The light bulb conspiracy is a theory that the leading manufacturers of incandescent light bulbs have conspired to keep the lifetime of their bulbs far below their real technological capabilities. This way, they ensure the continuous demand for more bulbs and hence, long-term profit for themselves.
The incandescent light bulbs were invented by British chemist Humphry Davy in 1809, however, it wasn't until Thomas Edison found a way to mass produce them that their commercial use began. In 1924, the leading light bulb manufacturers formed the international Phoebus cartel with the intent to standardize the light bulbs (e.g. the E27 connectors), which was officially disbanded in 1939. The cartell was to run until 1955, but World War 2 destroyed it in 1939.
The front company
Osram, Philips, Tungsram, Associated Electrical Industries, ELIN, Compagnie des Lampes, International General Electric, and the GE Overseas Group were members of the Phoebus cartel. Phoebus was a Swiss corporation named "Phoebus S.A. Compagnie Industrielle pour le Développement de l'Éclairage".
Osram had previously founded the "Internationale Glühlampen Preisvereinigung" with Philips (for the most part), Tungsram, Associated Electrical Industries, ELIN and Compagnie des Lampes to help undermine American domestic sale in 1921. General Electric responded by setting up the "International General Electric Company" in Paris, with the help of other miner American firms to help undermine French domestic sales.
The official goals
The official standards set
- Co-ordinated the trading of patents and market penetration.
- Lower unit costs
- Standardise the life expectancy of light bulbs at 1,000 hours.
- Raising prices without fear of competition.
- Members' bulbs were to be regularly tested and fines were levied for bulbs that lasted more than 1,000 hours.
- The use of large-scale planned obsolescence.
- Some engineers genuinely said that 1,000 hours was a reasonable optimum life expectancy for most bulbs! It was considered that a longer lifetime could be obtained only at the expense of efficiency, since progressively more heat and less light would obtained, thus resulting in thermally wasted electricity.
Long-life incandescent bulbs are now available which can last up to 2,500 hours, but are less energy efficient and produce less light per watt of electricity used in them!
The corporate zones of influence
- Home territories= the home country of individual manufacturers.
- British overseas territories= under control of Associated Electrical Industries, Osram, Philips, and Tungsram.
- Common territory= the rest of the world.
Tungsram's use of krypton gas
Tungsram incorporated a patent by Imre Bródy for long life bulbs filled with krypton gas in 1934. The firm had created a profitable division dealing in radio tubes during WW1 and after.
The conspiracy theorists suspect that the primary goal of Phoebus was not to develop international standards but instead, to sink the lifespan of all light bulbs. It was noted that before 1924, said lifetime expectancy was slightly above 2,000 hours. To increase the demand and hence, their profit, Phoebus members agreed to halve the life expectancy of all their bulbs by using lower-quality materials and production methods. The life expectance was conducted gradually until the cartel's dissolution to avoid drawing public attention.
Although Phoebus was disbanded in 1939, say the theorists, its influence is still felt in the West. By comparison, Soviet light bulbs and those produced in socialist countries (which didn't adhere to Western standards) have been noted to have a twice as long lifetime. Modern Chinese bulbs have a life expectancy of 5,000 hours. Moreover, light bulbs produced in Britain during or immediately after World War II, when the patriotic feelings could take over commercial interests, are still found in use to this day. These "ancient" light bulbs are sought after by manufacturers, who remove them from circulation "for study". The oldest lamp in the world, "Centennial Light", has been in use for 108 years, as of 2010.
Attempts have been made in Europe to circumvent the standards set by Phoebus. In 1975, German watchmaker Dieter Binninger invented a light bulb with life expectancy of 150,000 hours (in other words, 17 years of continuous use!). However, shortly after finally finding a manufacturer for his bulbs in 1991, Binninger died in a plane crash, which was officially regarded as an accident. His patent has since sunken into obscurity and oblivion.
A quick look at Binninger's Lamp Patent indicates experiments using Traffic-Light bulbs that were underrun. A 230V bulb was run at 120V certainly extended its lifespan to the order of 100,000 hours, but had the effect of making the light produced more orange/yellow in spectrum, and less of it.
Incandescent bulbs all use a tungsten filament. A hotter filament is more efficient but burns up more quickly. It is very simple to make a bulb last forever: use a longer and thinner filament, which does not get as hot, and glows more red than white. A bulb will also last forever if you simply put it on a dimmer and dial it way down. But there is an unintended consequence. A standard 100 watt bulb costs 50 cents, lasts 1,500 hours, and uses $18 in electricity over that time (at 12 cents per kWh). The new everlasting bulb will use about 3 times as much electricity over its first 1,500 hours, costing an extra $36 to save a half dollar. And another $36 for the next 1,500 hours. This is about $200 per year more than the standard bulb which is designed to burn out quickly and save money. The money saved represents a large quantity of coal or natural gas that would be burned to save a few of these 'little bulbs'.
The North European Luma Co-op Society
A Swedish-Danish-Norwegian union of companies (the North European Luma Co-op Society) began planning an independent light bulb manufacturing center in the late 1920s. The sleazy economic and legal threats by Phoebus failed and the Scandinavians produced and sold lamps at a considerably lower price than Phoebus did by in 1931.
- Useful metals
- Controversial incandescent lamp phase-out
- The Associated Electrical Industries scandal of 1967
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