Mind & Matter


What Fate for the Incandescent Bulb?

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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.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.