Illuminating the Light Bulb Conspiracy

By on October 16th, 2014 in Case Studies, Ethics

IEEE Spectrum has posted a piece outlining a 1920’s conspiracy by light bulb manufacturers to both divide up markets and also limit the lifespan of light bulbs.  Apparently the Phoebus cartel  was formed to decide who would supply which markets, and also to implement planned obsolescence in the light bulb industry.  

To quote a key part of the piece:

The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.

We should not be surprised.  A U.S. specific collaboration of General Motors, Standard Oil, et al, were convicted in 1949 of monopolizing public transport … buying up street car companies, putting them out of business, and creating an increased demand for cars, gas, etc. Corporations are driven by maximizing profits, not by either ethical or legal concerns (although they do generally try to avoid having the CEO’s go to jail.)

Cartel collaborations create an  ethical question for engineers and technologists.

What do you do when management asks you to re-engineer your device to be less reliable, to break just after the warranty expires, etc.?  I suspect there are some good case studies in ethics to be developed here.  (Note this is not quite the level of problem as being asked to harm public safety by incorporating or ignoring cancer causing additives  — like cigarettes, lead in gas, etc.)

Any other good case studies in ethics that might prepare our emerging technologists for some of the challenges they face?

image: By Joseph Ferdinand Keppler – “The Modern Colossus of (Rail) Roads.” Puck (magazine), Vol. VI, No. 44, pp. 650-651.