Incandescent light bulbs in special applications, or in communist countries

It’s generally accepted as true that, at some time before 1950, the incandescent light bulb manufacturers in Europe and North America (Philips, Sylvania, etc.) agreed / conspired to make all light bulbs have an average life expectancy of N hours to protect their market.

  1. Since this was pretty well known, were there applications where a government said “For this purpose, we require a supplier to provide a durable, million-hour light bulb” ? For a lunar expedition or a B-52 bomber, perhaps ?

  2. How did this work in communist countries ? Presumably, in the U.S.S.R., light bulbs were manufactured locally and the bulb cartel didn’t have an influence. Did those light bulbs last longer than in the West ? Or did the planners require a specific MTBF to keep the factories going ?

This website (in German) is an interview with a Swiss professor who claims that during the Cold War, Narva bulbs (the government-owned manufacturer in East Germany) would last 1,500 hours on average and Osram (the largest brand in West Germany) bulbs 750 hours only. The website comes from a regional radio station in the eastern part of Germany that has a reputation for its tendency towards Ostalgie (nostalgic feelings for how things used to be on the other side of the Iron Curtain), so I’d assume there might be a certain bias at work here.

Can you provide a cite that suggests a conspiracy was afoot? Because I am skeptical about it. The design of an incandescent bulb is full of tradeoffs, and making design changes to increase longevity would cause other performance parameters (and cost) to worsen.

This is not anything I’ve ever heard of. Anyway, LED lights last much longer than incandescent anyway, so anyone looking for long life would probably go with one of those.

Well first you have to reach manufacturing quality standards where a product is robust and durable.

There is a cost associated with that quality control. During Soviet times the planned economy did not encourage quality manufacturing. Designs were created for utility and ease of volume manufacture in order to meet quotas of a planned economy. There was no consumer economy, no market selection. Quality control was rudimentary. Consumers would look for clues. They knew how the factories worked with monthly quotas. Standards were sloppy at the beginning of the month, crazy busy at the end to meet the quota. So a manufacturing date in the middle of the month was preferred.

Built in obsolescence emerges in market economies where the market has been distorted by manufacturers colluding to defraud the public by operating as a cartel. The intention is to lower design standards to stimulate demand for replacement products.

If you have a large manufacturing capacity that is greater than the market demand, then there is pressure to resort to such methods. Standards and market regulation are intended to stop such practices. But manufacturers can and do capture regulatory processes by political lobbying and representation on standards boards.

Built in obsolescence is not the only trick. For more expensive items, there are profits to be made on maintenance and servicing. The auto industry is a famous example of this and it is being brought into stark relief with the transition from high maintenance ICE vehicles to low maintenance EVs and cost of ownership comparisons.

Personal computers are another interesting example. Designs for the consumer market are of a very different standard compared to those intended for the corporate market. You want consumers to come back in a year or so and buy another laptop. However selling to a corporation, where you may have a maintenance contract, the dynamics are different. You want them to be robust and repairable to lower maintenance costs and so maximise maintenance income. I buy second hand Thinkpads and HP laptops originally sold to the
corporate market for this reason. Their consumer models are very different - much more difficult to repair or upgrade.

There are signs that this is changing. Governments are becoming concerned about the mountain of electronic waste that has to be disposed of each year. There is a cost to designed obsolescence and manufactures may be required bear the cost of disposal or recycling.

These syndromes arise from the economics of manufacturing and they are common in consumer mass markets, especially those that are highly price sensitive.

You want a washing machine that lasts for a decade or more? You buy an expensive Miele or another quality manufacturer. You want cheap? Then buy from one of the usual suspects who all use the same cheap parts that tend to fail after a few years.

The light bulb example is often taken because it is a very simple product. Reliability can improved by rigorous quality control and optimised design. But any technology has limits to its performance in a product. This becomes clear when the technology changes. So it is with light bulbs and the transition from incandescent to LED. If light bulb manufacturers could secretly make incandescent bulbs which lasted a hundred years, then surely we would see them emerge onto the market to see off LEDs and protect their investment? That clearly has not happened.

There are some that imagine there are all sorts of wonderous inventions that are kept hidden from the world because of the evil corporations intent on defrauding the public. That story will never die.

