The lightbulb conspiracy

An interesting wee film to watch online (a Norwegian TV documentary) “The lightbulb conspiracy” details a process that few people outside of manufacturing industry's are even aware exists. So-called “planned obsolescence” or to put it in less PC terms, manufacturers designing stuff deliberately to fail after a certain period of time. In the case of the electronics industry this can involve literally putting a counter in, say a printer, and telling the printer to stop working after a certain period of time.

Ever had a digital camera suddenly stop working after several thousand shots for no obvious reason? Again planned obsolescence.

Why is it that every version of Windows seems to take up more disk space than the last version and require a higher spec PC? - possibly because MS have a cosy little deal going with the PC makers to up the spec for windows so that they can sell new PC’s....least you wonder why so many leading PC makers are so resistant to the use of Linux and other open-source software (which comes in a range of different flavours for machines of different operating requirements, one of my decade old laptops at home runs on X-ubuntu quite happily).

Had a DVD or CD in your collection recently fail to play...ever heard of disk rot?

This whole concept dates back to the days of the Phoebus light bulb cartel ( the aforementioned light bulb conspiracy of the title) which conspired to not only fix the price of light bulbs but make them with deliberately shorter working life’s so that the companies involved could sell more of them. This of course explains how a pre-cartel light bulb in Livermore Firehouse, California, is still working after a good century of near continuous use.

Should anyone think I’m some deranged conspiracy theorist (and that next I’m going to start going on about Roswell, the Grassy knoll or Black helicopters), no I’m not - but yes everything they said in this film is more or less true. I once worked in the electronics industry, for indeed a leading manufacturer of printers and I know that they are designed with a limited service life in mind. I would point out thought, that this is in part motivated by H&S and quality control reasons. So not so much a dark machiavellian conspiracy, more “that which we do not speak of”.

When you start considering issues such as fatigue, and age related deterioration (and creep) in plastics you need to come up with a round number of the final end life of your product so that you can be sure that all the critical parts will work safely within said lifetime “envelope”. This inevitably means picking a number; say 30,000 pages of printing and/or 5 years of service, and designing the printer to do just that. Also beyond a certain point there is the risk of the printer failing catastrophically, leaking ink all over your table and carpet (good luck trying to wash that out!), or even catching fire (a rare but potential risk in the event of a serious paper jam and an overheated defective printer head). While such failures are unlikely for an individual printer, when you’re making them by the tens of millions and shipping them worldwide, you have consider such issues. So obviously to get the legal department off our backs the printer is designed to bring itself to an end long before there is any danger of failure.

But equally yes, part of the motivation behind planned obsolescence is to get the public to buy more printers...and inkjet cartridges (most printers are sold at a loss these days, the real money is made selling the cartridges).

In another job, I worked for a leading European steel maker. At one point the Suits upstairs got spooked by all this talk of aluminium cars, particularly in high end vehicles (i.e. luxury car models). At the time car makers were our biggest customers, so any switch by them to aluminium would have been catastrophic. So an extensive R&D program began to redesign our stainless steel products to be better at resisting corrosion, which would give a longer service life (we were prepared to offer a money back guarantee on no significant rust for twenty-five years!). Ways of making cars out of thinner sections of material were also investigated, as this would reduce the vehicle’s weight, producing better power to weight ratio’s, less fuel consumption and of course lower material costs for the manufacturer.

While some of these ideas were indeed taken on board by the car industry, by and large much of it was ignored, especially by the high end car makers. It took awhile but the penny soon dropped, the car companies didn’t want cars that lasted longer, and they certainly didn’t want car bodies that lasted 25 years without a speck of rust! If we built cars to last like that then the public would buy less cars! We also soon learnt (from marketing) that the diversion into aluminium bodied cars for certain high end vehicles were more driven by the “gimmick” factor than any technical reasons. The “...overpaid more-money-than-sense...” types who bought such vehicles (read here about SUV drivers) just liked to be able to brag about how they’re car was made out of aluminium....even though most would probably struggle to tell the difference between the two types of metal even if you wacked them over the head with a aluminium pole!

At around the same time I had a colleague who was working on a academic design project that was looked at using new materials, in particular titanium alloys and ceramics to produce an ultra-durable next generation IC car engines (the petrol heads were apparently getting worried about fuel cells putting them in the poor house in future). Aided by a computerised engine management system (years before the Prius came along, this would come with automatic engine idling reduction as standard), such an engine would have an endurance of the order of several hundred thousand miles (without any serious failures), lower maintenance costs, and best of all much lower fuel consumption. I’ve not heard anything about this project since. I’m assuming it came to an abrupt end after they went and give their presentation to a major car maker and were promptly burnt as witches by the head of marketing and sales.

