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History with Phil: What a bright idea
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History with Phil: What a bright idea

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The so-called “centennial light” has been burning nearly continuously since it was installed in 1901. Now located at 4550 East Avenue, Livermore, California, the bulb has been in at least four different locations over the years. In 1976, the fire department housing the bulb moved to Fire Station #6. Out of fear that unscrewing the bulb would permanently damage it, its power cord was severed. Lying in a specially designed box, the bulb was transferred to its new location with a full firetruck escort where it was reconnected.

The bulb’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in 2001 with a community barbecue and live music. The light bulb passed 1,000,000 hours in service in 2015 and has been recognized by Guinness as the longest lasting light bulb in the world. Originally a 60-watt bulb, it is now very dim, emitting the equivalent light of a 4-watt blub.

So, you might ask, why don’t bulbs manufactured today last as long as the centennial bulb? You can thank the Phoebus group which was a cartel formed in 1924 by the world’s largest manufacturers of light bulbs. Through advances in lighting technology, light bulbs were lasting longer and longer, many up to 2500 hours. This lead to a general reduction in overall sales as consumers had no need to frequently replace light bulbs. Alarmed by this trend, the major light bulb producers formed the world’s first global cartel with its primary aim to depress lamp life to a 1,000-hour standard.

It actually took lighting engineers some time to come up with a design such that a bulb would burn out at around 1000 hours of service. The cartel’s members tried to persuade consumers that even though the new bulbs didn’t last as long as previous ones, they were higher quality, more efficient, and produced a more pleasing light.

To insure that light bulbs met the cartel’s standards, every factory bound by the Phoebus group had to regularly send their bulbs to

a central testing lab in Switzerland. If any factory had bulbs lasting longer (or shorter) that the specified life span, it had to pay a fine. Some of the companies tried to do an end-run around the restrictions by producing bulbs that lasted longer at higher voltages. Reacting to such “enhancements”, Anton Philips of Philips Electric complained, “This, is a very dangerous practice and is having a most detrimental influence on the total turnover of the Phoebus Parties. After the very strenuous efforts we made to emerge from a period of long life lamps, it is of the greatest importance that we do not sink back into the same mire by paying no attention to voltages and supplying lamps that will have a very prolonged life.”

Similar restrictions pertained to flashlights as well. For instance, a GE flashlight bulb in the pre-cartel days was designed to last longer than three change outs of batteries. This life span was subsequently cut to two battery changes, and in 1932 GE engineers proposed a bulb that lasted no longer than one battery. They also suggested increasing amperage that would boost brightness but at the expense of shortening the life of both the bulb and the battery.

The Phoebus Cartel is now considered one of the earliest examples of planned obsolescence. However, with increased competition, the original “agreement” signed in 1924 was nullified in 1940.


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