The Great LightBulb Conspiracy

“A light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.

Marshal Mcluhan

An immortal lightbulb named Byron runs afoul of a secret international industrial alliance known as the Phoebus cartel in Thomas Pynchon’s cult classic Gravity’s Rainbow. When the cartel detects that Byron has exceeded his programmed life span, the Incandescent Anomalies Committee dispatches a hit man to take him out.

It turns out that many parts of Pynchon ‘s tale were actually based on facts: There was actually a Phoebus cartel, and it was targeting lightbulbs. See George W. Stocking and Myron W. Watkins’ 1946 text, Cartels in Action: Top leaders of all the major lightbulb producers, including Germany’s Osram, Philips of the Netherlands, the Compagnie des Lampes of France and General Electric of the United States met in Geneva on 23 December 1924 for a conference that would transform the world for decades to come.

The cartel conspired to create a shorter-lived incandescent light bulb. William Meinhardt, the president of Osram, often argued that the monopoly was to “the benefit of the customer ”

The household lightbulb was already technologically sophisticated in 1924: considerable light yield; burning time was 2.500 hours or more easily. It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anyone could have done that. But it took some doing over a number of years to create one that failed reliably after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours. The cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress, by striving for something less.

Each factory bound by the cartel agreement-and there were hundreds of them, including GE ‘s licensees worldwide-had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a Swiss central testing laboratory. There, they thoroughly vetted the bulbs against cartel standards. The company or subsidiary was obliged to pay a fine if any factory submitted bulbs that lasted longer or shorter than the specified life cycle for their kind. For example, in 1927 Tokyo Electric reported in a memo to the cartel that sales had jumped five-fold after shortening the lives of its vacuum and gas-filled lightbulbs.

McLuhan, like his mentor Harold Innis, believed that media were biased according to time and space. He paid particular attention to what he called the sensorium, or the effects of media on our senses, positing that media affect us by manipulating the ratio of our senses. The Lightbulb overthrew the regime of “time” and “space” and poured upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message was Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism.

The light bulb is a clear demonstration of the concept of “the medium is the message”: a light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium; that is, a light bulb enables space during darkness.

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