Now you might say, well so what, this policy is bringing in lots of jobs, and it means people get to upgrade and change their stuff regularly. But you have to consider the environmental costs of such policies. We are seeing literally mountains of E-waste building up in many poorer parts of the world, leaving an awful toxic legacy behind. You also have to consider the embodied energy contained within products, which can often represent half (or more) of the overall lifetime carbon footprint of any product (such as a car). So improving the service life of products would do alot in terms of reducing carbon emissions, as well as reducing the need for new raw material (thus less mining, etc. read about coltan mining here) and less stuff going into landfills. It would also free up factory capacity worldwide to make other stuff, like solar ovens, wind turbines, energy storage systems, etc.

So yes I’m saying it’s possible for us to build cars or electronic goods that last 2 to 4 times longer than the currently do. Thought I would note that such products would also cost more to produce. Certainly not twice as much or four times more, probably more like 30% more or 50% more.  But the cost of such products would inevitably rise and I’m talking here in terms of materials and embodied energy, not just money.

However, this presents a problem, most of us as consumers go for the cheapest product available, and we rarely factor in service life as a deciding issue when buying stuff. Indeed this is the usual excuse you’ll hear from manufacturers when you enquire why they don’t make products with a longer service life. Too many of us buy cheap “crap” like pans and pots or battery’s from cheap discount stores that inevitably break within a few weeks (or hours). So we can hardly blame the corporations for giving us what we want.

For example, you would think the rechargeable battery would be a no-brainer. You buy a pack of them plus a charger for say £15 and it lasts as long as 100 sets of non-rechargeable ones. But unfortunately, the majority of people still plump for the Alkalines - or go and buy the cheapest TV with the widest screen - or the cheap fridge regardless of its energy rating (forgetting how they’ll be paying several times over for one with poorer efficiency once you realise how much electricity a fridge uses over its lifetime). The consumer is often as much at fault here as the manufacturer's.

One solution to this problem would be legislation. We could mandate a fixed life-time guarantee on all products sold, with this life time limit set by governments, not manufacturers. Or we could fiddle with the VAT rate. Products with a long life time warranty would pay less VAT than items that came with a shorter one (or none!). We could also extend this to include the energy efficiency rating of products, with VAT charged at a rate based on a products energy efficiency rating also.

Of course let’s not kid ourselves, getting such legislation passed would be difficult, especially in our globalised economy. Needless to say, the manufacturing industry would be highly resistant to such polices. They will no doubt argue that less products coming out of factories means less people working in manufacturing, and thus massive layoffs. Those on lower incomes won’t be able to afford such goods anymore. Obviously this would not be to the liking of manufacturing nations such as China or India, who would kick up a right old stink at the WTO if any government tried to implement such a policy. And there’s also the general public. Many of us, like i said earlier, want products which are cheap and have short operating lives. The current resistance to the phase out of incandescent bulbs should show you what you’re up against (see here and here)....although I would note that some of this might be motivated by the fact that some people (see Bachmann here) will oppose anything “environmental” regardless of whether such opposition makes any logically sense or not. The Yes men (see here) once succeeded in getting a load of republicans to sign a petition calling on George Bush to bring about more global warming and more pollution....scary!

I would correct the point made about job losses thought. Obviously products with a longer service life need to be more carefully designed, this means more engineering applied upstream and thus more engineering jobs. Also, the days when thousands of people toiled in the factory and made things with their bare hands are thankfully rare, at least for the sorts of high end products we’re talking about such electronics, electrical goods or cars (its still an issue for products like clothes thought). Even in China, most of these products would be made by robots, not people, so we’re mostly talking about robots being made redundant not people (poor R2-D2). Yes, there would be some layoffs, but it certainly won’t be a case of half the global work force going or anything like that.

And on that point, I would also note a slightly “anti-capitalist” streak you often see in captains of industry when ideas like this come up, or for example suggesting increasing environmental standards or increased regulations on the financial services industry. The “capitalists” will always trot out the argument that business leaders, rather than try and adapt to these changes will be so incensed by such a move that they’ll fire half the work force and then go off in a huff and have a good sulk. That doesn’t sound very “capitalistic” type of behaviour to me. If I were head of, say a TV manufacturer, and I heard that new government reg’s were going to effectively halve TV sales in future, I’d either A) make sure it was my rivals who bore the brunt of such sale reductions (by making sure my product stayed ahead of the curve and outsold everyone else) or  B) I’d decide that if half my factory wasn’t going to be making TV’s any more it might be time to re-tool and commence production of a new product that there was higher demand for, such as solar panels for example.

Another interesting film on a similar theme to the above is the man in the white suit, and 1950’s classic, staring Alex Guinness, it seems to be available on-line here. Worth a watch! The synopsis is that a stereotypical “mad” scientist (Guinness) invents a new type of fiber that never wears out and even repels dirt. Great news....until the textile industry bosses and worker’s Unions both realise the implications of this discovery! An interesting parable that shows the conflict that often occurs when well meaning scientists come up against the realities of politics, economics and vested interests.

