifetimes of bulbs did decline, but largely as tungsten and other high-temperature and high-efficiency filaments replaced the older carbon. As lifetimes declined, so did bulb prices. The Livermore bulb, with its softly glowing carbon filament, is indeed a marvel of longevity, but its illuminating efficiency is a small fraction of that in a modern incandescent bulb. Its long life is due more to the use of a very low voltage (designed to operate at 60W, the bulb runs today at 4W) than to declining technologies. It is ironic, of course, that the incandescent bulb is in fact finally, through government action, largely disappearing, giving way to high-efficiency, long-life bulbs of various designs.
Planned obsolescence, this movie does succeed in showing, is in large part the product of the corporate search for never-ending consumption. Industrial design, cheaply made (and priced) goods, continuous product upgrading, advertising, and compromises in product quality all contribute to a culture of constantly expanding consumption. As this culture becomes global, the environmental consequences are indeed frightening. But we do not need to seek out conspiracies—real or imagined—to see its origins and perpetrators. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo commented around the time of the first Earth Day more than forty years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Robert Friedel is a professor in the Department of History, University of Maryland. His latest book is a revised version of a study (with Paul Israel) of Edison’s Electric Light (2010). Footnotes 1. Leonard S. Reich, “General Electric and the World Cartelization of Electric Lamps,” in International Cartels in Business History, edited by Akira Kudō and Terushi Hara, 213–28. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1992.