The Light Bulb Conspiracy – The Phoebus Cartel
Forty miles outside San Francisco is the town of Livermore. Halfway down the main street lined with cafes and antique shops is a fire station, and high up on the back wall, away from the gleaming vintage fire truck, polished daily by retired volunteers with bushy white moustaches, is the one thing of which the residents of Livermore are proudest. Making a low hum, flickering an eerie yellow glow, is a light bulb.
But unlike any other light bulb on Earth this one has not stopped working for 116 years. The Shelby Electrical Company made the Centennial Bulb in 1901. A hand-blown carbon filament emitting 30 watts, it now gives four watts like a child’s night light, but here is the remarkable thing: it still works. Why? It is a mystery, and begs the question: why, if Livermore Fire Station has a light bulb still burning after well over a century, does the rest of the world have ones that break after six months?
In that dusty Shelby bulb is the secret of consumerism. It is the first step on the journey to how planned obsolescence was first concocted and the continuous upgrade created.
Today the upgrade is a way of life. We change our phones every 11 months; 28 per cent of us change our sofa every three years; our partner on average every two years nine months (for the 28 per cent, a sofa lasts longer than a relationship).
We belong to the global cult of what product designers call “infinite new-ism” – a distrust of anything not just “old”, but “old” meaning we upgraded it just a couple of weeks ago.
The upgrade has even transferred from objects to us. Perpetual self-improvement is an obsession in every sphere of life: perfecting the body in the gym, becoming ever more productive at work, a better colleague, partner, cook, lover, parent, carer, human. This relentless and all-encompassing self-improvement drive is upgrade culture. It did not magic from nowhere, it was engineered, and the Shelby light bulb is the first clue as to how it happened.
The second is 9012km away. In 1989, as communism collapsed and crowds clambered over the Berlin Wall, a historian called Gunter Hess walked unnoticed into a building in East Berlin: the headquarters of the Osram Electrical Company. Inside, Hess found overturned filing cabinets and papers strewn across the floor. Hess began sifting through the administrative detritus and then something caught his eye. Confidential minutes from a meeting in Geneva in 1932 between two of the most senior members of the Osram executive board and the five biggest electrical companies on Earth.
Two decades on I met Gunter in a Berlin cafe and I asked him what was so special about these papers. Gunter opened his briefcase. The five biggest light bulb manufacturers on Earth were meeting in Geneva to make a policy decision that would change the course of history.
They were to create a secret cartel, known as Phoebus, and with one aim: to put anyone out of business who created a light bulb that lasted more than six months. The papers
prove something we all vaguely believe exists when our kettle mysteriously stops working six months after we buy it, but it turns out actually does exist: planned obsolescence.
Hess showed me the signatories of Phoebus’s inaugural meeting. They included America’s biggest electrical company, General Electric, AE from Britain, Compagnie Des Lampes from France, GE Sociedad Anonyma of Brazil, China’s biggest producer of electrical goods, General Edison, Lamparas Electricas from Mexico, and Tokyo Electric. The minutes mapped out their plan in precise terms: shorten the life of every light bulb to six months. Should anyone not stick to the plan, a sliding scale of fines would be imposed, all paid in Swiss francs or German marks.he Phoebus cartel was founded by William Meinhardt of Osram and Anton Philips, the founder of Dutch electrical giant Philips Electrical. They wanted to systematize obsolescence, imposing a global policy on the lifespan of a light bulb and breaking any company that strayed from the cartel’s dictum.
These five companies did not simply produce light bulbs. They provided the basic infrastructure of modern life: street lighting; copper wiring for phone lines; cabling for ships, bridges, train and tram lines. They made consumer durables such as refrigerators and ovens; provided the electrics for cars, homes and offices.
And from 1932 onwards, it was all to be made to break. Two thousand years of human ingenuity in manufacturing goods to last as long as possible was to stop.
Henceforth, mass production would mean counterintuitively reverse engineering an object from the moment it should break, backwards. Each object would have a different lifespan drawn up on a spreadsheet.
Gunter Hess showed me the categories meticulously calibrated on a sliding scale of obsolescence, scrawled in boxes in spidery handwriting, each box stipulating lifespan. Crucially, the consumer was not to know a thing about it.
The light bulb at Livermore Fire Station was the one that got away.
Was Phoebus doing anything wrong?
In 1932, the free world balanced on a knife edge between economic depression and
recovery. Hitler was poised to take power in Germany. The Phoebus plan to systematise planned obsolescence did not simply sell more light bulbs, but saved capitalism and therefore democracy when it was most perilously threatened. It kept people buying.
