What Fate for the Incandescent Bulb?
Philips's AmbientLED versus Edison's incandescent bulb. Photo: Kenji Aoki for The New York Times.
The consumer marketplace is largely considered a free territory, allowing people to purchase most products without restrictions. Limits are imposed, of course, on products deemed to have potentially dangerous side effects—such as guns or drugs. Increasingly, the inefficient consumption of energy is a characteristic deemed worthy of limitation.
An article in the recent New York Times Magazine spells the demise of the incandescent bulb, a ubiquitous consumer product that has gained negligible improvements in its poor efficiency—radiating 90 percent of its energy as heat, not light—since its invention in 1879. Despite the high energy efficiency and light-spectrum rendition of new LED bulbs such as Philips’s AmbientLED, the potential curtailment of incandescent bulb production has sparked a political firestorm against the regulation of consumer choice.
Although the proponents of the incandescent bulb’s extinction are right to show concern about the ill effects generated by its poor energy consumption, I would argue that a breakthrough product innovation—coupled with a competitive price point—would render restrictions unnecessary. What improvements in design and performance would be required, for example, to make the incandescent bulb seem wholly undesirable? After all, the consumer products field is full of unwanted technologies—take the eight-track tape player or original personal computer, for example. If light bulb technology can be improved sufficiently—as Philips and other manufacturers are intent to do—perhaps Edison’s invention will go the way of the gramaphone record (another one of his contributions), thus eliminating the need for regulations.