The Story Behind the Story Behind “The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy”

Thomas Pynchon didn't invent the Phoebus cartel

2 min read
The Story Behind the Story Behind “The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy”
Markus Krajewski, author of The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy, at the Municipal Archives in Berlin
Christian Werner

In Thomas Pynchon’s cult classic Gravity’s Rainbow, an immortal lightbulb named Byron runs afoul of a secretive international industrial alliance known as the Phoebus cartel. When the cartel detects that Byron has exceeded his programmed life span, the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies dispatches a hit man to take Byron out.

Markus Krajewski, like many readers, found the story both “wild and weird.” And yet, he says, “I knew that Pynchon’s prose style mixes fact and fiction, and so I wondered: Could this be true?”

Turns out, many parts of Pynchon’s tale were indeed based on fact: There really was a Phoebus cartel, and it really did target lightbulbs. Krajewski learned that Pynchon had relied on bona fide economic histories in weaving his tale of the cartel, including George W. Stocking and Myron W. Watkins’s 1946 text, Cartels in Action: Case Studies in International Business Diplomacy. Digging deeper, he discovered that the Municipal Archives in Berlin housed corporate records from Osram, a key cartel member. At the time, in the late 1990s, he was studying in Berlin at Humboldt University, so he decided to “order up some files.” In this rich trove were letters and reports that documented how the cartel conspired to engineer a shorter-lived incandescent lightbulb. His article, “The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy,” appears in the latest issue of IEEE Spectrum.

Christian Werner
Corporate memos and reports at the Berlin archives describe the inner workings of the Phoebus cartel.

Now a professor of media studies at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, Krajewski [he’s shown above at the Berlin archives] says at first he was “quite astonished that the cartel so meticulously tried to control everything connected to such an ordinary object like the lightbulb.” But when he considered the huge profits involved, it all made sense.

Still, he says, by reducing the lightbulb’s life span, the cartel was essentially working against progress. “William Meinhardt, the head of Osram, always argued that the cartel was for the benefit of the consumer,” Krajewski says. And that, he concluded, was the biggest fiction of all.

The Conversation (0)

From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

Keep Reading ↓Show less