How many years does it take to change a lightbulb?

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My latest column for the Lancaster Guardian:

There is a light bulb in a fire station in the small Californian town of Livermore that has remained lit since 1901. The bulb was manufactured by Shelby Electric, of Ohio, and at the time they were experimenting with a number of different designs. Clearly this one proved to be particularly durable. And if you’re in the business of selling light bulbs, that is not good news.

In fact, so concerned were the light bulb manufacturers of the early 20th Century – which included General Electric, Philips and Osram – that in 1924 they formed a global cartel, and collectively agreed to not produce a light bulb with a lifespan longer than 1,000 hours.

This is one of the more notorious examples of planned obsolescence, but it is far from unique. Industrial designers use many different ways to ensure the items we buy are replaced at regular intervals. This includes parts that break, but also extends to products that are difficult to repair (I’m looking at you, Apple) or that are no longer supported by the maker (such as software).

And then there’s style obsolescence – the design of products that are so of their moment that they become unfashionable when trends change. The fashion industry is built on this premise of course, but so are many other sectors from automotive to home furnishing.

There are some signs things are changing. There is a big movement in favour of more sustainable, less disposable, products, and a desire to invest in objects that cost a little more but that last a lot longer, often featuring “classic” designs that are less likely to fall out of fashion.

In business there are changes too, with a move away from individual repeat purchases towards subscription models where customers pay on an ongoing basis, from Netflix and Spotify to Amazon Prime and Dropbox.

And in the light bulb business there are changes too. The latest LED bulbs by Philips promise 15,000 hours of light. It’s a long way from the 115 years (and counting) achieved by the little bulb in a Californian fire station, but it’s a start.

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How many years does it take to change a lightbulb?

Nothing ages you like technology

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My second column for the Lancaster Guardian:

Nothing ages you like technology

A couple of years ago when walking by one of the few remaining phone boxes I asked my eldest son, Oscar, who was six at the time, if he knew what it was. He did not. “People used them to make phone calls,” I explained. “Before mobile phones we would call buildings to see if our friends were inside them.”

“I knew you were old, Dad,” Oscar replied. “But not that old.”

Nothing ages you like technology. There’s a series on YouTube where children are given various items and asked if they know what they are. From Game Boys to film cameras, most kids are stumped. My favourite episode features a Walkman similar to one I had in the 1980s. “You gotta be kidding me!” one boy says, when told it’s for playing music.

I recently visited the Science Museum in London. Along one long wall a series of objects had been carefully arranged in date order. Peering at the older items it was pretty easy to understand what they were for, even if they were unknown to me. As I walked along the wall towards the present it became much more difficult to deduce the function from the design, as the objects shrank in size, grew in complexity, and switched from mechanical workings to electronic chips, from analogue to digital. Of course I knew the slab of glass at the end of the exhibition was a new smartphone, but I doubt an alien could figure it out.

When the personal computer became mainstream it came with lots of helpful metaphors to help people understand what things did. The screen was called a desktop. When you wanted to delete a file you dragged it into a waste paper bin. Files were kept in folders. It was both new and comfortingly familiar at the same time.

As computers have become ubiquitous the need for these real world metaphors has receded. In the last major redesign of Apple’s iPhone software the visual references to real world objects were toned down. We don’t need them anymore. And when our kids’ kids visit the Science Museum in thirty years they’ll have absolutely no idea what we did with our time.

Here’s the clip of the kids encountering a Walkman for the first time.

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Nothing ages you like technology

I started writing a column in the Lancaster Guardian

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I’ve started writing a weekly column for the local newspaper, the Lancaster Guardian, which seemed like a good idea at the time. The first one was published today. I didn’t write the headline.

As this is my first column I was asked to introduce myself. I’m marketing director and partner at Hotfoot Design, we’re based in the beautiful Storey building in town. When I’m not meeting with clients to discuss their brand, website or marketing, I’m Dad to two boys, Oscar and Mateo, aged 8 and 5, and husband to Nayeli.

I grew up in Thurnham, just south of Lancaster, where my Dad’s side of the family stretches back generations. My great-grandfather’s family owned the windmill in Pilling (now converted into a house) and my grandfather established the two garages in Cockerham, and liked to invent things, including a petrol economising device for which he was awarded a patent in 1937.

My Mum’s side of the family is quite exotic. My grandmother was born in India to parents with German, Portuguese and Indian heritage, and had two children before her husband died in a motorcyle accident. My grandfather’s family had emigrated from Dublin to England, he joined the army during the Second World War, and after Sandhurst was posted to India where he met and married my widowed grandmother. They moved to Lancaster after the war, and had twins, one of which was my Mum.

I went to Cockerham primary, then Garstang High, and then the Grammar for sixth form. After a gap year working and travelling (and drinking) I went to uni in Nottingham and stayed there to start a design magazine. After a few years I joined a London based PR firm and worked with big clients like Braun, Microsoft and Woodland Trust.

I got married to Nayeli in 2004, with a wedding in her home country of Mexico. I worked at a startup, and then started my own with a friend. I travelled to London every week for four years, but with two young children that wasn’t ideal, and so I’m happy to be working here again.

Growing up I wanted to live in New York, and I didn’t think I’d be living in Lancaster now, but as I walk to the office in the shadow of the castle, with the Ashton Memorial catching the sun on the hill, I can’t help but feel I made the right choice to return.

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I started writing a column in the Lancaster Guardian

When television was new

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From JF Ptak Science Books:

This cover (above) from Popular Science (February 1949) speaks to those early television times to me, the screen hosted in multiple layers of framing that gives it an appearance of a piece of art, which it was.

This pamphlet was delivered by Allen Du Mont Labs (1946) with the popular dictum that color television was not only possible but a probable near-term you-can-have-it-now reality.  The unfolded pamphlet cover also forms an interesting imaginary green-sky citiscape with a very stubby tv antenna foreground:

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This is a copyright deposit copy of the RCA Everyman introductory pamphlet on how television works.  It really isn’t so very Everyman-ish, at all…except maybe it was for 1939:

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I like this view (Popular Science, June 1946) because of the severely oblique bird’s-eye looking down/north on the tv antenna of the Empire State Building, sitting on top of the 102nd floor observation deck.  If you look closely you’ll see that there’s some sort of assembly going on:

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See JF Ptak Science Books for more.

When television was new