Skip to main content

A new industry

Woodturning Shop, at the GPO Holloway Factory, c1900

An industry is born: supplying demand

On 2 September 1845, William Cooke joined forces with John Lewis Ricardo to found the Electric Telegraph Company, mainly to operate telegraph networks but also to manufacture the telegraph equipment it would need. The ETC was established by Act of Parliament, on 18 June 1846.

In 1870, The Post Office acquired the company's factory in Camden Town, London, as well as the Magnetic Telegraph Company works in Bolton, to create the Post Office Factories Division - the first nationalised telecommunications manufacturer.

Shortly afterwards, the GPO developed a system of centralised equipment tendering and purchasing. It set up a closed loop system in which British factories were supplying Post Office designed equipment, expressly intended to equip a Post Office-controlled network. 

Neophone'; gold finish

The big players emerge : towards a multinational business

The growth of telecommunications throughout the 19th and 20th centuries gave rise to a global industry dominated by three countries: the USA, Britain and Germany.

As the network hardware became standardised, so manufacturing became more concentrated and on a larger scale.

After the Second World War, the increasing volume, complexity and internationalisation of the telecommunications business started pushing national companies together into mergers and takeovers. Telecommunications manufacturing increasingly came to be dominated by multinational companies such as  Ericsson, Siemens and ITT whose ability to develop new technologies took the place of in-house development by individual telecomms operators such as the Post Office.

The exception was America's AT&T which was both a commercial telecomms operator and, through its close links with Bell Laboratories and Western Electric, a development and manufacturing giant.

The Post Office central tendering and purchasing system protected manufacturing in Britain. It offered manufacturers protected home markets and provided them with a strong platform for overseas sales - so long as there were telecommunications networks overseas built on the British model.

India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works company

Silver's success

Samuel Silver was a businessman who manufactured a huge proportion of the telegraph equipment used in Britain.

Silver took the bold step to develop a new industrial area on the northern banks of the Thames near Woolwich, in 1852. The area was mainly marshland, but its location meant the equipment could be shipped in and out easily along the estuary to the rest of the world.

Silver formed the India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works company in 1864. The success attracted new businesses to the area, most notably the Tate and Lyle sugar refineries, as well as a new labour force who were being squeezed out of London. By 1859 the area was known as Silver's town and before long was officially called Silvertown.

As the telegraph dwindled in the 1930s, Silver's company focused more on producing car tyres and golf balls until it was re-branded BTR, now part of the Invensys Group. Silver's factory was destroyed in the Second World War.

Siemens, Charles W

Siemens Brothers Ltd (1876) : divided we stand

The complex history of the Siemens company dates back to the mid-19th century when the two brothers Werner and Wilhelm (later William) Siemens started their electrical business.

Two separate factories and companies were established, one British (at Woolwich) and one German (in Berlin). Up to the First World War the two companies collaborated quite closely but the hostilities caused a total separation of the two firms.

The British company, Siemens Brothers Ltd, continued to expand successfully and during the 1960s was absorbed first into AEI Ltd and then into GEC Ltd, and the Siemens name disappeared from the UK telecommunications scene for nearly 30 years.

In 1989 the German Siemens company decided it wanted to stake a major claim on the UK telecomms market and bought 40 per cent of the UK firm GPT.

This arrangement had a short life and Siemens now trades independently, still acknowledging its UK tradition dating back to 1858.

PO advert published in the Sketch, Tatler and Punch, 1935

The growth of the British industry : making it

Britain's telecommunications manufacturing industry was further boosted by the Bulk Supply Agreements, which were in force from the 1920s through to the 1960s. These meant that the suppliers and the GPO shared the research and investment costs of new systems.

The purchasing structure meant that overseas companies - such as the multinational ITT Corporation - who wanted to do business in Britain had to set up British subsidiaries.

It provided British supplier companies with a protected domestic market. However, the system was a two-edged sword when it came to competing in overseas markets.

Workers assembling telephones, PO factory, Cwmcarn, 1954

The GPO as a sole purchaser : just one customer

There was only one principal customer for the British domestic market - the Post Office.

The GPO was not only a monopoly provider - but it was also the sole purchaser. In effect it controlled every part of the process.

