One of my very earliest wibblettes, back in 2007, was a simple rant about the very topic that ‘Veritasium’ expounds here. I’ve touched on the subject several times since (for instance in 2011, when I asked the question “Hey, clever people, can you design to last?“; I’m still waiting on an answer to that that isn’t “No, because we have to ‘design for the dump’ or civilization will collapse”… /eyeroll).
We really do, desperately, need to get off this ‘stuff’ treadmill. But before we can even think about doing that, we need to open our eyes to the fact that it exists. Veritasium sheds some light on the matter:
Veritasium: This is a video about things, like cars, phones and lightbulbs; and an actual conspiracy that made them worse. This video was sponsored by NordVPN; more about them at the end of the video. I am outside Livermore Fire Station #6; and in here, they have the longest continuously-on lightbulb in the world. It has been on for 120 years, since 1901. It’s not even connected to a light switch — but it does have a back-up battery and generator. So, the big question is: how has this lightbulb lasted so long? It was manufactured by hand not long after commercial lightbulbs were first invented, and yet it has been running for over a million hours; way longer than any lightbulb today is meant to last.
A while back, a friend of mine told me this story: that someone had invented a lightbulb that would last forever — years ago; but they never sold it because an everlasting lightbulb makes for a terrible business model. I mean, you would never have any repeat customers and eventually you would run out of people to sell lightbulbs to. I thought this story sounded ridiculous. If you could make an everlasting lightbulb, then everyone would buy your lightbulb over the competitors’: and so you could charge really high prices, make a lot of money — even if demand would eventually dry up. I just couldn’t imagine that we had better lightbulbs in the past, and then intentionally made them worse. But it turns out I was wrong. At least, sort of.
Inventing a viable electric light was hard. I mean, this is the typical incandescent design, which just involves passing electric current through a material, making it so hot that it glows. You know, less than 5% of the electrical energy comes out as light; the other 95% is released as heat. So, these are really ‘heat bulbs’ which give off a little bit of light as a by-product. You know, the temperature of the filament can get up to 2800 Kelvin. That is half as hot as the surface of the sun. At temperatures like those, most materials melt; and if they don’t melt, they burn. Which is why in the 1840s, Warren De la Rue came up with the idea of putting the filament in a vacuum bulb so there’s no oxygen to react with. By 1879, Thomas Edison had made a bulb with a cotton thread filament that lasted 14 hours. Other inventors created bulbs with platinum filaments or other carbonized materials; and, gradually, the lifespan of bulbs increased. The filaments changed from carbon to tungsten, which has a very high melting point; and by the early 1920s, average bulb lifetimes were approaching 2000 hours, with some lasting 2500 hours. But this is when lifetimes stopped getting longer, and started getting shorter.
In Geneva, Switzerland, just before Christmas 1924, there was a secret meeting of top executives from the world’s leading lightbulb companies: Philips, International General Electric, Tokyo Electric, Osram from Germany and the UK’s Associated Electric, among others. They formed what became known as the Phoebus cartel, named after Phoebus, the Greek god of light. There, all these companies agreed to work together to help each other: by controlling the world’s supply of lightbulbs. In the early days of the electrical industry, there had been lots of different small lightbulb manufacturers; but, by now, they had largely been consolidated into these big corporations, each dominant in a particular part of the world. The biggest threat they all faced was from longer lasting lightbulbs. For example, in 1923, Osram sold 63 million lightbulbs: but the following year they sold only 28 million. Lightbulbs were lasting too long, eating into sales. So, all the companies in the cartel agreed to reduce the lifespan of their bulbs to 1000 hours, cutting the existing average almost in half.
