My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Sunday, November 13, 2022

A review from a second year degree student

This review is by Coffee and Books and makes everything worthwhile.

I wanted to read How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World by Philip Hamlyn Williams because I studied economic history last year and I liked the subject a lot. On top of that the author’s great grandfather exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. That made the book too enticing to miss and I’m glad I didn’t because it’s great.

The book covers the period from 1850 to 1950, the last chapter being on the Festival of Britain of 1951. It’s a wonderfully circular structure, to start with the Great Exhibition and finish with the Festival of Britain. With wars, including both world wars, and disruption to supply chains, advances in technology, changes in manufacturing, this book had to cover a lot of information and it does it beautifully. It’s easy to read, explained clearly and engaging.

Many topics are covered, from steam power which was still in its infancy in the 1850s to the Mallard of the 1930s, covered developments in communication, the sewing machine, bicycles, cars and aeroplanes. He covers the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, which were interesting to read about. Germany had a leading role when it came to dyestuff, but the war changed that, of course.

This is a very good book, one I would recommend to anyone, without any doubt

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A review from Lincoln, the city where so much manufacturing happened

 ‘Philip’s painstaking research leads to a fascinating read’

Thank you Rob White in the Lincoln Independent for a wonderfully affirming review of How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World.

I am really pleased you found the book an easy read, notwithstanding the extensive research. Pleased, too, you liked the quotes I used for each chapter.

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is on sale at Lindum Books in Bailgate, and from the publishers Pen & Sword.


Fossil fuels powered the industrial revolution, but that is not the whole story.

 At the start, power came from water, wood and charcoal and animals. Early experiments with coal were not entirely successful. Impurities made it unsuitable for smelting, it was also polluting such that the burning of coal was banned in the city of London. 

Yet coal was freely available, often on the surface by the coast of north east England - hence its full name sea-coal as opposed to char-coal. It was the demand for wood for the making of ships that forced a second look at coal. 

Impurities were addressed by burning them off into the atmosphere; later they were captured and uses found for early plastics for example. Coal now drove the smelting of iron. An early use for coal was in the coal mines, to power steam engines to extract water and drive ventilation as well as powering engines to bring coal to the surface and onward to the user. 

The railways provided the perfect use for coal as new lines connected the country. Coal powered ships connecting the world. 

Oil was first discovered in Britain in coal  seams and used for lighting and lubrication. The big oil finds were in the USA and Russia. It was only later that the Middle East took it place in energy supply. 

In looking at British manufacturing, coal remained king much longer than elsewhere. British shipbuilders and railway locomotive manufacturers stayed with coal probably far too long. The famous red flag which slowed the British car industry was initially to protect people from coal powered steam vehicles.

 It is interesting that one of Britain’s greatest engineers, William Armstrong, was wedded to the power of water. Water also powered the aluminium industry with the early hydroelectric schemes.

Hydrocarbons are part and parcel. In Britain the first plastics were made from chemicals derived not from coal as in Germany or oil as in the USA, but from molasses, the byproduct of sugar beet.

Britain built the world’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall. Plans were in place for many more before North Sea gas made electricity from gas turbines much cheaper. France, on the other hand, built some sixty giving it a lead in nuclear power technology. Britain stuck with massive power stations powered by pulverised coal producing steam in cathedral like boilers.

Britain’s energy plant manufacturers are now mainly owned by Siemens and it is they who are rolling out renewables. Rolls-Royce, which once owned boiler maker Northern Engineering Industries, is focusing on smaller local nuclear plants. Alternative sources of energy are very much the focus of much of British industry. Companies like Scottish and Southern are promoting renewables projects but often turning to non UK suppliers. Companies like ITM Energy are exploring hydrogen. There is much going on.

I write more on this in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World and in the sequel in progress Whatever Happened to British Manufacturing.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Whatever Happened to the British Electricity and Electronics Industry?

 My work in progress is exploring the years since the Festival of Britain closed its doors to see how the hopes inherent in the festival were played out. 

The more I read, the more I reflect on the essence of British manufacturing. We were, we are, very clever. Talking to a member of the team at Rustons who developed gas turbines from the ground breaking work by Frank Whittle on jet engines, I am in no doubt at all that both technically and commercially their work was hugely successful. I include it in this post under electronics because of the life changing input of gas turbines on the generation of electricity and all that brings with it. 

Away from the generation of electricity to its applications, the way companies like Marconi, Ferranti and EMI built civil applications from wartime experience is life affirming. To invent a transistor is one thing, to incorporate it into the electronics in aircraft in crowded skies, where the margin for error is zero, is quite another. To have an idea that it may be possible to report in digital form the shape of objects lying close together and one top of one another is crazy enough, but then to transform the idea into an instrument that can scan the human body is simply brilliant. 

In commercial terms it is evident that success is time relative. Looking at the great names of British electronics, AEI, English Electric, GEC, EMI, Thorn, Plessey, Ferranti, Marconi and Brush it is clear that every dog has its day. It is the exceptional dog whose day extends much beyond. AEI through its constituent companies British Thompson Houston and Metropolitan Vickers did the heavy lifting that gave us the National Grid; it also gave birth to the oldest semiconductor manufacturer still working in the UK. English Electric gave us aeroplanes and trains but also brought out the brilliance of Marconi. GEC, under Arnold Weinstock, brought in a whole new approach to financial discipline. EMI gave us the framework on which British television was based up to the seventies. Thorn gave us fluorescent lighting and television rental. Plessey gave us advanced telecommunications. Ferranti electronics guided post war British missiles and Marconi made aircraft safe. When I walk my dog past the electricity substation across the road, the name Brush is clear to see on the bank of transformers. 

None of these companies have survived other than in a much reduced form. 

I am working through the histories of these and other electronic companies to try to identify successes and failures and some of the influences and possible causes. My hope is that it will help to inform the future. 

For me, every bit as exciting is the quiet success of companies created since 1951 and playing their part with great success in 21st century Britain. Just a couple of examples are Wilson Power Solutions ITM Power and ARM. There are many more.

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...