Outside the Apple Store on Regent St, London, there are 2000 people queuing for the new iPhone. They stand patiently, scrolling through the last iteration of the iPhone (in 10 minutes’ time, obsolete). The police overseeing the queue scroll through their phones, too. The line snakes around the building, down the next street and into an adjacent park.
Those nearest the front have been waiting nearly 48 hours. The man at the very front sits on a fishing chair with a roll-up mattress and plastic tarpaulin to keep off the rain. He has a small gas cooker with which he heats up soup. He began queuing on Saturday afternoon. It is now Monday morning.
“Do you mind telling me,” I ask him, “what the new iPhone will do that your old phone doesn’t?” He frowns, annoyed at the stupidity of the question. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’ve been queuing nearly 48 hours in the cold, so I’m just wondering what’s so special about the new phone?”
He sighs and leans forward. “It’s new.”
And that is the point. It is four minutes to nine, and when the doors open and the whooping Apple employees in their blue T-shirts try to hold back the rushing human tide, my new friend will be the first person to own the very newest iPhone it is possible to own anywhere in the world, for a very short period of time.
In two minutes, the first buyers will put it on eBay and then it will be old. Obsolescence is built into newness – it is the flaw at the heart of everything we buy.
The Phoebus Cartel invented planned obsolescence and the rules companies would follow: the parameters for the upgrade diktat whether it be a light bulb or IoS software. But to become enthralled to the upgrade – to feel a psychological need to always want the newest new thing – required the failure of planned obsolescence, and a new idea tc replace it. Obsolescence itself needed an upgrade.
The 1951 Ealing Studios comedy The Man in the White Suit starred Alec Guinness as a scientist who accidentally invented a miraculous new material that would never wear out or go dirty.e think patronisingly of the 1950s as a naive time when the public could still have the wool pulled over their eyes, but nothing was further from the truth. War had politicised and educated the public. As a result of working in factories and on production lines, people knew both how things were made and what they were worth. This meant they were now wise to being conned.
But instead of being hailed a genius, union leaders and industrialists ganged up to destroy his formula.
The Man in the White Suit was a satire about planned obsolescence and the complicity of industry and unions in perpetuating a con on the public. Its success revealed the depth of anger the public felt and the cynicism they showed towards those carrying out what appeared to be shady deals
The Centennial Bulb, left, made in 1901, is still burning in Livermore Fire Station (Picture: Dick Jones); English actor Alec Guinness, far left, in The Man in the White Suit (Picture: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
“The Phoebus cartel wanted to systematise global policy on the behind closed boardroom doors. Guinness’s antihero wears a symbolic white suit standing for public integrity and honesty in a world of murky collusion.
But Roger MacDougall and Alexander MacKendrick’s script is far from anticapitalist. It pours scorn on both workers and bosses. This was a new kind of public disillusion: the disillusion of the consumer. Potentially far more dangerous than distrust of politicians, whom no one ever trusts.
Disillusionment with consumerism threatened the growth of the economy at a critical moment, when Western governments needed the public to buy.
The year The Man in the White Suit was released, the (British) Labour government was seeking re-election. They had delivered a welfare state in their first term, but failed to deliver a consumer boom. Winston Churchill sensed an opportunity to get back into office. “What we need,” the Conservative manifesto stated, “is abundance. The production of new wealth … far more beneficial than class.”
Churchill was making a stab for a new demographic: “consumers”. And consumers had a very political role to play in the resurrection of Britain. In 1951, the Korean War broke out. The world faced a seemingly stark choice between two competing brands: “communism” and “capitalism”.
For capitalism to win, Churchill and President Truman needed the consumer to do their duty and begin shopping for big-ticket purchases in Britain and America, powering a consumer boom and thus economic recovery. Consumerism was not merely shopping, it was an ideological weapon for fighting the Cold War.
Both communism and capitalism offered alternative nirvanas built on competing ideas of freedom: communism had tanks and the West had shoppers. Communism promised freedom from class and capitalism promised freedom to shop, but the difference was that capitalism could offer nirvana today, not the classless tomorrow in a never-never future.
This was a distinct advantage when it came to the battle for hearts and minds. Capitalism had tangible proof to workers that it worked: the things you had bought in your house. Communism had only a belief in tomorrow. In the struggle with communism, goods were evidence today and the act of buying them was your duty as a citizen.
But there was a problem. The duty of buying had something rotten at its core, and consumers had rumbled it. Planned obsolescence made a mockery of the ideology of consumerism and the duty of the consumer. Why should we do our duty if the whole thing was a con? If manufacturers wanted to reboot the credibility of consumerism in the minds of the consumer, they needed a new conjuring trick.