But how could each company ensure that the other companies would actually follow the rules and make shorter lasting lightbulbs? After all, it would be in each of their individual interests to make a better product to out-sell the others. Well, to enforce the thousand-hour limit, each of the manufacturers had to send in sample bulbs from their factories, and they were tested on big test stands like this one. If a bulb lasted significantly longer than a thousand hours, then the company was fined. If a bulb lasted longer than three thousand hours? Well, the fine was 200 Swiss Francs for every thousand bulbs sold; and there are records of these fines being issued to companies. But, how do you make a worse lightbulb in the first place? Well, the same engineers who had previously been tasked with extending the lifespan now had to find ways to decrease it. So they tried different materials, different shaped filaments and thinner connections: and if you look at the data, they were successful. Ever since the formation of the cartel, the lifespan of lightbulbs steadily decreased so that by 1934 the average lifespan was just 1205 hours. And just as they had planned, sales increased for cartel members by 25% in the four years after 1926. And even though the cost of components came down, the cartel kept prices virtually unchanged, so they increased their profit margins.
So, did people know that the lightbulb companies were conspiring together to make their products worse? No. The Phoebus cartel claimed that its purpose was to increase standardization and efficiency of lightbulbs; I mean, they did establish this screw thread as standard: you can find it on virtually all lightbulbs around the world now. But all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for consumers.
So, one of the reasons this lightbulb has lasted so long is because it was made before the cartel era. Another reason is because the filament has always been run at low power, just four or five Watts. It was meant to be a night light for the fire station, to provide just enough light so that firemen wouldn’t run into things at night. And the fact that it was always on reduced the thermal cycling of the filament and components, limiting the stress caused by thermal expansion and contraction. The Phoebus cartel was initially planned to last at least until 1955, but it fell apart in the 1930s. It was already struggling due to outside competition and non-compliance amongst some of its members, but the outbreak of World War Two is really what finished it off. So, this cartel was dead; but its methods survive to this day. There are lots of companies out there that intentionally shorten the lifespan of their products. It’s a tactic known now as ‘planned obsolescence’.
This was actually the subject of Casey Neistat’s first viral video, all the way back in 2003:
Ryan: Thank you for calling Apple; my name name’s Ryan, may I have your first name, please?
Ryan: All right, what seems to be the issue today?
Casey: I have an iPod that I bought about 18 months ago, and the battery is dead on it?
Ryan: Mmhm? 18 months? OK, it’s passed its year, which basically means, there’ll be a charge of $255, plus a mailing fee to send it to us to refurb it, to correct it. But at that price, you know, you might as well go get a new one.
Veritasium: This video got millions of views in a time before YouTube or social media, and it spawned a class action lawsuit which Apple settled out of court. But it didn’t stop the company from practising planned obsolescence. After an iOS update in 2017, users of older iPhones found apps loading significantly slower, or the device shutting down altogether. Apple said they’d throttled performance to protect the battery of older devices and increase their longevity. Of course, that wouldn’t be an issue if the battery were replaceable. In a series of lawsuits that concluded in 2020, Apple was fined, or reached settlements to pay, hundreds of millions of dollars. Undoubtedly, this amount pales in comparison to the extra revenue they generate by limiting the lifespan of their products.
But some would argue that planned obsolescence isn’t just about greed, but that it’s also good for everyone. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, when as much as a quarter of Americans were out of work, an American real estate broker, Bernard London, proposed mandatory planned obsolescence as a way to get people back to work and lift America out of the Depression. He wrote, “I would have the government assign a lease of life to shoes, and homes, and machines when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence, definitely known by the consumer”. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally ‘dead’, and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. Now, this might sound like a wild fringe idea; but people were clearly afraid of being put out of work by technological progress and products that were too good.
There was even a popular Oscar-nominated film about it. This is ‘The Man in the White Suit‘, from 1951. It’s about a scientist who invents the perfect fibre; it won’t stain, or break, or fray….
Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness): I think I’ve succeeded in the co-polymerisation of amino acid residues and carbohydrate molecules; both containing ionic groups. It’s really perfectly simple.
Veritasium: The Academy Award nomination was for best screenplay: I kid you not. Anyway, everyone is initially excited about our hero’s scientific discovery: he makes a suit out of the thread, and it has to be white because the fibre is so stain-resistant it can’t even be dyed. But this is when trouble strikes: the factory owners realize they won’t be able to sell as much of this thread because it’s so durable; and the workers worry it’ll put them out of a job.
Ignorant old washerwoman: Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?
