The Lightbulb Conspiracies

The 1st Conspiracy (1924-1939) – The Incandescent Bulb

The first conspiracy was presented earlier this year in the documentary The Lightbulb Conspiracy, about planned obsolescence. (Freedom Lightbulb has review, comments and links to the full movie.) Here is a summary of the lightbulb part of the film:

In the early 1900′s, the goal was to make the light bulb last as long as possible. Edison’s lamp lasted 1500 hours, and in the 1920′s, manufacturers advertised lamps sporting a 2500 hour life. Then leading lamp manufacturers came up with the idea that it might be more profitable if the bulbs were made less durable.

In 1924, the Phoebus cartel was created in order to control global lamp production, to which they tied manufacturers all over the world, dividing the various continents between them. In the documentary, historian Helmut High shows the original cartel document that states: “The average life of lamps may not be guaranteed, advertised or published as more than 1 000 hours.” The cartel pressured its members to develop a more fragile incandescent bulb, which would remain within the established 1000-hour rule. Osram tested life and all manufacturers that did not keep the lower standards were heavily fined. Bulb life was thereby reduced to the required 1000 hours.

The film claims that there are patents on incandescent light bulbs with 100 000 hours lifetime, but they never went into production – except Adolphe Chaillets bulb of Livermore Fire Department in California, which has burned continuously since 1901. In 1981, the East German company Narva created a lamp for a long life lamp and showed it at an international light fair. Nobody was interested. (It later became accepted as a special ‘long-life’ lamp but was never a commercial hit.)

Wikipedia states that the Phoebus cartel included Osram, Philips, Tungsram, Compagnie des Lampes, Associated Electrical Industries, ELIN, International General Electric, and the GE Overseas Group. “They owned shares in the Swiss corporation proportional to their lamp sales.”

“The Phoebus Cartel divided the world’s lamp markets into three categories:

  1. home territories, the home country of individual manufacturers
  2. British overseas territories, under control of Associated Electrical Industries, Osram, Philips, and Tungsram
  3. common territory, the rest of the world

In 1921 a precursor organisation was founded by Osram, the Internationale Glühlampen Preisvereinigung. When Philips and other manufacturers were entering the American market, General Electric reacted by setting up the International General Electric Company in Paris. Both organisations were involved in trading patents and adjusting market penetration. Increasing international competition led to negotiations between all major companies to control and restrict their respective activities in order not to interfere in each other’s spheres.”

According to the documentary, the cartel officially never existed (even though their memorandum remains in archives). Their strategy has been to rename all the time, but still exists in one form or another. The film mentions The International Energy cartel, but that seems to be more about controlling world energy production rather than light bulbs specifically.

See also: Freedom Lightbulb: Light Bulb Testimonial

Update: Ceolas.net found an Osram pdf (nicely spotted!) where the Pheobus is mentioned, though of course not called a cartel but “an agreement”. Quoting from pp. 31-33:

The world light bulb agreement (Phoebus agreement)

Soon after OSRAM was founded its chairman, Dr. William Meinhardt, made it his mission not only to unite the German light bulb industry but also to achieve international cooperation among similar companies. His aim was to build bridges and make connections to bring the world’s leading companies closer together. The conditions for such a move were favourable. Preparatory negotiations lasted many years until finally in 1924 Dr. Meinhardt’s initiative bore fruit in the form of the “General Patent and Development Agreement”. A company called Phoebus S.A. was founded under Swiss law. Its highest decisionmaking body was the general assembly. The chairman of the administrative board (supervisory board) was Dr. Meinhardt.

This “world light bulb agreement” was one of the most far-reaching international agreements. It included the most prominent manufacturing companies in the world, with the exception of those in the USA and Canada (through with their agreement) as direct members.

Representing Europe were OSRAM from Germany, Philips from Holland, G.E.C. from the UK, the Compagnie des Lampes from France, Kremenezky from Austria, Tungsram from Hungary, the Società Edison Clerici from Italy and companies from Spain. Swedish and Swiss companies provided a representative together with medium-size German light bulb manufacturers. The initial agreement was set to run for ten years but it was extended in view of its success. It was nullified in 1940 because of the war.

To maintain the effectiveness of the agreement it was necessary to set up a streamlined organisation. The arrangements were generously adapted to suit the purpose of the agreement. 

The agreement related to all electric light bulbs used for illumination, heating or medical purposes. Arc lamps, neon lamps, x-ray lamps and radio tubes were excluded. If, during the course of the agreement, new light sources of general importance were developed they could be included in the agreement. This applied later to fluorescent lamps.

The 2nd Conspiracy (1938 and onwards) – The FL Tube & HID Lamps

OK, this one is perhaps more of a Zeitgeist thing than an actual thought-out conspiracy since at the time it was generally thought that, after millennia of dim lighting, light quantity was always a blessing and quality of no importance at all. It was also an era of industrial optimism and a complete unawareness of environmental and health effects of various toxic chemicals found useful in everyday applications.

