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.

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