Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles - This is a video about things like cars, phones, and light bulbs and an actual conspiracy that made them worse. This video was sponsored by NordVPN, more about them at the end of the video I am outside Livermore Fire Station, number six. And in here, they have the longest, continuously on light bulb in the world. It has been on for 120 years since 1901. There it is. - [Host] Yeah, that's it. - It's not even connected to a light switch but it does have a backup battery and generator. So the big question is, how has this light bulb lasted so long? It was manufactured by hand not long after commercial light bulbs were first invented, And yet, it has been running for over a million hours, way longer than any light bulb today is meant to last. Awhile back, a friend of mine told me this story, that someone had invented a light bulb that would last forever years ago, but they never sold it because an everlasting light bulb makes for a terrible business model. I mean, you would never have any repeat customers and eventually you would run out of people to sell light bulbs to, I thought this story sounded ridiculous. If you could make an everlasting light bulb, then everyone would buy your light bulb over the competitors. And so you could charge really high prices, make a lot of money, even if demand would eventually dry up. I just couldn't imagine that we had better light bulbs in the past and then intentionally made them worse, but it turns out I was wrong. At least sort of. Inventing a viable electric light was hard, I mean, this is the typical incandescent design, which just involves passing electric current through a material making it so hot that it glows, less than 5% of the electrical energy comes out as light. The other 95% is released as heat. So these are really heat bulbs, which give off a little bit of light as a by-product. The temperature of the filament can get up to 2,800 Kelvin. That is half as hot as the surface of the sun. At temperatures like those, most materials melt. - That's so cool. - And if they don't melt, they burn, which is why in the 1840s, Warren De la Rue came up with the idea of putting the filament in a vacuum bulb, so there's no oxygen to react with. By 1879, Thomas Edison had made a bulb with a cotton thread filament that lasted 14 hours. Other inventors created bulbs with platinum filaments or other carbonized materials. And gradually, the lifespan of bulbs increased. The filaments changed from carbon to tungsten, which has a very high melting point. And by the early 1920s, average bulb lifetimes were approaching 2,000 hours with some lasting 2,500 hours. But this is when lifetimes stopped getting longer and started getting shorter. In Geneva, Switzerland just before Christmas, 1924, there was a secret meeting of top executives from the world's leading light bulb companies, Phillips, International General Electric, Tokyo Electric, OSRAM from Germany, and the UK's Associated Electric among others. They formed what became known as the Phoebus Cartel named after Phoebus, the Greek God of light. There, all these companies agreed to work together to help each other by controlling the world supply of light bulbs. In the early days of the electrical industry, there had been lots of different small light bulb manufacturers, but by now they had largely been consolidated into these big corporations, each dominant in a particular part of the world. The biggest threat they all faced was from longer lasting light bulbs. For example, in 1923, OSRAM sold 63 million light bulbs, but the following year they sold only 28 million. Light bulbs were lasting too long, eating into sales. So all the companies in the cartel agreed to reduce the lifespan of their bulbs to 1,000 hours cutting the existing average almost in half. But how could each company ensure that the other companies would actually follow the rules and make shorter lasting light bulb. After all, it would be in each of their individual interests to make a better product to outsell the others? Well, to enforce the 1,000 hour limit, each of the manufacturers have to send in sample bulbs from their factories and they were tested on big test stands like this one. If a bulb lasted significantly longer than 1,000 thousand hours, then the company was fined. If a bulb lasted longer than 3000 hours, well the fine was 200 Swiss Francs for every 1,000 bulbs sold. And there are records of these fines being issued to companies. But how do you make a worst light bulb in the first place? Well, the same engineers who had previously been tasked with extending the lifespan now had to find ways to decrease it. So they tried different materials, different shaped filaments, and thinner connections. And if you look at the data, they were successful. Ever since the formation of the cartel. the lifespan of light bulbs steadily decreased. So that by 1934, the average lifespan was just 1,205 hours. And just as they had planned, sales increased for cartel members by 25% in the four years after 1926. And even though the cost of components came down, the cartel kept prices virtually unchanged, so they increased their profit margins. So did people know that the light bulb companies were conspiring together to make their products worse? No, the Phoebus Cartel claimed that its purpose was to increase standardization and efficiency