So, in the 1929s and 30s, along with functionalism in architecture, there was a great rush to find new and more efficient ways of illuminating work places and public areas. The fluorescent tube (FL) seemed to be the answer and the first tubes were marketed in 1938. But then came WWII.

The situation after the war was ideal: a clean slate upon which to build massive functionalistic buildings lit by overly bright fluorescent light everywhere. Again, likely by the coordinated effort of the lighting industry, the FL tube became the standard light in offices and residential building common areas, as well as in home owners’ kitchens and basements – despite the light quality being outright appalling.

High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps such as the Mercury Vapour lamps were used factories and cast a harsh eerie blue-green light on public streets; in the 60s joined by Sodium Vapour and Metal Halide lamps (which are Mercury Vapour lamps with halogens added for improved light colour and colour rendition). Not that there was a better alternative at the time: short-lived and ineffective incandescent lamps would not have been practical for road illumination (though there were combination lamps for a time, where the incandescent helped ignite the MV lamp). But some might have preferred to have more quality light than quantity indoors, e.g. in schools and offices, like in earlier decades.

Mercury-based FL/HID light continued through subsequent decades to be spread into every area of human life, eagerly pushed by lighting industry organisations (e.g like Belysningsbranschen in Sweden and their equivalents in other countries) who issue professional lighting standards for all public spaces.

By the 1980s, mainly private homes and some commercial areas such as restaurants, hotels and small shops remained incandescent. But even such romantic sanctuaries were not to be left alone.

The 3rd Lightbulb Conspiracy (1985 and ongoing) – The CFL

This self-confessed conspiracy by lamp companies and utilities and national energy agencies has already been outlined in The Global Anti-Lightbulb Campaign, and on the New Electric Politics site Shining a Light on Politics and Light Bulbs.

When I wrote that first post two years ago, I was not aware of the first lightbulb conspiracy, but the info about the Phoebus cartel provided the last pieces of the puzzle as to how lamp manufacturers were able to pull off the CFL scam and get a global ban of their by then unprofitable product (the incandescent bulb) in such a short time. One only has to check the ELC (European Lamp Companies Federation) website to see that lamp manufacturers are still extremely well organized, and now brag openly about their lobbying:

We represent the leading lamp manufacturers in Europe. 95% of total European production. 50 000 employees in Europe. 5 billion EURO European Turnover  - view lamp statisticsWe are an international non profit-making association under Belgian law with a secretariat in Brussels. We are a flexible, light & efficient decision-making lobby organisation. See our views on climate change & energy efficiencyRecent newsWe were created in 1985 – view our structure.

Interesting date 1985… right before the CFL was released on an unsuspecting public.

Utilities and national market transformation programmes now also brag openly about how they managed to increase public acceptance of substandard CFLs by addressing consumer concerns with blatant propaganda (see The Global Anti-Lightbulb Campaign for details).

As for utilities’ part of the scheme, see New Electric Politics

Then in 2009, the conspiracy moved up to United Nations level, with a chance for lamp manufacturers to get subsidies for dumping their unwanted CFLs on unsuspecting Asian and African countries – who a) won’t be informed of the mercury content and other issues and b) are very unlikely to have efficient recycling plans and facilities set up – while getting a green halo for their saintly ‘environmental’ efforts.

“There is growing momentum now, and a very aggressive timeline to address the emerging issues of climate change. We have learned a lot in Europe and the United States over the past few years, and need to apply that in the emerging marketplaces of developing countries,” said Kaj den Daas, CEO, Philips Lighting North America.

I suspect the “aggressive timeline” has more to do with a need to squeeze out as much remaining profit as possible from the CFL before environmentalists wake up to the scam and mercury-free alternatives take over the market. It’s not like they’re going to give away free LEDs or halogen lamps to poor people in developing countries…

The result of this UN – lighting industry cooperation was the en.lighten initiative. Wikipedia has a handy description of it:

“As part of global efforts to promote efficient lighting, United Nations Environment Programme with the support of the GEF Earth Fund, Philips Lighting and OSRAM GmbH has established the en.lighten initiative. The initiative seeks to accelerate global commercialization and market transformation of efficient lighting technologies by working at the global level and providing support to countries.”

See my post Global Ban Craze for details on the deceptive numbers used in the 2009 press release, now perpetuated on the new site.

“Electricity for lighting accounts for almost 20 per cent of global power consumption and close to 6 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If a global transition to efficient lighting occurred, these emissions could be reduced by half.”

See also Freedom Lightbulb for info and comments on the en.lighten initiative.

