The Secret Life of the Light Bulbs

How do our gadgets cheat on us?

Fast-drained battery of a mobile phone, broken cheap components in the car and not-functioning nearly-new printer. We are all familiar with that moment: our almost new electronic gadgets don’t work any more. Some of us know the reason, as well. It’s called planned obsolescence.

There are two different types of planned obsolescence. One of them was created in the 1950s in America and it’s all about design. For boosting the economy and to increase consumption, companies started to produce the same product as before with a little altered and nicer frame to encourage customers to buy the newest one. For example, a car with another colour or a prettier bodywork. The method is still living; let’s think about the mobile phone market; new models every year. We can hardly see differences in the hardware but the display of the new model is more attractive than the ‘old’ one’s.

The other type of planned obsolescence raises ethical and legal questions. In this case, the manufacturers produce low-quality products on purpose to reach their goal, meaning; urging the customers to buy continuously new, flawless wares. But the companies are tricky and they sell good-looking and perfectly-functioning products. We don’t presume on careless fabrication (until we don’t face a broken two-year-old hairdryer or a quite annoying mobile which is needed to load after a half-day use). The reason of this planned obsolescence is equal with the case above: our modern world was established on consumption and if people don’t purchase, companies cannot make profit. The surprise is that this is not a new phenomenon, on the contrary, it originates in the first third of the 20th century.

The story could have been a crazy conspiracy theory but it’s unfortunately true. The trickery began with a meeting in 1924, Switzerland. The major lightbulb manufacturers settled an agreement regarding their products life-cycles and prices. The members of the deal, including Osram of Germany, Philips of the Netherlands, Compagnie des Lampes of France, General Electric of the US and Tungsram of Hungary divided the market among them and agreed on engineering bulbs with a reduced life span. An incandescent bulb was produced by any firm of the Phoebus cartel that could burn 2,500 hours or more at that time. After the self-restriction decision, in 1933, the end-of-life of an average lightbulb was only 1,200 hours. The members were fined by the cartel when their factories did not degenerate the bulbs’ usage time as much as they had agreed earlier. Initially, the co-operation should have lasted until 1955 but World War II mixed the cards and the manufacturers could not keep in touch during the war, resulting in the cartel separating.

A documentary about the Phoebus cartel and planned obsolescence

Planned obsolescence thrives today although France wants to change the system with a new government decree. According to the regulation, French companies shall tell customers how long their gadgets will function and how long the spare parts for those can be purchased. Besides, the producers have to repair or replace the broken appliances within two years — for free. Otherwise, they will face up to a 15,000 Euros fee. The leaders of France believe in combat against planned obsolescence. We can expect a hard and long fight.

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