Specifically, a long-life incandescent bulb will have lower efficiency than normal. An issue that the light bulb companies addressed by making both regular and long-life versions of their products, both available off the shelf at any place that sold light bulbs, so the consumer could decide that tradeoff on their own. You don’t need a bomber or lunar expedition to make this tradeoff worthwhile: It can just be a household bulb in a place that’s difficult or inconvenient to change, like a fixture above a stairway.

This article summarizes the allegations

The cartel lowered operational costs and worked to standardize the life expectancy of light bulbs at 1,000 hours[6] (down from 2,500 hours),[6] and raised prices without fear of competition. The cartel tested their bulbs and fined manufacturers for bulbs that lasted more than 1,000 hours. A 1929 table listed the amount of Swiss francs paid that depended on the exceeding hours of lifetime.[8]

but also:

In 1951, Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission in the United Kingdom issued a report to Parliament and noted that:

“As regards life standards, before the Phoebus Agreement and to this day the general service filament lamp was and is designed to have, on average, a minimum life of 1,000 hours. It has often been alleged—though not in evidence to us—that the Phoebus organisation artificially made the life of a lamp short with the object of increasing the number of lamps sold. As we have explained in Chapter 9, there can be no absolutely right life for the many varying circumstances to be found among the consumers in any given country, so that any standard life must always represent a compromise between conflicting factors. B.S.I, has always adopted a single life standard for general service filament lamps, and the representatives of both B.S.I, and B.E.A., as well as most lamp manufacturers, have told us in evidence that they regard 1,000 hours as the best compromise possible at the present time, nor has an evidence been offered to us to the contrary. Accordingly we must dismiss as misconceived the allegation referred to above.”[11]

See also:

The efficiency (or lack thereof) of long-lasting incandescent bulbs can’t be understated, since even good incandescents are already terrible. That’s a very important trade-off and one which a lot of people don’t consider worth it. The same “conspiracy” seems to also be at play with LED lights too. I put conspiracy in quotes because sometimes manufacturers just come to the same conclusion about price and durability on their own. I can neither confirm nor deny, etc. etc. etc.

Anyway, it is possible to make LED lamps that are even more long-lasting AND energy efficient than are currently available. The “Dubai Lamp” was mandated by law in the UAE and is manufactured by Philips. They use about half as much power as their non-Dubai equivalent, and they also last about twice as long. The trick is more LED elements. Most normal retail lights overdrive their LED elements which shortens their life, but it also pushes them past their most efficient power band as well. More elements does add to the cost, but it doesn’t double it. BigClive has done an extensive teardown and analysis.

As others have said, you could make an incandescent bulb which lasts longer but it’s much less efficient. IIRC One of the Imponderables books addresses the issue of bulbs in traffic lights. They were purpose built bulbs that lasted for years and were horribly inefficient. Now of course, they use LED’s.

Early in the switch to LED’s I recall a new item regarding the secondary issues. Incandescent light bulbs generated heat and during a driving snowstorm this melted buildup off the traffic lights. Apparently LED lights are less able to melt ice accumulation off the traffic signal lenses.

Note the Dubai bulb illustrates the true nature of the issue with bulbs - not that they are deliberately limited life, but that life extension is a trade-off; in the Dubai LED case, more LED means more cost. Supposedly, LED’s are more than long-lasting enough. Similarly, I assume longer incandescent bulbs required better (thicker?) tungsten and better vacuum in the bulb. So the question is how much are consumers willing to pay for a longer-lasting bulb.

That, and how much, as in the UAE (or hypothetical “communist” countries) is the government willing to make it illegal for cartels to flood the market with cheap crap. LEDs are not that inefficient or expensive nowadays, at least not in a correct design.

Incandescent light bulbs used in traffic signals (such as the no. 12817 bulb) are rated for 8,000 hours when operated at 130 V, and thus will last considerably longer when operated at 120 V, which is what they’re actually operated at. As you mentioned, the tradeoff is that they’re less efficient at 130 V vs. 120 V.

BTW… if you’re wanting a long-lasting incandescent light bulb for a particular application, the no. 12817 is a good one to use.

Why should the government regulate that? The only reason would be environmental or other safety reasons. Bulbs replaced every year or two were not flooding landfills. The second reason that might matter is any cartel activity. Manufacturers cannot conspire to keep up prices.

The real measure is demand. Will people pay more for a longer lasting bulb? Assuming they were available, advertised as such, priced accordingly and did not sell as well suggests it was not a priority. (To be fair, I don’t remember replacing bulbs regularly. Fail rates, even back in the 60’s and 70’s, were not always so high as to be annoying.)

