What Is the Longest Shining Light Bulb? | The Phoebus Cartel

If you’re old enough to remember when lights were bulbs and not everything was an LED, you also remember having to change the light bulbs in your home every now and then. Maybe you heard the conspiracy theory that your filament light bulbs were made worse because they originally made them to last forever. Well there’s actually some merit to that conspiracy theory–and we’ll get to it. But what is the longest shining (longest lasting?) light bulb?

Incandescent Light Bulbs

So when we’re talking about light bulbs, we’re talking about the ones commercialized in the 1850s. You know the ones with the wire in them that make the low buzzing noise when they’re used in movies. 

The very basic gist of how incandescent bulbs work is by heating that wire looking thing inside the glass bulb. This filament is heated until it gets so hot it glows, producing light. So one of the big engineering feats here was creating a filament that wouldn’t melt or vaporize. Later bulbs used tungsten, and filled with inert gases like argon or nitrogen to prevent the tungsten from rusting inside the bulb. Others were vacuums with carbon-based filaments, these were by far the most common used prior to the introduction of tungsten filaments. Also, yes, being a vacuum is why they burst. 

Here’s the big takeaway; incandescent bulbs operate because of heat, meaning they’re super inefficient for light generation. The vast majority of the energy going into an incandescent bulb is not used for illumination. Less than 10% of the energy is actually used to create light–the other 90% is just lost as heat. Which makes sense if you think about it for five seconds–you have to put in a lot to heat something to the point of glowing.

The Centennial Light

The world’s longest lasting light bulb is actually still on right now. You can even go to it, it’s housed in a California fire station. It’s never switched off, and has been on since 1901–it even has its own backup generator and isn’t hooked up to a light switch at all. You can even watch a live stream of the Centennial Light.

If you want to read more about the Centennial Light, check out this post on the blog: The Centennial Light – A Bulb That Won’t Stop Burning

The Phoebus Cartel aka Why Your Phone Died. Again.

Conspiracy time: if light bulbs like the Centennial Light could last forever, why wouldn’t manufacturers make the perfect light bulb that would never die? If you have the perfect product, everyone would buy from you. Except if your product lasted forever, nobody would ever buy that product again, and eventually you’d run out of people to sell to.

Enter: the Phoebus Cartel; yeah they literally named themselves after a deity of light. It feels grosser the more you think about it.

Anyway, the Phoebus Cartel was founded by some of the top light bulb manufacturers in 1924. This included Osram, Philips, and General Electric. Together, they realized that if one of them made a forever-light bulb, nobody would ever buy one again. Thus, it was in their best interests to all make light bulbs designed to fail to keep people coming back.

Prior to 1925, incandescent bulbs had an operating time between 1,500 to 2,000 hours–but after 1925 their operating time was reduced to 1,000 hours. Phoebus Cartel members claimed that this was actually to protect the consumer–the bulbs were supposed to be more efficient and higher quality–despite lasting for less time and costing more. 

If this smells like shenanigans, it is shenanigans. The Phoebus Cartel sold over 335 million light bulbs between 1926 and 1927–increasing to over 420 million just 4 years later. Combined with lower manufacturing costs, the Phoebus Cartel’s stranglehold of the light bulb manufacturing industry shot profits through the roof. It’s kind of like when pharmaceutical companies all get together to increase drug prices by the exact same amount at the exact same time. 

Phoebus Cartel Legacy

Eventually, the Phoebus Cartel collapsed due to infighting and eventually WWII. Osram was a German company and General Electric was an American one; just to name an example. If not WWII, the advent of LED bulbs probably would have killed them anyway. If you install an LED into your home’s ceiling, you’re more likely to move than you are to have to replace any of them. They’re also a tad more efficient.

But the legacy of the Phoebus Cartel is long lasting. They were the pioneers of planned obsolescence, which you might hear a lot about because Apple gets sued for it often and you’re always having to replace your iPhone because the battery sucks or the new update bricked your phone. It’s not just Apple, planned obsolescence is very common, and worth exploring separately.

Next time you have to replace your phone after it feels like you just got it, though, you can thank a bunch of light bulb manufacturers. 

If you’re feeling like a word puzzle, here’s a light themed one. Imagine if you had to solve a word ladder every time you wanted to turn on the lights. Eugh.