The Great Conspiracy, Volume 3

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Chris Jimenez. Over the next decade or so, GE would acquire significant stakes in all the member companies that it did not already own. To oversee national lightbulb markets and their respective development in global trade, Phoebus established a supervisory body, chaired by Meinhardt of Osram. Most significantly for consumers, Phoebus expended considerable technical effort into engineering a shorter-lived lightbulb. How exactly did the cartel pull off this engineering feat?

The Great Conspiracy, Volume 3

But to create one that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1, hours took some doing over a number of years. The household lightbulb in was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2, hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.

The details of this effort have been very slow to emerge. Some facts came to light in the s, when the U. The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine.

Companies were also fined for exceeding their sales quotas, which were constantly being adjusted. In , for example, Tokyo Electric noted in a memo to the cartel that after shortening the lives of its vacuum and gas-filled lightbulbs, sales had jumped fivefold. At one point, some members surreptitiously introduced longer-lived bulbs by designing them to run at a voltage higher than the standard line voltage.

After the very strenuous efforts we made to emerge from a period of long life lamps, it is of the greatest importance that we do not sink back into the same mire by paying no attention to voltages and supplying lamps that will have a very prolonged life. Another was to adjust the current, as GE engineers did to decrease the life span of its flashlight bulbs. A GE flashlight bulb in the precartel days was designed to last longer than three changes of batteries. This life span was then cut to two battery changes, and in the GE engineering department proposed that the bulb last no longer than one battery.

Alas, more current means not only more brightness but also higher filament temperature and therefore shorter life.

Over the course of nearly a decade, the cartel succeeded in this quest. At that point, no factory was producing bulbs lasting more than 1, hours. And sell more bulbs they did, at least initially. In fiscal year —27, for instance, the cartel sold From its inception until the end of , the cartel retained its overwhelming share of a growing market. But the good times would not last. As the cartel continued its policy of artificially elevated prices, competitors spotted a golden opportunity to sell cheaper, if often inferior-quality, goods.

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Particularly threatening was the flood of inexpensive bulbs from Japan. Although Tokyo Electric was a cartel member, it had no control over the hundreds of smaller, family-owned workshops that produced bulbs almost entirely by hand. Japanese consumers apparently preferred the higher-quality products sold by the larger manufacturers, and so the majority of these cheap, handmade bulbs were exported to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, where they sold for a fraction of the price of a Phoebus bulb and well below the average production cost of a cartel bulb, too.

However, as Philips historian I. Powerful and influential though it was, the Phoebus cartel was short-lived.


Within six years of its formation, the cartel was already starting to struggle. Between and , its sales volume dropped by more than 20 percent—even as the overall market for lighting was growing. Though long gone, the Phoebus cartel still casts a shadow today.

After more than a century of dominance, these bulbs are now being phased out in favor of compact fluorescent and especially LED bulbs. Consumers are expected to pay more money for bulbs that are up to 10 times as efficient and that are touted to last a fantastically long time—up to 50, hours in the case of LED lights.