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Light bulb conspiracy

In 1925, staff from Osram, General Electric, Philips, and others met in Switzerland to artificially fix the life expectancy of light bulbs worldwide. For the next 14 years, the Phoebus cartel controlled the world supply of light.

I’m sure you’ve heard of planned obsolescence, the manufacturing strategy that incorporates the end of a product into its design – sometimes, earlier than it should be so that the company can be assured of repeat business. Well, this was the first big example of planned obsolescence, and it had a nice side of price-fixing and international conspiracy as well.

The group created by the light bulb companies – the Phoebus cartel – operated under the excuse that they were standardising the technology. (Anyone who has come home with a bayonet bulb instead of a screw-in one will be especially irked about that!) But in fact they fixed the lifetime of bulbs at 1,000 hours, and actually fined companies who went over this amount.

They also divided up the world into territories and agreed not to compete with each other. (And anyone who is still imprisoned by region locking will be especially irked about that!)

There was one hold-out, a Scandinavian company founded in 1931 that did not agree to the cartel’s rules. This company’s bulbs were significantly cheaper, which put them directly in the firing line of the other manufacturers, but they survived. The cartel did not – with the outbreak of World War II its prewar strain of economic cooperation was pretty much obsolete.

Categories: Economics & business History Modern history Sciences Technology

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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