Well, my experience when shopping for light bulbs (before 2010, say) was just a general impression that these things didn’t last and were expendable, that there was a non-zero chance that the filament was already broken, or that it would be broken by the time I got home. I always interpreted the number of hours on the package to be pure fantasy, not backed or guaranteed by anyone. There was no way to test this myself except by installing various types of bulbs in the same fixture – multiple bulbs of each type, of course, to keep randomness in check.

So I never bought a more expensive bulb even it it claimed to be “long-lasting”. It was disillusionment and cynicism, not a rational cost-benefit decision. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to view things this way. I don’t think it makes sense to rely on the wisdom of the markets if sellers have convinced most people that there’s no value anywhere.

And I have the same negative view towards inkjet printers, of course : if I get the feeling I’m getting screwed by the whole industry and that I can’t trust the manufacturers’ numbers, what’s the use of using my calculator to compare ?

This is mostly moot today : ordinary 60-watt incandescent bulbs were outlawed in Canada several years ago (right?). CFLs had their run, which was not as great as advertised. Now it’s about choosing between a brand-name LED bulb made in China, and a no-name LED bulb made in China.

When I was younger and a fan of trivia and world’s records books I learned that there were incandescent bulbs that had been continuously illuminated for nearly 100 years. They were all located in fire stations.

The current (chortle) record holder-120 years.

In the New Yorker article in post #7, I found this part funny:

It’s already possible to buy durable products, he said—Miele washing machines, Vitsoe shelving, Jaguar cars.

Isn’t all shelving durable enough in the physical sense, and only removed when it goes out of style ? And the two people I know who’ve had Jaguars in the past 20 years wouldn’t claim they were as reliable as a Toyota Camry.

Yea, I about spit my coffee out when I saw the words “durable” and “Jaguar cars” in the same sentence. :grin: (Though I heard they have gotten much better over the past decade or two.)

It’s not that difficult to make very long lasting light bulbs, and there are people who would gladly buy them even if they weren’t quite as efficient as regular bulbs.

In fact, several years ago a charity was going around selling “forever bulbs” that supposedly would never burn out. This of course wasn’t actually true, but the light bulbs would last for many years, instead of the usual few months of a regular el-cheapo bulb.

The charity made a lot of money selling these bulbs (or technically giving them away in exchange for donations, I’m not sure of the details). After a few years though, everyone who wanted an ultra-long lasting light bulb had one, and they weren’t burning out, so they didn’t need any more. The charity couldn’t sell any more so they had to switch to something else.

This wasn’t rocket science. The bulbs had thick glass and heavy duty elements. The cost was higher than a standard bulb, but probably saved you money in the long term since it would outlast several boxes of el-cheapo bulbs. They were probably a bit less efficient, but not enough to make a significant difference in your electric bill.

But then you couldn’t buy new ones when they finally did wear out, because sales had been too low to sustain them.

You don’t need a conspiracy for all of the light bulb manufacturers to intentionally make cheap bulbs. You just need competent bean-counters who can figure out what level of crap is good enough that people will buy it and bad enough that you won’t work yourself out of a job.

That likely applies to the overwhelming majority of consumer goods sold in the US.

I remember the Big Three auto makers explaining that they work on a ‘pull model’ of consumer demand, meaning: they make and sell products that the customer wants.

[I think this was around Leviathan SUVs, and then ultra high HP muscle cars]

Bull parts. At least, mostly bull parts.

The tooling, design, and long lead times involved in the sales of vehicles make that virtually impossible.

What they did (and still) do is make strategic bets (that part is where consumer preference is a strong consideration), do product planning, invest, and then sell the hell out of … whatever (“push”), doing everything to convince you that you actually do want what they’ve already built.

There’s a similar supply-demand dance in nearly all of consumption. It’s like asking who’s to blame for overuse of prescription antibiotics – the patients or the physicians.

It’s some of both.

If manufacturers can shift consumer preference/tolerance toward … shit … shit often proves very profitable, particularly over the long run as you essentially have an annuity (ie, a subscription model with high repurchase rates).

Which leads to a tremendous amount of time spent on consumption, dollars spent, and landfills … filled.

When I can, I’ll always try to “buy once, cry once.” I want to incrementally support corporations that are still willing to sell me something built to last (rather than being built to fall apart and be replaced).

[The High Cost of Low Price … as it always was]