The Centennial Light is located at Fire Station 6 in Livermore, California. With a few exceptions, it has been continuously lit since 1901. Why has the Centennial Light lasted so long? It was a hand-blown glass lamp designed by French inventor Adolphe Chaillet in 1897, and manufactured by the Shelby Electric Company (1897-1914) in Shelby, Ohio. The Centennial Light has lasted for over 123 years because it's a 45-watt light, but has always used as a low 4-5 watt night light for the firehouse and never burned at full capacity. The hand-made construction includes platinum tabs attached to copper wires, a patented shape of the filament, the bulb being in a vacuum and filled with 80% nitrogen, and the lamp being hung from above allowing the filament to be completely immersed in the gas that expands with heat. At the time, this wasn’t an oddity, it was how electric glass lamps were made. The Centennial light has outlasted 3 webcams, and even the wiring of the building itself. Why don’t bulbs last this long anymore? Let’s get to the great light bulb conspiracy.
Adolphe Alexandre Chaillet (b.1867) was a French engineer who started working with his father in Paris manufacturing incandescent lamps. Chaillet made it to the U.S. in 1891 on the ship "Teutonic" and made his way to Shelby, Ohio. Local entrepreneur John Cooper Whiteside (b.1871, “died suddenly” at age 55 in 1926) came across Chaillet and introduced him to his business partner, John Chamberlain Fish (b. 1864, “died suddenly” at age 44 in 1908. Together, they created Shelby Electrical Company with future U.S. Representative William W. Skiles (b.1849, “died suddenly” of pneumonia at age 54 in 1904) as president. The Shelby Incandescent Lamp could handle up to 250 volts of electricity. According to the claims of the patents and advertising, Shelby’s lamp would run 30% brighter using the same electricity as other bulbs, while lasting 20% longer. Even though the Centennial Light is only running on 4 or 5 watts, the light itself is burning brighter than a 5-watt incandescent light does today.
Adolphe Chaillet is pictured below, left. The gentleman with the black derby holding the light bulb is John C. Fish. According to Chaillet’s patent, the lamps worked better as a cluster. Chaillet may not have understood why this would happen, and it probably had to do with some long-standing misconceptions regarding how electricity flows through fields. Since explaining is outside our lane, there’s a video at the end of this blog that will explain how electricity works.
There's a mental jam that happens in the brain when a person, an entrepreneur, or business owner, views sustainable business of successfully covering the costs of production, and all additional profits as a positive… verses those that look at business as trying to make the most profits mathematically possible, and any profits less than that maximum is thought of as negative, or a “loss.” There’s no place where this is more obvious than in the world of electric glass lamps, what we now call light bulbs. For those trying to make their fortune at the end of the Industrial Revolution, making a product people would only buy once every few years seemed bad for business compared to forcing customers to purchase the same product every few months. Thus we come to a mass manipulation of consumers known as “planned obsolescence.”
In the late 1800s, Ohio was the place to be for electric light innovation. Fostoria Shade and Lamp Company (est. 1890) was the largest glass lamp manufacturers in the U.S. from Fostoria, Ohio. They were taken over by Consolidated Lamp and Glass Company in 1893. Ohio Lamp Plant (est. 1890) was founded by the Packard brothers (same guys as the automobile maker) in Warren, Ohio. And the list goes on, not including the extensive gasoline/kerosene lamp manufacturers all through the state. Four years after Fire Station 6 in Livermore installed their electric light, Shelby “Lamp Works” (as they were called) began improving the carbon filament and started manufacturing more lamps that were longer lasting. Production in 1902 was about 10,000 bulbs a day, and in 1907, Shelby “Light Works” expanded to a plant that was 100,000 square feet, employing 400 workers, mostly women with small, steady hands.
General Electric tried to control things the old-fashioned way by moving into Ohio in 1912, opening a plant in Nela Park, Cleveland, and absorbing glass electric lamp manufacturers and shutting them down. That included Ohio Lamp Plant, and Shelby Electrical Company/Light Works. But there was still a problem with so many people knowing how to make long-lasting bulbs, not just here in the United States. With lighting conglomerates competing for customers, a universal agreement needed to be made. Two years later, in 1914, Adolphe Alexandre Chaillet died at age 47... or he might have just disappeared.
