Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti (1864-1930) was born in Liverpool and had a remarkable natural talent for electrical engineering. His first invention was a street arc light that he developed when he was just 13 years old. Initially employed by Siemens Brothers in London, he left to form his first company in 1882. In 1887 Sebastian became Chief Engineer of the London Electricity Supply Company. In that capacity, he designed the building and the electrical generating and distribution system for the new Deptford Power Station. Deptford was the largest power station in the world when it opened in 1890. In 1894, he installed an AC (alternating current) street lighting system in Portsmouth – a major step in making AC the preferred system over DC (direct current) for general usage.
In 1896 Sebastian moved his company to Hollinwood, Oldham, where land and labour were cheaper than in London. The company became a limited company in 1901, from which date it was known as Ferranti Ltd. Sebastian continued to experiment and diversify: for example, he experimented with steam turbines and the construction of their blades. After seeing a flying display in 1909, he designed a gyroscope to help stabilise aircraft. In 1912, the company began to manufacture electrical domestic appliances. Expansion overseas began in 1913 when the Ferranti Electric Company of Canada was created.
By 1914, the company was spread over several sites. It suspended normal production during the First World War and concentrated on the manufacture of shells. This was the first of Ferranti’s government defence contracts. In the mid- 1920s, Ferranti resumed manufacturing domestic appliances, and began trading in the United States as Ferranti Electric Inc., New York.
Following the death of Sebastian, his son Vincent (1895-1980) became chairman. During the 1930s, the company became closely associated with devices that would feature strongly in the Second World War, including: thermionic valves (vacuum tubes) used in radios and radar, avionics and naval instruments. During the War, Ferranti produced marine radar equipment, gyro gun sights for fighters and one of the world’s first IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) radar systems, which reduced the possibility of firing on friendly aircraft or ships.
After the War, the company resumed manufacturing civilian products, but retained a greater interest in the defence sector than had previously been the case. From 1948, Ferranti began to develop guided missiles, especially the Bloodhound, at the Moston factory and later at the Wythenshawe factory. While the defence and communication market expanded throughout the 1950s, domestic products became unprofitable and were dropped. Ferranti became increasingly associated with ‘high-tech’ devices, including microwave communications equipment built at Poynton, near Stockport.
The Hollinwood factory continued to produce generating plant, such as large transformers. The new Computer Department produced the first Ferranti Mark I computer, a commercial version of the Mark I developed by Manchester University, at the Moston factory in 1951. It was the world’s first commercially produced computer. Computer production moved to a factory in West Gorton in 1956, but the Computer Division was sold to International Computers and Tabulators Ltd (ICT) in 1963. However, other sections of the company continued to develop computer technology for more specialised applications. It also invested in the semiconductor research, leading to its development of the first European microprocessor, the F-100L, at its Bracknell plant. Ferranti also produced non-standard silicon chips to suit individual customers’ needs.
By 1975 the company was in financial difficulty and the British Government bought a 50% stake in Ferranti to enable the company to continue developing its telecommunications and computerised control systems. In 1987 Ferranti merged with the US based International Signals and Control Group to form Ferranti International Signal plc. The US company had been over-valued because of fraudulent practice. This affected the operation of the newly formed company, and the Defence and Guided Weapons Divisions were sold off to competitors in the area of defence work. In 1993 Ferranti International plc went into receivership, and the remaining company divisions were sold off.