At 4550 East Avenue, in Livermore, California, a light bulb burns brightly, shedding light on its keepers the staff of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department. But, this is no ordinary light bulb. This light bulb was first switched on at the turn of the century. No. Not the 21st Century. The 20th! The end of the Victorian era rather than the advent of the new millennium. The bulb is a 60-Watt incandescent light with a carbon filament it is known as the Centennial Light and was manufactured by the Shelby Electric Company in Ohio it is one of many that were produced in the late 1890s, but burning for more than a century it has the most infamous glow.

So, why do we not have such long-lived light bulbs in our homes and offices today? Fluorescent tubes and light-emitting diodes aside, we have had a century of incandescent light that periodically plunges us into darkness as the "filament goes". Well, there is the inevitable conspiracy theory that suggests that manufacturers recognized how putatively geriatric light bulbs would quickly lead to a dwindling of their profits once everyone had bought all the bulbs they needed and put them out of business. They thus collaborated to establish a cartel, which has had various names, most notoriously, the Phoebus cartel, in the 1920s. Phoebus would hide the fact that light bulbs could be manufactured to last indefinitely, instead the members would from then on plan obsolescence into the designs of their products. All the manufacturers were sworn to secrecy and they would all profit as light bulbs would be designed to burn out after a predetermined time a few hundred or a few thousand hours, no more, thus requiring endless replacement over many years and so sustaining company profits.

The conspiracy theorists even go so far as to suggest that once manufacturers recognized the obvious economic benefits to their shareholders of planned obsolescence in the humble light bulb, the same concept was endlessly applied to all other products from washing machines and refrigerators to the present day's smart phones and tablet computers…even those energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs and LEDs.

Of course, with some very deep insider knowledge of the schemes of whole industries across a world of rival manufacturers we can never be entirely certain that there was, nor indeed still is, no cartel. A 2010 film "The Light Bulb Conspiracy" reinforced the conspiracy theories and it has become obvious in the light of many other corporate misdemeanors, that big business is most certainly not on the side of Jane Doe nor the man on the Clapham Omnibus.

However, with a less cynical perspective, one might simply turn to the concept of entropy and the natural decay of components under thermal and electrical duress. The Centennial Light is an anomaly, or perhaps just so well made and so simple - a glass bulb with two electrical contacts and a strand of carbon - that there is little within its design that can go wrong and so it hasn't…yet. The other manufacturers in differentiating their products and producing them en masse ever faster as the twentieth century unfurled simply could not maintain that level of high quality and expense and mass production simply led to falling standards and the inevitably burnout.

In an age of environmental concerns, the reduce, re-use, recycle (and re-purpose) ethos, and ethical manufacturing, there is certainly an urgency in planning out built-in obsolescence if it exists or more realistically pushing manufacturers to do the right thing and develop products with improved efficiencies, better tolerances and greater longevity. While we cannot defer entropy indefinitely, we can shed a little light on the materials and processes that we use to make our tools and toys longer lasting. And, perhaps take a lesson from a Victorian light bulb that still burns brightly in the age of disposable smart phones and flashlight apps.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".