In the late 1890’s, a manufacturing plant called Shelby Electric Company based in Shelby, Ohio, produced a 4 watt lightbulb with one main goal in mind. Sustainability. They wanted to make the perfect lightbulb. A lightbulb that would last forever. They wanted to share this with the world. It’s called the Centennial Light. It currently resides in a fire department in Livermore, California and the bulb is still fully functional and still shining. The irony is that it has outlasted all of the lightbulbs in the department as well as several webcams. How is this possible? Surely as technology increases we would have lightbulbs that lasted forever! Why do some only last a couple thousand hours? During the rise of the 20th century, lightbulb manufacturers were beginning to stagnate. No one was buying lightbulbs because the ones they previously bought were still working and there wasn’t a need to buy anymore. The manufacturers had to come up with something to protect their businesses and to keep selling more. In December of 1924, Philips, General Electric, Osram, and others got together and created the Phoebus cartel. It stated that lightbulbs had to have a maximum lifespan in order to ensure repeat business. Lightbulbs that were claimed to last forever were now reduced to 1,000 hours. The manufacturers had to devise a way to make their products weaker. They had to make sure they would break or die after a certain point. This was the beginning of Planned Obsolescence.
Since the Great Depression and the rise of consumerism, planned obsolescence was part of every business model. They had to have it in order to survive. All products even to this day have some form of planned obsolescence attached. In the classic of Death of a Salesman Willy says, “Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.” Just a perfect example of planned obsolescence.
In 2001, Apple released their first iPod. A couple years later, a class action lawsuit was filed against the company over its batteries. They only lasted a short while and the batteries were ‘unreplaceable’. The Neistat brothers were told when they called customer service that they should just buy a new iPod and that they wouldn’t replace the batteries in them. They launched a campaign called “iPod’s dirty secret” and spray painted on billboards, “iPod’s Unreplaceable Battery Lasts Only 18 Months” with a stencil. Apple had caved in and settled the case and were forced to give rebates and provide warranties for their products. Is this the beginning of the end of planned obsolescence?
Next time, look around at the products you have. Everything you may have may actually have a lifespan and are probably not the best, efficient or sustainable of products.
This is a great video about the Lightbulb Conspiracy. It has Finnish subtitles so may be difficult to understand when the interviews are in German or French.