There’s an incandescent light bulb at a California fire station that has burned since 1901, exceeding one million hours in service, and earning a Guinness Book record for the world’s longest-burning bulb. It’s an illumination anomaly.
Prior to 1924, incandescent bulbs were engineered to last upwards of 2,500 hours. Today, however, their flicker typically fades after 1,000 to 1,500 hours. What explains the decreased lifespan? Incandescent bulbs are the quick-burn product of planned obsolescence.
On December 23rd, 1924 a group of executives from the world’s largest lighting companies gathered in Switzerland. The goal of the group—called the Phoebus cartel—was to reduce the lifespan of bulbs in order to stimulate sales. The downside of manufacturing a long-lasting bulb was that they didn’t need to be replaced. Over the course of nearly a decade, the Phoebus cartel succeeded in shortening the lifespan of the incandescent bulb to 1,000 hours by manipulating lamp technology and penalizing companies whose products exceeded the standard. The global lighting market flourished.
Today’s Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps, however, can burn for 25,000 or 50,000 hours, representing a complete departure from the industry’s previous model. In fact, as the New Yorker reported, LEDs are the first mass consumer product of the twenty-first century to challenge planned obsolescence.
LED adoption has been widespread, catalyzed by incentives and rebates. The US Department of Energy considers the implementation of LED lighting to offer the greatest potential impact on energy conservation in the country. It asserts that, “By 2027, widespread use of LEDs could save about 348 TWh (compared to no LED use) of electricity: This is the equivalent annual electrical output of 44 large electric power plants (1000 megawatts each), and a total savings of more than $30 billion at today’s electricity prices.”
“Socket saturation”—a lighting term for market overload—refers to the point at which consumers stop purchasing new bulbs because existing bulbs are long-lasting. It was the original impetus for the Phoebus cartel’s reverse engineering. So what will happen in the coming years when enough short-lived incandescent bulbs have been replaced by LED bulbs? Some experts predict a market decline in the global market by 2019. How will the industry navigate this issue without the support of planned obsolescence?