THE GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY of BRITAIN

 

The official history of GEC gives the birth of the enterprise as 1886 when Gustav Binswanger (later to change his name to Gustav Byng) employed a fellow German immigrant called Hugo Hirst. They had met because Hirst had been lodging at the house of Max Binswanger, Gustav’s brother. The Binswangers’ business operation, based in London, was more complex than the standard history suggests. They did not, as is often stated, set up initially to retail electrical goods but traded in the early 1880s as G.Binswanger & Co, offering a range of merchandise mainly associated with the mechanical engineering of steam generation. In fact, the range of products (asbestos packings, steam & boiler fittings, gauge glasses, lubricators and India Rubber goods) bore a remarkable similarity to those of a Manchester based engineer, inventor and iron merchant called Charles Leigh Clarke. But the applications of electricity were gathering pace and before long Gustav Binswanger began the procurement and sale of electrical goods. In partnership with James Boyd, he formed the Electric Apparatus Co Ltd in 1884 to continue a business called the Electric Appliance Company that had already been run by Binswanger for a short time at Charing Cross.

Above: Early logo used from the 1880s

Separately, and operating from 29 Aldermanbury as G.Binswanger & Co and The General Electric Apparatus Company, he imported or otherwise acquired electrical items, selling them on to the Electric Apparatus Co with a 5% mark-up on cost. It was actually in 1884 that Hugo Hirst became a Manager at the EAC under Binswanger. The venture did not make a profit and there was a disagreement between Binswanger and the other directors. On the 8th September 1886 Binswanger ceased to be a director of the EAC, taking Hirst with him, to continue with The General Electric Apparatus Company. The word ‘Apparatus’ was later dropped from the title and the General Electric Company then came into being.

In 1887 Binswanger was able to take over a factory previously owned by the Electric Portable Battery and Gas Igniting Company, with whom he had business dealings. In 1888 they moved to a factory in Chapel Street, Salford, where they also began production of magneto telephones and small (23 and 50-line) switchboards. Because of the close proximity of the towns it became known as the Manchester Electric Works Company. The building was large enough to accommodate 300 staff, but by the early 1890s it was becoming cramped.

In 1889 they became the General Electric Company Limited, and their proud catchcry became “Everything Electrical”. In 1893 they started another company, Osram, to make the new electric lamps that were coming into use. This made their fortunes, and in 1900 GEC became a public company.

Following a fire in the Manchester Electric Works in 1895 (not 1893 as listed in Company histories - the 1895 date is confirmed by newspaper reports) all telephone construction was moved to the old Adelphi Mills building in Silk Street, Salford. This six-storey building became known as the Peel Works because it overlooked Peel Park (named after Sir Robert Peel, local MP and founder of the London Police Force). The company claimed that its Peel Works was the first company to manufacture public telephone exchange equipment in Britain. This could well be true, as up to this point the market mostly used Western Electric boards made by the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company in Antwerp. As production increased, new factories were opened in Birmingham, Coventry and other cities. Telephone production gradually became concentrated in the Peel Works.

In 1908 the Peel Works staff was joined by Merritt Scott Conner, an American inventor with a background and patents in telephony. Conner worked extensively on the development of the telephone as a precision mass production instrument and took out many patents in conjunction with other Peel Works staff.

 

 

Left: the magnet logo was used on many electrical products, especially telephones, from the 1890s. It appears to have remained in use until the 1920s when the more familiar script logo was introduced for all products.

 

 

 

Left: Peel Works (from 1912 catalogue)

In 1909 or 1910 (the latter date is probably correct) the Peel Works was incorporated as Peel-Conner Telephone Works Ltd. It concentrated entirely on manufacture of telephones. The March 31st 1910 annual report for GEC states "switchgear, arc lamps, fans and small motors departments have been moved from Salford to Witton. Peel Works is now entirely devoted to telephone and telegraphic apparatus. The directors have thought it desirable to carry on these departments as a subsidiary company". The new shareholders, each with 500 shares, were G. Byng, H. Hirst, J Fraser , E. G. Byng, P. P. Kipping, and M. S. Conner. Conner's value to the firm can be measured by the invitation for him to join the Board and to mamage the new company. GEC sold off some of their factories at this time,such as a steel conduit works. They retained telephone manufacture, which shows how important it had become to the company..

 

GEC also sold telephones and parts from L M Ericsson (telephones and parts), Alfred Graham (ships phones), Fox-Pearson (fire alarms), Sinclair (insulators) and many others. They were also making Western Electric-pattern telephones and parts for the British Post Office under the BPO's contract-sharing arrangements, designed to support local manufacturers.

GEC suffered a minor setback in 1912 with the British Post Office buyout of the National Telephone Company, one of the Peel Works' major customers. The slack was soon taken up with their share of Post Office contracts. Their telephones were also being exported in large quantities. The first overseas contract from the Peel-Conner factory was to Australia in 1911. It sold the Australian PMG Department 8000 lines for new exchanges in the Adelaide area, comprising six exchanges at Central, Prospect, Glenelg, Brighton, Henley and Woodfield. By about 1914 GEC had added rebadged Sterling telephones and intercoms to their ever-expanding range. They had also moved into PABXs and CB switchboards.

 

Above: Conner Magneto Works, World War 1. Courtesy Alan Gall.

Gustav Byng died in 1910, but Hugo Hirst continued the expansion of the company by setting up agencies worldwide. By the start of the First World War, GEC was a major company in British industry and produced wireless sets, shell casings, searchlights, and signalling lamps as well as telephones, switchgear and electrical apparatus. In 1916 GEC started manufacturing magnetos, an item previously imported from Germany. These were not telephone magnetos, but the large generators used to provide power. GEC also built smaller magnetos for aero and vehicle engines to Mr Conner's designs, through the Conner Magneto and Ignition Ltd company. In 1915 production at the Peel Works had reached the point that a new factory was needed. A site in Manchester was decided on, based on Conner's opinion that with the expansion of the motor trade there , there would be a good supply of female labour as the motor industry was liable to seasonal redundancies. Eventually 146 acres was purchased to cover the factory, staff housing and social amenities.

