General Electric Company plc

The General Electric Company (GEC) was created as the General Electric Apparatus Company in 1886 by Hugo Hirst and Gustav Byng from a small electrical business established in London by Byng (Gustav Binswanger and Company, using Byng's original name). In 1887 GEC published the first electrical catalogue of its kind. The following year the company acquired its first factory in Manchester where telephones, electric bells, ceiling roses and switches were manufactured.

In 1889, the General Electric Co. Ltd. was formed as a private limited company and moved to larger premises at 71, Queen Victoria Street. Now known also as G.E.C., the company was expanding rapidly, opening new branches and factories. Initially manufacture was focussed on electric bells and light fittings, but this expanded to a wide range of electrical equipment - resulting in the firm's slogan 'Everything Electrical'. In 1893, GEC decided to invest in lamp manufacture. The resulting company, (to become Osram in 1909), was to lead the way in lamp design and the burgeoning demand for electric lighting was to make GEC's fortune. In 1900, GEC was incorporated as a public limited company, The General Electric Company (1900) Ltd, (the '1900' was dropped three years later).

In 1902, GEC's first purpose-built factory, the Witton Engineering Works was opened near Birmingham which designed and manufactured electrical equipment and machines. Rapidly growing private and commercial use of electricity ensured buoyant demand and the company expanded both at home and overseas, with the establishment of agencies in Europe, Japan, Australia, South Africa and India and a substantial export trade to South America.

The outbreak of the First World War transformed GEC into a major player in the electrical industry with profits to match. The company was heavily involved in the war effort, with products such as radios, signalling lamps and arc-lamp carbons. Between the wars, GEC expanded to become an international corporation and a national institution. The take-over of Fraser and Chalmers in 1918 took GEC into heavy engineering and consolidated their claim to supply 'Everything Electrical'. Other major factories included Osram Lamps at Hammersmith and the telephone works in Coventry.

During the 1920s, the company was heavily involved in the creation of the UK national grid. In addition, the opening of the new purpose built company headquarters in Kingsway, London in 1921, and the pioneering industrial research laboratories at Wembley in 1923, were symbolic of the continuing expansion of both GEC and the electrical industry. The company took over several companies in the Birmingham area and elsewhere. After being a minor player in tram equipment, the company entered the heavy rail electric traction market in the 1920’s and 30’s.

During the Second World War, GEC was a major supplier to the military of electrical and engineering products. Significant contributions to the war effort included the development of the cavity magnetron for radar, advances in communications technology and the on-going mass production of lamps and lighting equipment. After the war the company continued in the full range of electrical equipment from electronics to atomic power stations, but was not very profitable.

In 1961, after a failed takeover bid from the English Electric Company, GEC took over Radio and Allied Industries, a small but very profitable television set manufacturer. Michael Sobell and Arnold Weinstock from this company became GEC directors with a substantial shareholding. Weinstock became managing director in 1963 and undertook drastic changes to make the company more profitable. The rail traction operations were closed and the heavy electrical/ power station businesses were sold to Parsons. A number of ex GEC employees were recruited by Associated Electrical Industries (AEI).

A hostile takeover bid was made for AEI in 1967 and the relative profitability/share prices enabled GEC to take over the much larger AEI. In 1968 English Electric agreed to merge with GEC. Further takeovers and mergers made the company one of the largest private employers in the UK. In 1989, Arnold Weinstock agreed a merger between the power and transport businesses of GEC and those of Alsthom of France, part of Compagnie Générale d’Electricité (CGE) to form GEC Alsthom. While Weinstock was in charge the UK arm, the company continued to prosper, but after his death of his son in 1996 he was asked to retire and most of the company’s operations were transferred to France, or were sold off. Small sales and service operations remain for some of the products. Many of the factories have been demolished, with only Stafford continuing on a moderate scale.