of light bulbs. I mean, they did establish this screw thread is standard. You can find it on virtually all light bulbs around the world now. But all evidence points to the cartels being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for consumers. So one of the reasons this light bulb has lasted so long is because it was made before the cartel era. Another reason is because the filament has always been run at low power, just four or five watts. It was meant to be a nightlight for the fire station to provide just enough light so that firemen wouldn't run into things at night. And the fact that it was always on reduced the thermal cycling of the filament and components limiting the stress caused by thermal expansion and contraction. The Phoebus Cartel was initially planned to last at least until 1955, but it fell apart in the 1930s. It was already struggling due to outside competition. And non-compliance amongst some of its members, but the outbreak of World War II is really what finished it off. So this cartel was dead, but its methods survived to this day. There are lots of companies out there that intentionally shortened the lifespan of their products it's a tactic known now as planned obsolescence. This was actually the subject of Casey Neistat's first viral video all the way back in 2003. - [Support] Thank you for calling Apple, my name is Ryan. May I have your first name please? - [Casey] Casey. - [Support] ] All right, and what seems to be the issue today? - [Casey] I have an iPod that I bought about 18 months ago and the battery is dead on it. - [Support] 18 months, okay, it's past it year, which basically means there'll be a charge of $255 plus a mailing fee to send it to us to refurbish, to correct it. But at that price, you might as well go get a new one. - [Narrator] This video got millions of views in a time before YouTube or social media. And it spawned a class action lawsuit, which Apple settled out of court, but it didn't stop the company from practicing planned obsolescence. After an iOS update in 2017, users of older iPhones found apps loading significantly slower or the device shutting down altogether. Apple said they throttled performance to protect the battery of older devices and increase their longevity. Of course, that wouldn't be an issue if the battery were replaceable. In a series of lawsuits that concluded in 2020, Apple was fined or reached settlements to pay hundreds of millions of dollars, undoubtedly, this amount pales in comparison to the extra revenue they generate by limiting the lifespan of their products. But some would argue that planned obsolescence isn't just about greed, but that it's also good for everyone. During the great depression in the 1930s when as much as 1/4 of Americans were out of work and real estate broker Bernard London proposed mandatory planned obsolescence as a way to get people back to work and lift America out of the depression. He wrote, "I would have the government assign a lease of life to shoes, and homes, and machines when they are first created and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence, definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally dead and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment." Now, this might sound like a wild fringe idea, but people were clearly afraid of being put out of work by technological progress and products that were too good. There was even a popular Oscar nominated film about it. "This is the man in the white suit from 1951." It's about a scientist who invents the perfect fiber. It won't stain or break, or fray. - I think I've succeeded in the copolymerization of amino acid residues and carbohydrate molecules, both containing ionic groups. It's really perfectly simple. - [Narrator] The Academy award nomination was for best screenplay, I kid you not. Anyway, everyone is initially excited about our heroes scientific discovery. He makes a suit out of the thread and it has to be white because the fiber is so stain resistant, it can't even be dyed, but this is when trouble strikes, the factory owners realize they won't be able to sell as much of this thread because it's so durable. And the workers worry it'll put them out of a job. - Why can't you scientists leave things alone? What about my better washing when there's no washing to do? - This is when you get the climactic scene where factory workers and factory owners team up to chase down the scientist to destroy him and his invention. And believe it or not, this movie may have been inspired by real events. In the 1940s, the synthetic fiber nylon replaced silk in stockings, and it was so durable that the products became an overnight sensation. There were literal riots when women tried to get their hands on them. When the manufacturers realized they had made the product too good, they didn't destroy the fiber, but they did follow the example of the Phoebus Cartel. They instructed their engineers and scientists to find ways to weaken the product to shorten its lifespan, so people would have to buy more. Now, it seems like consumers are finally fighting back against planned obsolescence. In the European union and in over 25 states in the US, there's proposed legislation to enshrine the right to repair. And these laws would force manufacturers to make it easier to repair their products. They would have to provide information and access to parts.