Veritasium: This is when you get the climactic scene where factory workers and factory owners team up to chase down the scientist to destroy him and his invention. And believe it or not, this movie may have been inspired by real events. In the 1940s, the synthetic fibre nylon replaced silk in stockings, and it was so durable that the products became an overnight sensation. There were literal riots when women tried to get their hands on them. When the manufacturers realized they had made the product too good, they didn’t destroy the fibre; but they did follow the example of the Phoebus cartel: they instructed their engineers and scientists to find ways to weaken the product; to shorten its lifespan so people would have to buy more.
Now, it seems like consumers are finally fighting back against planned obsolescence. In the European Union, and in over 25 states in the US, there’s proposed legislation to enshrine the ‘right to repair’. These laws would force manufacturers to make it easier to repair their products. They would have to provide information and access to parts so you could replace a battery or fix a cracked screen at a third party repair shop without voiding your warranty. So, if the right to repair does become law, does that mean artificial obsolescence will be gone for good? Sadly, no, because there is one last thing manufacturers can use to make their products obsolete, which is you.
Henry Ford released the first mass market car, the Model T, in 1908, and he envisioned it like a workhorse, an affordable tool that wouldn’t wear out; a bit like the everlasting lightbulb. In 1922, Ford said, “We want the man who buys one of our cars never to have to buy another. We never make an improvement that renders any previous model obsolete”. But by 1920, 55% of American families already owned a car. Nearly everyone that could afford one, had one. And that same year, there was a small economic downturn, driving down sales for both Ford and General Motors. In 1921, Dupont, the chemical and paint company, took over the controlling share in General Motors, and they started experimenting with painting cars different colours. Up until then, Henry Ford had said, “you could have whatever colour you like — so long as it’s black”. It took a couple of years of testing, but in 1924, GM released their first cars in different colours, and soon after they introduced a trick that feels very familiar now. Each new year, they would introduce cars in different colours.
The goal wasn’t just to make Ford’s Model T look outdated, but to make their own cars feel outdated every year; encouraging customers to trade in their old cars for shiny new ones. Years later, GM’s head of design, Harley Earl, candidly discussed his role in creating what he called ‘dynamic obsolescence’: “Our big job is to hasten obsolescence. In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years now (which was 1955) it is two years. When it is one year we will have a perfect score.” By the time he said this, General Motors was the most valuable company in the world, and it sold half of all vehicles purchased in the US every year. These days, the world’s most valuable company, Apple, seems to have copied directly out of this play-book. I mean, new styles every year? Check. New special colours every year? Check. Marginal technological improvement? Check. I mean, is this useful innovation, or just a gimmick?
The inspiration for General Motors, and hence for Apple, comes from fashion; where real innovation is all but impossible. So, the only way to make people feel the urgency to get out there and buy is to create styles that last but one season. The trouble then is, you run through these styles too quickly — and then what are you supposed to do? Well, just recycle the styles from a few decades ago. The iPhone also shows this recycling trend. I mean, just look at the way the edges were initially rounded; and then they were squared off; and then they were rounded again; and now they’re squared off. And how much do you want to bet that the iPhone 14 has rounded edges? I think the point is that with design and styling, there is no ‘best,’ there’s only ‘different,’ which is apparently enough to remind us that we don’t have the latest and greatest, and so we have to rush out and keep buying.
The only type of obsolescence we should support is technological. Which brings us back to the lightbulb. You know, in the last 20 years, lightbulbs have gone from incandescent, which was basically unchanged for a hundred years, to compact fluorescent; and now to LED. These use just a tenth the energy and can last anywhere from 10 to 50 times longer. Yeah, that’s pretty bright. So, you’re more likely to sell your house than to have to replace an LED bulb that you’ve installed inside it. So, we’ve finally reached the point of what is essentially an everlasting lightbulb.
[NordVPN advert snipped] So, I want to thank NordVPN for sponsoring Veritasium, and I want to thank you for watching.
… and I want to thank Sonix for making it possible to transcribe this video without it taking me a dozen hours or more!
PS I’ve been reminded, by some visitors who have searched Wibble for the keyword ‘conspiracy’, that I posted a short article last year entitled ‘The Conspiracy Theory Handbook‘: If you’ve got this far and are interested in the topic, you may want to take a look at that. I think you may find it interesting.