At one end, this gave the GPO a central role in designing and commissioning new equipment, even down to the design of telephones. At the other, it included local inspection of approved suppliers, with a GPO inspector actually stationed in the factory to sign off each batch of equipment as it was produced.

But Post Office dominance proved damaging to British manufacturers, as the GPO network became increasingly out of step with technologies used elsewhere. The British public network, for instance, made no use of crossbar switching, which had become common around the world by the 1950s.

This made it increasingly difficult for British companies to compete in export markets.

Medresco' hearing aid display - Connected Earth artefact, now at the Science Museum, London.

Medresco hearing aid (c1949) : there's no need to shout!

The Post Office isn't on the tip of everyone's tongue when you think about healthcare, but in the 1940s it was at the forefront of hearing aid design. Overcoming problems with hearing is, after all, about improving communication - and that was The Post Office's speciality.

In 1944 the Ministry of Health set up a committee, which included several members from The Post Office, to review standards of hearing aids to see if they could be made widely available through the NHS. Up until then they were prohibitively expensive.

The committee researched the best available equipment from around the world, and developed the Medresco Mark 1 prototype. It was based on the same principles as a telephone, with the playback feeding straight into the ear. Thankfully, new developments in telephony allowed huge and affordable improvements to be made. After trials the team made some modifications and the government gave the thumbs up for mass production of the Mark 2.

Telephone handset moulding, PO factory, Cwmcarn, 1961

Glory years : big players, big factories

By the 1950s, the British manufacturing industry included six 'big name' suppliers of telecommunications equipment: Plessey, ATM, GEC, STC, Siemens and Ericsson. It also included other big companies making cables and wiring, such as BICC, Pirelli-General, Telephone Cables and Telcon.

Big factories sprang up outside the capital, such as at Beeston in the Midlands, at Coventry, and in the North West around Liverpool.

Beeston was big enough to require its own railway station and sidings. At its peak in the 1960s, the British telecommunications manufacturing industry employed over 50,000 people.

Today, telecommunications equipment manufacturing employs fewer than 10,000 people in the UK. Manufacturing of telephones and other telecommunications equipment is increasingly concentrated in south-east Asia.

Early Television experiment at the General Electric Co, 1928

GEC (General Electric Company) (1893) : big business

GEC, originally named the General Electrical Apparatus Company, was founded in London in 1886 as an importer of telephones, electric bells and switches from Germany. Soon afterwards it established a manufacturing plant of its own in Manchester and pioneered the use of china as an insulating material in switches, also manufacturing light bulbs from 1893.

After becoming a public limited company it was renamed 'The General Electric Co. Ltd' in 1903. The booming electricity market ensured the company's prosperous expansion into Europe, Japan, Australia, South Africa and India with a substantial export trade to South America.

During the First World War, it produced many products including radios, signalling lamps and arc lamp carbons and during the Second World War it developed the cavity magnetron for radar and the means for mass-producing electric lighting.

GEC had a history of successful mergers and takeovers, taking it into domestic and industrial electronics, heavy engineering, telecommunications and defence systems.

In 1999 GEC was renamed Marconi with great optimism, although the new company's shares collapsed in 2001.

Concept videophone, produced by the Plessey Company

Plessey (1917) : radio makers

The Plessey Company, named after a minor shareholder 'Plessey Parker', was founded in London, on December 11, 1917, by Hurst Hodgson and W.O. Heyne. Its objectives were 'machine engineering and machining and manufacturers of piano-forte actions, piano-players and musical instruments of all kinds'.

The company soon moved into wireless and, in 1922, began to make radio sets under contract for Marconi. The contract stopped in 1926 so Plessey began to make portable radios themselves which were distributed through a range of other companies. The company also made various minor parts for The Post Office and from 1929, candlestick telephones, forming a long association with the Post Office.

Plessey was an adaptable company and manufactured a wide range of products, largely under contract to larger firms. Products included a racecourse tote machine, also military and air radiocommunications equipment. Other products included cigarette lighters, also shell and bomb cases during the Second World War. The company was also involved in pioneer television experiments with John Logie Baird and built some of his Televisor receivers.

After World War II the company specialised in electronics and expanded its telecommunications activities significantly when it took over two rival companies in 1961.

The British Plessey company was bought out by GEC-Siemens in 1989 but the brand name is carried by its surviving South African subsidiary.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...