In post-World War 1 Germany, Auergesellschaft, Siemens & Halske and Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft lamp manufacturers combined to form OSRAM in 1919. By 1921, OSRAM created the Internationale Glühlampen Preis Vereinigung or International Incandescent Lamp Price Association. General Electric (est. 1892) formed its International General Electric Company to deal with South America and Australia in 1919. When the Dutch brand, Philips, entered the American market, General Electric expanded their operations to Paris. This back and forth light saber antics continued until 1924 when an agreement between the conglomerates took place. The next year, in 1925, the Phoebus Agreement was adopted, named after the Greek god of light, thrusting worldwide consumers into the dark world of planned obsolescence.
THE PHOEBUS CARTEL
To this day, GE would claim no part of the Phoebus Cartel, but the company and its subsidiaries were leading the way world-wide. The official purpose of the cartel was “Convention for the Development and Progress of the International Incandescent Electric Lamp Industry.” The real goal of the cartel was to create a lamp-life standard of under 1,000 hours. Not only were the prices of lamps somewhat locked, but the durability of the products were tested and fines would be given should a company “accidentally” make a light bulb that burned longer than the allotted amount.
Joining GE was William Meinhardt of OSRAM (Germany), Anton Philips of Philips (Netherlands), Tungsram (Hungary), Associated Electrical Industries (United Kingdom), Compagnie des Lampes (France), Tokyo Electric Light Company, Inc. (Japan), and General Electric subsidiaries in Brazil, Mexico, and across the globe from Africa to Australia. In a back room in Geneva (center pic, below), the Cartel created a plan to change patents, controlled production, and insure the 1,000 hour lamp-life standard would be maintained through above-the-table bureaucracy and under-the-table strong-arming. By 1924, light bulbs were advertising over 2,500 hours of continuous use. Within 2 years of the cartel, the average hours for lamps dropped to 1,500.
Using thinner tungsten filaments, coiling the filaments tightly (as opposed to Chaillet’s design) filling them with argon gas, and making the glass bulbs as fragile as possible, the Cartel was able to achieve their goal of a 1,000-hour lamp life standard before the Cartel was “dissolved” in 1939 due to Hitler and World War 2. If you noticed… the war changed nothing about the grand scheme. During, and after World War 2, light bulbs stayed exactly at the 1,000-hour life span, meaning the dominant aspects of the Phoebus Cartel remained in place in some form and function, despite the tragic events of the Holocaust.
From the Phoebus Cartel, the idea of planned obsolescent began to pop up in other industries. The most famous in the manufacturing of nylon in the 1930s and 40s. The material was strong, it resisted tears, it easily replaced silk stockings for women that were being imported from Japan. Nylon helped us win World War 2 with flak jackets, mosquito netting, tow ropes, and parachutes were all made of this new chemically created miracle thread. The flag planted on the moon by Neil Armstrong is made of nylon. And yet, when it comes to women’s hosiery, the same material rips, tears, and snags, forcing women to repurchase fresh pairs far more often than a paratrooper replaces their parachute. (SOURCE 1 and SOURCE 2 for pic below.)
Thanks to a designer from Milwaukee named Brook Stevens, creatives in the 1950s were encouraged to design new products for industries so a consumer would want to replace their current model with newer versions with better options, whether the buyer needed a replacement or not. This created a crossroads of exploiting “Cluster B” personality disorders like impulsivity and histrionic personality disorder. However, if you’re wondering why mid-century modern is so popular now, it’s because of the great design used to seduce people to purchase replacement items sooner than they would normally, still held to the Industrial Revolution norms of building things to last. That’s what makes dealing in antiques so rewarding as it offers a spectrum of aesthetics over the centuries to fit every style and taste, and it comes with the emotional relief that you won’t have to repurchase it in a few months when it breaks by design. For that, Industrial Artifacts is proud to facilitate.
VACUUM TUBES AND ELECTRICITY
Did you know that vacuum tubes used for television, radios, and computers were just glorified light bulbs? Below is Dr. David Muller explaining the evolution of light bulbs to vacuum tube computing on his Veritasium YouTube page.
As promised, here is the video about electricity. It's wildly fascinating and explains quite a bit about how electricity moves through fields, possibly explaining why A.A. Chaillet found his lamps worked better as a cluster.