GEC was not a particularly inventive company at this time, usually confining itself to producing and refining the inventions of others or buying out other companies. This was actually a strength, as they were able to adapt rapidly to new technologies without the expense of inventing them. They did, however, open a large industrial research laboratory at Wembley in 1919 – the first in Britain. Leading up to the Second World War this laboratory, working through the University of Birmingham, was instrumental in developing to production stage the Cavity Magnetron valve. This was the heart of the Radar network that proved vital to Britain in the early days of the war.

In the period between the wars GEC produced a wider range of telephones, including the “tin box” style of desk phone, and they adopted bakelite very early. In 1921 telephone manufacturing was concentrated at the larger Coventry factory, and Peel-Conner was liquidated as a company. The Coventry factory then inherited the Peel Conner Telephone Works name.

 

Left: Coventry Works in the 1920s (Courtesy Alan Gall)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Their classic Gecophone was a rather more attractive alternative to the BPO’s 200 series. It had the bellset moulded into the phone rather than bolted on underneath. It was made in white, red, green and mottled brown as well as the usual black. The mottled colour was called “walnut” and seems to have been something of a GEC specialty. They offered it in many of their products, not just phones. For further information on the Gecophone and its lookalikes, go to http://www.phone-pages.org.uk/geco.htm.

The Muraphone K, released some time later, was the wall equivalent. Although both phones were widely used on PAXs leased by rental companies such as Reliance, they were never accepted by the BPO as an alternative to the 200 and 300 series. Both phones made useful sales, however, especially overseas. Railways seemed to be rather fond of the Muraphone, as it did not have the fragile cradle of the current 100/200 series. The phones are quite well-known in Australia.

Other changes took longer. Some curious phones from their 1935 catalogue still have the spidery, ornate cradles and wooden bases of the earlier era topped with the new bakelite handsets. See the Model K7851 for instance. My example has a “walnut” bakelite handset – an attractive little phone, but a strange combination of the old and the new. There never seems to have been a “GEC style” as such. By now they were producing phones to the British Post Office standard patterns, such as their K7855, but the 1935 catalogue still shows a number of the older styles lingering on - perhaps old stock? Many of these were still Sterling designs. They had bought Sterling’s telephone assets following that company’s sale to Marconi in 1926.

They also had the usual range of mining, tramways and intercom phones. For a rather ugly example, see the Model K8056 with its basic steel case. The K8105 mining phone was, however, still being built in wood. A small but important market was still ships’ phones for the Royal Navy. Obviously export-oriented, the 1935 catalogue shows an exchange installation in Singapore and mentions that all equipment is built for tropical conditions.

In 1936 GEC produced the Chad Valley telephone, an unusually shaped kid’s phone. Even though intended as a toy, it was still a very well-made product. It came in black or the simulated walnut finish. The photo is courtesy of Bob Freshwater’s Telephone File website.

At various times they used different BPO manufacturers’ codes:

AEG GEC Telecommunications, Glenross
AEK GEC-AEI Telecommunications, Kirkaldy
C Coventry
G General Electric
GEC GEC Telephones, Coventry
GEN GEC-AEI Telecommunications, Newton Aycliffe

Hugo Hirst died in 1943 and the company started to lose its direction after the war. Profits began to fall in the face of competition and new products from abroad. Although the firm was investing heavily in new technology such as nuclear power, they suffered from internal conflict and were losing money in too many areas.

The telephone part of the company still did fairly well, though. GEC was a major supplier of bakelite phones to Britain and its ex-colonies, and the small gold GEC transfer is found under many Australian phones. They also supplied parts and components for the post World War 2 growth. In 1953 they released their 1000 series phone, a more rounded version of the BPO’s 300. It was based on a 1947 Ericsson design but featured a more comfortable, less angular handset that was later copied for the BPO’s phones and Australia’s 400 series. All 1000 series phones had a black handset and dial, regardless of the body color, to reduce the number of spare parts needed.

In 1961 GEC bought out Radio and Allied Industries. This was a good move for GEC, as they also got the company’s Managing Director, Arnold Weinstock. He set about a program of rejuvenation. By the late 1960s GEC had bought out or merged with most of Britain’s major electrical firms, including Marconi. In 1966 they released a new version of the Muraphone, designed to compete with the BPO’s 700 series. Again, though, it was only used on private installations. In 1970 they released their first touchphone.

By 1979 GEC was Britain’s largest private employer. During the 1980s the growth continued as they formed joint venture companies with Plessey and then Siemens. The companies were moving strongly into defence contracting, electricity generation and shipbuilding as well as electronics.

After the retirement of (now Lord) Weinstock in 1996 the company started to rationalise its wide range of companies in a series of selloffs and mergers. In 1999 it renamed itself Marconi plc and went back to communications, internet and electronics. Then in a major setback the company failed to get even a minor share of a huge British Telecom network upgrade contract. Share prices fell and the company was only rescued by bank and shareholder support.

Then the internet bubble burst in 2000, and by 2001 the new company’s shares had dropped to an alltime low. On Tuesday, October 25, 2005, the company announced that it had sold its business and its name to L M Ericssons.

 

I am indebted to Alan Gall for his information on the early history of the company, and for sorting out the range of Peel Conner factories and their history. A more detailed history is available in the Spring 2008 issue of The Journal of The Institute of Science & Technology (Britain).

 

Typical GEC Phones

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