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Power Shift Part III: Let there be light, then obsolescence

Edison’s company made the light bulb marketable; then the new mega company, General Electric, shortened the life of the light bulb to force more sales.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Did you switch on a light bulb to read this article? You could have done so for the last two hundred and thirteen years but not before.

The first arc lamp.
The first arc lamp.

In 1803, Humphrey Davy invented the first light bulb – the arc light. It was very hot and very expensive. It was so bright that the only use considered practical was for street lights and search lights.

The first incandescent bulb was suitable for indoor use. Unfortunately, it flickered [very annoying], then it blinked and then almost immediately, it blinked out [hardly useful].

In 1835, a Scotsman, James Bowman Lindsey, demonstrated the first constant electric light bulb.

Much better but it cost a fortune and lasted only marginally longer.

In 1850, an Englishman Joseph Swann and two Americans received patents for the light bulb. The three competed for the credit as inventor of the light bulb and for market share.

Was one Thomas Alva Edison? No, not Edison; they were Wilson Sawyer and Albon Man. Where was Edison? Possibly on a play date; in 1850 Edison was three years old.

The light bulb was an important invention. It enabled a longer workday, helped keep order after dark, and allowed extended travel (Formerly, travel ads read, for example, “Hartford to Albany – through by daylight.”)

Edison did not invent the light bulb so why does he receive so much credit? Edison improved the light bulb by using lower current electricity, a small carbonized filament, and an improved vacuum inside the globe. Edison’s bulb was, therefore, a reliable, long-lasting source of light at a manageable price. In short what Edison did was make the light bulb commercially viable.

Edison's 1880 patent for the incandescent light bulb.
Edison’s 1880 patent for the incandescent light bulb.

There is something quintessentially American about finding out how to make an invention marketable; there is also something quintessentially American about the story of the light bulb. This story includes the invention of a commercially successful light bulb, and invention of a commercially successful ploy.

So we have the evolution of the light bulb; the first patents, and the entrance of Edison. Voilà! The light bulb gains favor and sells.

The Vanderbilt family and J.P. Morgan backed Edison in his experiments with electricity and the light bulb. In 1889 Drexel Morgan & Co. assisted Edison in merging his company with other smaller companies producing and providing electricity. The result was Edison General Electric (founded NYC April 24, 1889). The new company had direct current patents, light bulb patents, patents for the new universal “Edison screw” (just look at the bottom of your current light bulb), and Sprague Electric Railway Company. One more merger would create General Electric – GE was formed by the 1892 merger of Edison General Electric and a provider of alternating current, Thomson- Houston Electric Company of Schenectady, again with the help and guidance of J.P. Morgan.

GE grew and prospered. The light bulb was ubiquitous. No one understood or remembered how anyone lived without it. Time passed.

Then the second quintessential American invention associated with the light bulb occurred, and forgive the pun, there was nothing illuminating about it. It was December 23, 1924. Ironically, it was just before Christmas when a great gift was taken away.

Early incandescent light bulbs.
Early incandescent light bulbs.

In Geneva, the Schenectady-based company GE met with the major international producers of the light bulb – Osram in Germany, Philips in the Netherlands, and Compagnie des Lampes in France. As others, more naïve, hung Christmas lights, these companies formed a cartel and designed a market ploy that would become as ubiquitous as the bulb. They carved up the worldwide incandescent light bulb market, controlled it, maximized sales, and prospered. How did they do it? Simple.

Remember the problem with making the bulb viable? Longevity: when the first bulb blinked out after a brief period, no one wanted it. When the light was made steady and when the length of time it would burn was extended, everyone wanted one.

So here’s the irony: Edison’s company made the light bulb marketable; the light bulb sales made Edison’s company grow, and then the new mega company shortened the life of the light bulb to force more sales. A bulb the Edison caused to work and produce light for 2000 hours was redesigned to produce light for 1000 hours. A light-dependent world had to buy bulbs more often. GE doubled its sales by 1925. What was the other invention associated with the light bulb called? That’s right — planned obsolescence.

The first international cartel in history held the world in its grip until 1930. For those five years what was best for the consumer paled in comparison with what was best for the bottom line. Then competition leveled the playing field. Or did it? The commercial strategy invented in Geneva, like the light bulb, is still with us today.

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