Planned obsolescence and the lightbulb

Before Thomas Edison invented and commercialised the lightbulb in the 1900’s the primary source of light was a fairly mixed and frankly murky bag of candles, oil burning and kerosene lamps. All messy affairs that were expensive, hard to produce, which dripped and often set fire to things. In fact the prohibitive cost of wax candles meant that most people still used tallow candles which were basically just burning, stinking globs of animal fat. Nice!

The lightbulb is often held up as being the greatest invention of all time and subjectively it’s not hard to see why. My interest for this post lies in why the lightbulbs we buy were designed to fail. A technique known as planned obsolescence, which, to quote wikipedia means:

Planned obsolescence is a policy of designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete after a certain period of time.

It is only when we consider the lightbulb quantifiably that we begin to understand why the bulbs you have always bought (albeit before the onset of modern day LED bulbs) would fail after an arbitrary period, despite the fact that the technology has always been more than capable of lasting far longer.

Now, the measure of light is lumens and the common candle emits 13 lumen whilst it burns. The first carbon filament bulbs brought to market by Edison was as 100 times as bright as that from a candle.

But it wasn’t just brightness that made people sing the praises of the revolutionary lightbulb. The lightbulb produced light that was clean, safe and controllable. And it last far longer. For the same cost it previously took you to have about an hour of light, the lightbulb would last for 10 continuous days. That’s a 240x improvement.

So why design in that obsolescence? Simple. The lightbulb was too good.

The moral?

It’s important to find a 10 fold improvement on what went before, but 2 orders of magnitude or more, as was the case with the lightbulb, are simply too much for the market to handle. They are too radical and as was the case with the lightbulb not commercially viable. That therefore naturally led to limiting the durability of the bulb to ensure that people kept coming back for more.


Inspiration for this post drawn from 50 things that made the modern economy: Lightbulb.