The Curious History of a Forgotten Lightbulb Cartel

On Dec. 23, 1924, a group of leading businessmen gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, for a meeting that would alter the world for decades to come. Present were top executives from all the major light bulb manufacturers, including General Electric and Philips. As others celebrated the Christmas season, these businessmen created the Phoebus cartel — a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent light bulb market. To drive repeat sales, they fined companies that produced light bulbs with an average lifespan exceeding 1,000 hours. They claimed that their light bulbs were higher quality, more efficient, and longer-burning that other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. In carefully crafting a light bulb with a relatively short lifespan, the cartel hatched the industrial strategy known today as “planned obsolescence.” As powerful and influential as the Phoebus cartel was, it was World War II that took it out. The host countries of the cartel’s members went to war, making close coordination difficult. The 1924 agreement of the cartel that was meant to last until 1955 became null and void in 1940.