The Horrifying Secret of the Phoebus Cartel

Cartel Phoebus

The tale begins in 1904.

In the firestation of Livermore, Ohio, it is a bright and hopeful beginning. An electrician is in the process of fitting what will become known as the “centennial bulb” - a light bulb that would continue to burn even a hundred years after. The bulb, invented by Adolphe Chaillet and manufactured by the Shelby Electric Company, still shines even today. That light pointed to a bright future, but that future would dim just 20 years later. 


Adolphe Chaillet, inventor of the centennial bulb


January 23, 1924 - Geneva

As municipal officials unhook holiday lights from the city’s street lamps, four respectable men from four respectable companies are lurking in the shadows of a backroom, engineering a devious plot to deceive people worldwide, all in the name of profit. 

From this moment, these four men, representing the world’s biggest light bulb manufacturers, would become the Phoebus Cartel, joining forces to take total control of the world light bulb market through treachery. 


Cartel Member #1: Anton Frederik Philips, Co-Founder of Royal Philips Electronics

Fueled by a desire to maximize sales, the Cartel began to impose limits on the lifespans of all bulbs - reducing them from 1,500-2000, down to a mere 1,000 hours. This decision is the first time planned obsolescence is implemented on this global scale—a tradition that continues until today.

Cartel member #2: Owen D. Young, President of General Electric

From 1924 to 1939, light bulb manufacturers around the world were forced to limit the lifespan of their products. Cartel labs inspected required samples from manufacturers who were required to send them regularly for approval.

Cartel member #3: Franjo Hanaman , Co-founder of Tungsram

If a single bulb of a sample exceeded 1,000 hour lifespan, the cartel levied heavy fines on the manufacturer that created it. Sounds too crazy to be true? Here’s the source:

The agreement was intended to last 30 years but ended prematurely upon the declaration of the Second World War, since its various members belonged to enemy nations.


Member of Cartel #4: William Meinhardt, CEO of OSRAM

Unfortunately, the legacy of the Phoebus Cartel didn’t disappear with it. Planned obsolescence lives on and continues to thrive in many different sectors of industry as an accepted and deeply embedded global economic model. This is the case even now, when humanity has begun to understand the negative effects coming out of the overexploitation of the Earth’s natural resources. In fact, planned obsolescence is one of the leading contributors to overexploitation.

The good news is that this horrible story doesn’t need to have a horrible ending. All is not lost—we can repair our things, buy things that have been refurbished, hand our things down before disposing of them. By being more mindful about keeping our things in circulation for as long as possible, we have a way of fighting back. Planned obsolescence can meet its maker(s).

Happy Halloween!


By Micheline Vaute, US Brand Manager

Uses tech occasionally. Likes the planet and people. Smells like teen spirit.

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