Longest running light bulb since 1901: The case of Planned Obsolescence

Centennial Light is the longest-running electric light bulb on record. It has been running continuously since 1901 and it has never been switched off. It is located in Fire Station 6 in Livermore, California. The ordinary dim light bulb looks like any other bulb and there is also a camera that live-streams the light bulb onto the internet.

Link for the official website and live webcam of the light bulb.


It was manufactured in the late 1890s by the Shelby Electric Company, of Ohio, using a design by the French-American inventor Adolphe Chaillet. It has operated for over 100 years with very few interruptions. In 2011, it passed a milestone: One million hours of near-continuous operation. In 2015 it was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s longest-burning bulb.

The 60-watt bulb uses a carbon filament. One of the reasons for its longevity is that it seems to have an incredibly durable vacuum seal. There have been some researches done on bulbs manufactured by Shelby Electric Company of that era. But no one really exactly knows how these eternal bulbs were made as they were experimenting with various but the company was experimenting with a variety of designs at the time.

The electric model was quite different when first homes in The U.S had electricity. The servicing was the responsibility of the electric companies and customers would purchase entire electrical systems manufactured by a regional electricity supplier. The companies would also take care of the installation and servicing of any burned out electric bulbs would be replaced for free.

It made more logic for the suppliers to manufacture bulbs that would last longer and would burn out as least as possible. But this business model was later replaced and homeowners were responsible to change the light bulbs. It was soon realized that it would be more profitable to make cheaper bulbs that burned out faster. Since the mid-1900s goods were manufactured with a pre-determined expiry date aimed at forcing consumers into repeat purchases. This phenomenon has only been exacerbated in recent years. This can also be called planned obsolescence.

In 1924, the life span of the light bulbs was at least 2,500 hours. Phoebus cartel was formed in 1925 in Geneva. It comprised of the major incandescent light bulbs manufacturers at that time: Osram, General Electric, Associated Electrical Industries, and Philips. The cartel had directed their engineers to cut the life of the bulbs to 1,000 hours, which the engineers did by adjusting voltage and current. The cartel was intended to operate for 30 years but it was starting to fall apart in the early 1930s after General Electric patents expired and as the cartel faced competition from non-member manufactures from other regions. The cartel ceased its operations after the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

Planned obsolescence is a very critical area it does not only decrease the lifespan of the good but as a consequence, it is also wasteful. It is not sustainable for the environment and the main focus of this practice is to maximize profits. It also reminds us that technological innovations are often not accessible in favor of corporate greed.