Is Byron in for a rude awakening! There is already an organization, a human one, known as “Phoebus,” the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland. Run pretty much by International GE, Osram, and Associated Electrical Industries of Britain, which are in turn owned 100%, 29% and 46%, respectively, by the General Electric Company in America. Phoebus fixes the prices and determines the operational lives of all the bulbs in the world, from Brazil to Japan to Holland (although Philips in Holland is the mad dog of the cartel, apt at any time to cut loose and sow disaster throughout the great Combi-nation). Given this state of general repression, there seems no place for a newborn Baby Bulb to start but at the bottom.
But Phoebus doesn’t know yet that Byron is immortal …
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
I can remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow and marveling at the imagination on display in the famous “Byron the Bulb” section, in which a very chipper, eternally burning lightbulb (yes, that’s our Byron) finds himself in the crosshairs of Phoebus, a nefarious lightbulb cartel intent on controlling the life span of every bulb in the world.
At the time, I assumed without a second thought that Phoebus was a work of fiction—and why wouldn’t it be? The cartel was mentioned, after all, in basically the same breath as an all-girl opium den, “dildos rigged to pump floods of paregoric orgasm to the cap-illaries [sic] of the womb,” and, yes, a talking lightbulb.
Markus Krajewski, a media studies professor, was less skeptical: “I knew that Pynchon’s prose style mixes fact and fiction, and so I wondered: Could this be true?”
It was, his research revealed. Well, it kind of was—the Phoebus cartel really did exist, and it perpetrated what can only be called the “Great Lightbulb Conspiracy.” Appropriately enough, IEEE Spectrum—a trade magazine edited by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers—has Krajewki’s story:
On December 23, 1924, a group of leading international businessmen gathered in Geneva for a meeting that would alter the world for decades to come. Present were top representatives from all the major lightbulb manufacturers, including Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and the United States’ General Electric. As revelers hung Christmas lights elsewhere in the city, the group founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.
These companies colluded, it turns out, to engineer incandescent lightbulbs with dramatically attenuated life spans: over the next years, bulbs that once burned some fifteen hundred to two thousand hours were made to last for only a thousand, thus enabling every company in the world to sell more bulbs and artificially inflate prices. The ruse lasted until 1940, and it was surprisingly sophisticated in its execution; the companies involved made “very strenuous efforts … to emerge from a period of long life lamps,” as one executive wrote. I love the language there—as if efficiency was merely a phase, an independent variable, something to be waited out.
Read the rest of Krajewski’s piece here—and never again doubt the veracity of Pynchon.