Edit 1 aug: Yesterday, Freedom Lightbulb posted more proof of the bulb ban conspiracy with an article from 2010 by two dutchmen about the findings of journalist Syp Wynia on how the incandescent bulb ban was achieved through cooperation between Dutch Philips and Greenpeace. Original article:  The Unholy Alliance between Philips and the Greens

Philips, the company involved, started in 1891 with the mass production of Edison lamps, at its home base, Eindhoven, Netherlands. There existed no international court of justice at the time, so they could infringe on US patent law with impunity. In the past 120 years it has expanded continuously, to become the multinational electronics giant it is today. Because nostalgia seldom agrees with the aims of private enterprise, Philips started lobbying to phase out the very product on which its original success is based. They started this campaign around the turn of the century, ten years ago.

Their line of thought is clear: banning incandescent bulbs creates an interesting market for new kinds of home lighting, such as “energy savers” (CFL’s, compact fluorescent lamps) and LED’s (light emitting diodes). The mark-up on these new products is substantially higher than that on old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. The rapid expansion of the lighting industry in China makes the profit margin on ordinary bulbs from factories in Europe smaller yet.  (…) 

Multiple government campaigns, aimed at promoting the idea that energy savers contribute to the well-intentioned goal of reducing the energy consumption of households, failed to convince citizens. 

The spectre of catastrophic climate change offered a new opportunity for the strategists and marketing specialists at Philips headquarters. They changed their marketing concept and jumped on the Global Warming band wagon. From that moment on, energy-saving bulbs could be put on the market as icons of responsibility toward climate change. This would give Philips a head start in the CFL end LED business. The competition would be left far behind by aggressive use of European patent law. That strategy fitted like a glove with that of the environmental movement. For them, ordinary light bulbs had become the ultimate symbol of energy waste and excessive CO2 emissions. Seeing the opportunity, Greenpeace immediately made a forward pass with the ball thrown by Philips’ pitchers. The incandescent bulb would serve as an ideal vehicle for ramming Global Warming down people’s throats. No abstract discussions about CO2-emissions any more: a ban on bulbs would suffice.

The 4th Conspiracy (c. 2005 and ongoing) – The LED

Since at least 2005, the U.S. Department Of Energy (DOE) Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy department have had their main focus on solid state lighting (SLL), which is a fancier name for LED. Market Studies and Technical Reports

Naturally in cooperation with leading vested interests such as Philips, Cree, Lumileds Lighting Company, Dow Corning, General Electric, Osram Sylvania and Eastman Kodak (examples from this document: Energy Savings Potential of Solid State Lighting in General Illumination Applications) who made projections spanning 20 years, from 2007-2027, and seem to consider LED (and eventually OLED) to be the optimal replacement for pretty much all other  lamp types in all sectors, but especially for the “high CRI” (CFLs and T8 FL tubes) and “very CRI” (incandescent, halogen) groups in the residential and commercial sectors.

“In both the LED and OLED scenarios, SSL displaces light sources in all sectors by the end of the analysis period, but the significant energy savings are primarily from the displacement of incandescent lamps in commercial and residential applications.”

So, with the pesky incandescent bulb out of the way, and more and more people becoming aware of or experiencing first hand the many drawbacks of CFLs, now the whole circus starts over again with yet another hyped incandescent replacement. Again at ridiculous prices, with more or less appalling light colour, suboptimal colour rendition, dimming problems, heat sensitivity and a promised life that still remains to be seen.

Does this sound familiar? Story of the CFL, for which millions have paid hefty prices to get substandard lamps which only now, after 20 years, appear decently incandescent-looking, decently affordable (due to heavy sibsidies) but still have most of the other problems left. So, do we now have to wait another 20 years for the LED to become decent-looking, affordable and working as promised, while paying even more hefty prices for being consumer guinea pigs in the mean time?

Alas, the Lightbulb Conspiracy film maker didn’t see through this one. Instead a younger generation Philips got to present ‘his’ new generation bulb: the LED, as if he personally made the whole lighting industry suddenly wake up with a bad conscience and now truly wants home bulbs to last for 25 years, hahaha! I predict that future consumer tests will show LEDs lasting a lot less than 25 000 hours, or become dim enough to be useless long before that.

Epilogue

I also suspect that those of us who have spent years revealing all the dirty little secrets of CFLs, are probably in a way just helping to prepare the ground for the LED. (Like with pharmaceutical drugs… First they’re so great. No end to how great they are… Then, when patents start running out, suddenly there is a flood of articles, news snippets and anecdotal reports in less discriminating media revealing all the problems with them – which, of course, have been there all along. But, as it happens, the good news is always that there is now a new and better medicine for that particular health issue. Which is of course is really great… Until that patent starts running out, then it may turn out that the new drug had even more problems than the first one.)

Those of us who genuinely believe that natural, healthy, beautiful light is as basic a human need and right as clean water, food and air, are of course no willing participants in such a scheme, but something to be mindful of.

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3 Comments

  1. halogenica said,

    July 30, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Update: Added some more info.

  2. Michael said,

    October 15, 2012 at 6:57 am

    The new one: http://www.zhagastandard.org/

  3. March 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    […] almost immortal, but they are artificially made ​​so as to have known life The Lightbulb Conspiracies | Greenwashing Lamps which later grow on all other […]


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