Is the light bulb immortal?

All predominant technologies eventually fall from grace, no matter how unlikely that may seem at the time. 

No matter how quickly the times change the received wisdom is that the light bulb can never die. The light bulb is, to borrow a phrase, too big to fail.

Jed Dorsheimer, the leading light analyst and subject of an upcoming Lux webinar, pointed out to me recently that much the same can be said of the gas mantle, the wick and the rushlight, all of which can still be purchased, usually from a niche website dedicated to lighting that we don’t use any more.

We assume constancy in the things that we buy because we’ve always bought them. It is not that we can’t imagine life without them, it’s just that we don’t think about them at all, we just buy and use them. Maybe we think that light bulbs grow in hedgerows and get picked at dusk by cheery peasants on their way to the witch-burning? A part of nature is a part of nature and nature never lets us down, at least not so far.

However, the continued existence of light bulbs in the mainstream of lighting depends, like any other consumer product, on profit and it is in this part of the engine room that the warning signs are flashing.

For the past century, and more, tungsten filament lamps formed the mainstay of the lighting world. They were cheap to make and cheap to buy. Many designers of the classic fixtures of the 20th century owe their fame and fortune to the humble light bulb. But that hegemony of form can only continue to be celebrated for as long as the light source is available, and the future of the light bulb is under threat.

The LED (inevitably) is to blame.

Soon there won’t be any money to be made from making light bulbs. They will live on only on the fringes, available for purchase on sentimental websites dedicated to typewriters, rotary dial telephones and other grandparental bric-a-brac.

Or, that is to say, manufacturing processes are to blame. It takes substantial capital investment to produce the millions of lamps in use around the world. But what happens if the global companies responsible have the commercial carpet pulled from underneath them by a bunch of new guys eager to show off the latest electronica? And what happens when those new guys then turn on one another to see who can be cheapest on the high street?

LED replacing the compact fluorescent lamp is not the issue -  few people really liked compact fluorescent anyway. Personally, I get on with them pretty well, but then I try to see the goodness in most things. The companies behind LED lamps do not have the history or the structure to control the marketplace, hence the current race to the bottom to see who can produce the cheapest lamp.

If this carries on then there won’t be any money to be made from making light bulbs. They will go the way of the gas mantle and the wick; a sentimental hark-back to a slower, more genteel age. They will live on only on the fringes, available for purchase on sentimental websites dedicated to typewriters, rotary dial telephones and other such grandparental bric-a-brac.

But if this does happen it raises another, altogether too-exciting-for-words, question. If we finally have to take all of our light fixtures to the recycling centre, including all those Scandinavian, Italian, and British design classics, what replaces them? Where will our new generation of classic designs come from?

Look! Is that a lighting designer sitting in a café over there drinking her skinny latte? Perhaps she’ll be the next great fixture designer of our time.

I, for one, look forward to that.

  • You can hear Jed Dorsheimer speak in a rare and exclusive interview during our next Lux webinar. Dorsheimer, who has been named as ‘one of the most influential people in the  lighting industry’ will offer his recipe for  how to be successful in the lighting world, despite the disruption wrought by the LED and IoT revolutions. You can find out more and register to listen by clicking here.

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