In Clayton Christensen’s classic book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, he argues that “disruptive” technologies often start out with very limited use, but thanks to improvements over time, eventually develop a wide enough use case that they completely displace the existing technology that was there before.
Christensen talks about a number of disrupting technologies from the past: disk drives, hydraulic excavators, mini steel mills, and cell phones. But today you can find an equally disruptive technology just reaching its tipping point: the LED light bulb.
The first commercial LED was available in 1962 from Texas Instruments. At the time, the new technology had little practical use. Early LEDs were only available in red, the light they produced was very dim, and the price tag was prohibitively high – $200 per unit. Early usage was typically limited to indicator lights on high-end laboratory equipment.
But like many other early disruptions, the technology slowly began improving. In 1972 a yellow LED was developed and the lights were starting to be a bit brighter. By the mid-1990’s LEDs had become much brighter and could now emit either a red, yellow, or blue hue.
This sustained improvement in brightness is well cataloged. Dr. Roland Haitz noted that every 10 years the amount of light generated (measured in lumens) goes up by a factor of 20 while the price per lumen falls by a factor of 10. This rule became Haitz’s law, and is similar in principle to the more popular Moore’s law.
A history of improving LED brightness. Credit: Thorseth
The most recent breakthrough occurred in 2014, when bright white light was first produced, a discovery so significant that it was awarded that year’s Nobel Prize in physics.
Today, after more than 50 years of development and improvement, the modern LED light bulb has matured to the point of being better than the incumbent (incandescent light bulb) in just about every way.
First, the brightness of modern LEDs has finally reached that of an incandescent light. It’s easy to find LED bulbs with a brightness of 1600 lumens, the equivalent of a 100 watt incandescent bulb, which is brighter than most people need in their house.
Second, the lifespan of a typical LED bulb is 25,000 hours, which is several orders of magnitude longer than a typical incandescent bulb. People typically have lights on for 3 hours a day, which means an LED bulb will last more than 20 years! Old incandescent bulbs often burn out in under one year.
Comparison of average LED lifespan vs. incandescent light
Third, although incandescent bulbs are very cheap to produce, they’re incredibly inefficient. Less than 10% of the energy used in an incandescent bulb is converted to light, the remaining 90%+ is given off as heat. This means an incandescent bulb uses six times the energy of an LED bulb, which in turn makes your electricity bill six times higher.
Comparison of energy consumed by LED bulb vs. incandescent light
All of this culminates into a massive cost savings. Although buying an LED bulb is a slightly higher upfront cost, the bulb will pay for itself within a year. Not only that, but over the lifespan of one LED bulb the typical consumer will save almost $150 compared to using incandescent lights.
Cost comparison of owning an LED light vs. an incandescent light
This cost comparison gets even better when you consider that the average house in America uses 40 lightbulbs. If all those incandescent bulbs were switched for LED bulbs, that would translate to a savings of $5,800 over a 20 year span.
After disruption, we often look back and wonder how we lived in a world filled with such obsolete technology. 8 inch floppy disks, cable-operated excavators, vertically integrated steel mills, and landline phones all seem like such primitive and foolish tools. In 10 years the incandescent light will sit on that same list.
So what are you waiting for? Be part of a modern disruption and go get yourself some LED light bulbs. What a bright idea.