An inspiring story of incompetence

A liquid filled light bulb

A liquid-filled light LED bulb. Designed with delightful incompetence.


Schadenfreude is the german word that describes the pleasure derived  from another person’s misfortune. Reading this WIRED story about the design of LED light bulbs, I will confess to feeling great pleasure at reading about the utter incompetence with which these were designed. On reflection, it was not exactly pleasure at their misfortune, but relief. My feeling was that “If they can bring their product to market after ignoring really obvious problems with their product, then maybe I should should not be so hard on myself about the mistakes I have made in my work. Either way, I felt inspired to follow my ideas with renewed vigor.

The story relates how in 1997 Ron Lenk had the idea of cooling LED’s inside a light bulb with a gel rather than gas – what a great idea! He patented the idea and founded a company, Switch to manufacture their Superbulb. All kinds of things happened, but things were looking tricky when they hired a physicist, David Horn, in 2009 who noticed that something was very wrong. On touching the outer envelope with his finger, he noticed that it wasn’t warm! If the bulb wasn’t getting warm, then the gel within the bulb wasn’t doing its job of cooling the LEDs. So after two years of experiments and development, it took an outsider to notice that something was very wrong. Everyone in the development team must have known that!

They seem to have things in hand now. But this willingness to notice problems that everyone would prefer to ignore is critical to the success of projects. It’s an example of negative feedback, and  it often takes an outsider to provide it. It put me in my mind of my own project in which I am trying to measure temperatures by timing pulses of sound down tubes. Even though the idea is mine, I will confess to thinking its a pretty clever idea. But making it work reliably takes all kinds of skills that I don’t have. I had been feeling really fed up about the project – there are still one or two things that I can’t figure out – but reading this story inspired me to look at things again. Because after all, tomorrow is another day.



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