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.