This whole issue should also show you how advocating policies such as renewable over fossil fuels (or nuclear) means you coming up against a mass of opposition from vested interest with everything (as they see it) to lose.  This “lightbulb conspiracy” also demonstrates just how wasteful a society we are and how much room for improvement there is.

But I’ll have to leave you now.....I think I hear black helicopters approaching!


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D A. Ryan
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Guest Simon Leufstedt

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This post reminds me about this article I wrote a while back about uneven development, imperialism and capitalism.  I quote myself:  "As a result the average car sold in the US today is less efficient than the Model T Ford from 1908. Why? Because as Henry Ford II once explained: “minicars make miniprofitsâ€. And like John Z. DeLorean, former GM executive, have said: “When we should have been planning switches to smaller, more fuel-efficient, lighter cars in the late 1960s in response to a growing demand in the marketplace, GM management refused because ‘we make more money on big cars’ “. What especially comes to my mind is the cartel between the American oil and auto companies where they successfully managed to dismantle the public mass transportation system in the US: "And with help from the US government, Standard Oil and Firestone Tire these auto companies deliberately dismantled earlier mass transportation system in the US during the 1930s to the 1950s. During most of the twentieth century the US government decreased funding for public transportation while they wastefully poured money into highways in an effort to increase the corporate profits that comes with private motoring. While this was happening the auto companies bought up electric streetcar lines and converted them to busses. This is today known as “the Great American streetcar scandalâ€, “General Motors streetcar conspiracy†or “the National City Lines conspiracyâ€. Between 1936 and 1955 the number of electric streetcar lines had dropped from around 40000 to 5000 in the US as a result. GM also used it’s nearly monopolistic control over the bus and locomotive market to make sure that public transportation kept loosing ground to private motoring." Good post Dylan, lots of interesting insights into the world's different businesses and their practices to keep us consuming their products.

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Guest daryan

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Ya, Unfortunately, what worries me is that this sort of short term thinking is in nobody's best interest, not society as a whole, nor even the companies themselves. Look at the US auto makers, they took a decision in the 1990's to focus on big SUV's while other manufacturers tried selling smaller cars, or in the 2000's hybrids. The US auto industry may even have consipred to kill the electric car. While this proved very lucrative and profitable for awhile (while oil was cheap) and Toyota was supposedly loosing $10k on each of the first Prius cars it sold. Fast forward a few years and Toyota (who orginally got the hybrid tech of US car companies!) had perfected their design and now were selling hybrids, wt profit, like hotcakes. Meanwhile the US automakers, notably the big SUV brands, went bankrupt! The danger with leaving things to the whim's of the "invisible hand" of the market machine, is that in the end the machine will eat itself!

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Guest BlueRock

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And you can add http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_streetcar_scandal to the US auto industry killing EVs. No doubt we can dig up further examples all day long of corporations killing progress because it threatens their business model. Is there anything that short-term greed cannot feck up?!

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Guest daryan

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"is there anything that short-term greed cannot feck up?" ......Poker?.....Blackjack?.....TV game shows?

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Planned obsolescence has been a fact for many years. My uncle was a research scientist at GE. His job was to design lightbulbs. Many times he told the story of building a light bulb that would last forever. He showed it to his boss who later came back with a request from marketing: "Please design this for a six month lifespan. We are running a business here." He laughed at that and thought it appropriate though he did manage to save all of his creations for use in his basement shop. That was in the seventies. Imagine the resources that could have been saved since then.

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Guest Carlos Schwarz

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hi to everybody! the documentary is great! it doesn't really  matter, but since you said that it is "a Norwegian TV documentary" this is not true: the film maker is german and it was mainly done in Spain and France

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Guest D. A. Ryan

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David Mitchell's soapbox "Sustainability" covers a theme similar to my article here in the link below:

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Guest Peter B. Jackson

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I like your blog.  I agree that especially in the technology sector, planned obsolescence is a common thing.  With light bulbs,  there are some neat things happening with light bulbs especially LED.s Here is a great place to get light bulbs, and even the 'regular' ones. http://www.NorthernLightsUSA.com USE Coupon code BULBS10

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Guest Panther Vision

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Hi ,Great blog!! we need to know that bulb is very necessary for cars,bike. panther vision light provide perfect vision on road in winter seasons  with bright white light which can provide better performance in deriving.The special Blue dye coated bulb provide clearer light on road.

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Guest TwinTimeTV

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More information about the documentary (including upcoming screenings, contact with the team, etc.) can be found on our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/TheLightBulbConspiracy  Best wishes, Cosima Dannoritzer

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Guest TwinTimeTV

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Hi, I would love to know about this story, could you get in touch with me via my Facebook page? www.facebook.com/Cosima.Dannoritzer Thanks! Best wishes, Cosima (writer/director of 'The Light Bulb Conspiracy')

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Guest Cherenkov

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To Cosima. You can reach me through my blog: http://theheirloom.blogspot.com/ I thought you were responding to one of my blogposts. Please go there to find my email address and then we will be able to communicate. Thanks, Richard

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