Memo - Obsolescence Timeline.jpg

Discursive emergence, shifts, and historical events

World War I: Thrift Campaign

Post World War I: Thrift dropped from a public discussion

Great Depression: Thrift was revived

Thorstein Veblen
  • Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, 1899
    • technological extinction → obsolescence
      • Access to ‘the new’ is easy for the wealthy/leisure class → differentiation is no longer in ‘newness’ → publicizing wealth and power through ‘the archaic’ or ‘classic’→ leisure consumer society → recapturing or emulating the ‘old’ styles and objects which are limited (either because of number or access)

J. A. Hobson 1921 Work and Wealth: A Human Valuation, Stuart Chase 1925 The Tragedy of Waste
  • “adulteration” (poorly manufactured products – materials or craftsmanship – for the purpose of cost cutting and increased consumption)→ “planned obsolescence” (not yet coined) → death dating (not yet coined: 1953)

[adulterate: to reduce the purity of; to falsify, corrupt ]

General Motors vs Ford
Round 1:
  • New mass technologies offered much availability of/for competition
  • Ford’s Model T was beating Chevrolet
  • New innovations – electric starter which were easier and allowed women to socially and piratically be more able to start a car – made GM more competitive, rendering the hand-crank obsolete
  • Ford and GM kept attempting to force obsolescence of the other’s technological designs through innovation
  • Relative stalemate
Round 2:
  • GM hiring of textile executives, 1923
  • Artificial ‘disposal’ due to rival aesthetic desirability
    • adds logic of aesthetics to relatively stable utility objects→ new logic for competition with rival technologies/firms → attract customers based on high aesthetic difference (mimicking luxury car stylization) rather than low utility difference → style could date cars more quickly than mechanical or technological ‘self innovation’ or ‘inducing obsolescence on rivals’

General Spillover
  • Justus George, article in Advertising and Selling, 1928
    • Apply lessons from auto industry to products in general
    • encourage increased consumption not by wear but by discard→ increase cycle of consumption → increase profits

GE circa early 1930s
  • Had monopolistic control over light-bulb manufacturing due to patenting of tungsten filament and being out competition on technological grounds
    • Realized that with it’s patent and monopolistic control it could manufacture poorer quality light-bulbs, or “adulterate the lifespan of its bulbs” and increase repetitive consumption without the threat of rival firms

Lewis Mumford 1934 Technics and Civilization
  • Describes phenomena without naming/terminology (p. 394)

Bernard London
  • “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence,” 1935
    • Artificial ‘death date’ or ‘disposable date’ on objects issued by government
      • ‘top down’
      • force increase consumption cycle → force increase supply → increase need for workers → decrease unemployment

Leon Kelley, 1936 “Outmoded Durability: If Merchandise Does Not Wear Out Faster, Factories Will Be Idle, People Unemployed,” Printer’s Ink
  • term ‘planned obsolescence’ came into use




Vance Packard 1957 Hidden Persuaders (need to lookup)
  • planned obsolescence a big, national, problem




Circuits, circa 1965
  • the size and capacity were growing so quickly that ‘planning’ was almost taken out of the equation as the climate of innovation and change was such that obsolescence became predictable and expected (Moore’s Law) : “self-consuming artifacts, … desirability diminished automatically” (my emphasis)




Samuel D. Crowther, Henry Ford’s ghostwriter, “Economy is waste; it is waste of the juices of life, the sap of living.”


Obsolescence of function
Obsolescence of quality
Obsolescence of desire/desirability