Phoebus Cartel
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Basic Information

The Phoebus Cartel was an association of international corporations that cooperated together to establish standards on electrical devices, most notably the lightbulb, from 1923 to 1939. These half-dozen international businesses also conspired to force worse, shorter-lived lightbulbs on the world, for the express purpose of undermining technological progress world-wide for their own personal fiscal profit.

Thomas Edison's 1880 lightbulb design had about a 1200 hour life. Lightbulb life had climbed with technological innovation every year thereafter until 1923, when the best available bulb for your home had a 2500 hour life, and the average bulb had about an 1800 hour life. After the Phoebus Cartel organized in '23, and agreed on new standards, the life of the average lightbulb dropped every year. It was down to an average of just 1200 hours when the outbreak of World War II broke up this international cartel. Shorter lightbulb life means greater long-term sales, so the member-companies of the Phoebus Cartel went to work conducting experiments with the goal of intentionally designing more fragile, shorter-lived bulbs.

The Phoebus Cartel also engaged in price-fixing. All the companies in the pact agreed to submit to strict monetary penalties for any company that produced above a certain number of bulbs in a year (i.e.: taking more than their agreed-upon share of the market), or produced a bulb that lasted longer than 1500 hours in testing (as that would diminish not only your own long-term sales but also that of your co-conspirators). In other words, instead of capitalism/libertarianism doing what they're "supposed to" (i.e.: ensuring the best product prevails at the best price, by means of competitive market pressure), the fat cats and robber-barons plotted together to bring you a worse product at a higher profit margin.

Though the Phoebus Cartel officially dissolved due to the various companies involved being in countries on different sides of the war in 1939, the notion of planned obsolescence had been born from their pact, and it proved fiscally effective. Ever since, we the consumer have been getting crappier, shorter-lived products than our technology would otherwise allow. Whether your current costly inconvenience is the self-sabotaging battery of your cellphone, a fragile electronic appliance that's designed with no user-serviceable parts, or the giant plastic cartridge that holds just a few drops of ink for your printer, you can thank the Phoebus Cartel for all your frustrations.

By the way, most of the companies involved are still around, and you probably have their lightbulbs and appliances in your home today.

They did do at least one good thing, though: They established the ubiquitous screw-thread lightbulb socket, so you're much less likely to accidentally buy the wrong sized bulb for your lamp. That convenience doesn't even begin to make up for all the wasted money and lightbulbs in landfills. It's also feasible that standardized wiring may have reduced the frequency of electrical fires, so I guess that's two good things.

See also:


Game and Story Use

  • First and foremost, this is one of the well-documented examples that every conspiracy nut NPC should be cracking open every time they want to make the case that conspiracies are real.
    • This, along with the Business Plot of 1933, are the corporate-equivalents of things like MK-Ultra, the Mahattan Project, and the massive government conspiracies that protected the secrecy leading up to D-Day. You'll notice there's a lot different between Pheobus and most of the other items on that list, but to the conspiracist they're all signs of the same truth.
  • Phoebus Cartel could serve as a model for your non-governmental conspiracy in a cyberpunk dystopia, or, sadly, the modern day. They did nothing illegal on the record, but that's not the same as doing nothing unethical.
    • You thought one megacorp was villain enough? How much worse is it when the corrupt corporate executives of a half dozen corporations decide to play by a secret set of rules that benefit them all at your expense?
    • If one of the PCs is a techie/inventor, the GM might let them develop a new technology, or custom-tune the parties equipment for bonuses. But once they get some spotlight time (perhaps media coverage for their heroic exploits with the new tech) the shadow corporations realize that this new device will upset their applecart. It starts with strong-arm tactics and intimidation, but when the PCs refuse to do what Big Corporate Brother says, it quickly evolves into corp-sponsored ninja attacks. "Arasaka and Militech send thier regards."
      • It would certainly be interesting to find out how they prevented insurgent companies from breaking into the market - with, for example, a longer lived bulb or the bayonet fit bulbs that are standard in the UK.
  • Phoebus Cartel could be a potential corporate big-bad for any game from 1923 to 1939.
    • …or later, if they only pretended to stop cooperating during World War Two. (e.g.: Hail hydra!)
    • With a little hand-waving of the details, you could conflate them with the Business Plot of 1933, and have the PCs in the Smedley Butler role.
    • Given the mythological correspondence of the name "Phoebus", you might want to work in an occult and/or coded myth angle.
  • If a critical lightbulb burns out anytime between 1881 and 1922, finding a replacement that fits your particular hand-made lightsocket without blowing a fuse or starting a fire could be a minor comedic adventure in its own right. A minor slapstick subplot at least.
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