The General Electric Apparatus Company was formed in 1886 to import telephones, bells and switches from manufacturers in Germany. It was started by Gustav Binswanger, a German immigrant, and Hugo Hirst. Binswanger later changed his name to Gustav Byng. The company sold its components over the counter to anyone. This was in contrast to most other companies in this new industry, who kept as much installation work as possible to themselves. Business was quite successful and they were able to issue their first catalogue in 1887. In 1888 they opened a factory in Manchester and widened their range. In 1889 they became the General Electric Company Limited, and their proud catchcry became Everything Electrical. In 1893 they started another company, Osram, to make the new electric lamps that were coming into use. This made their fortunes, and in 1900 GEC became a public company. By 1902 they had to refurbish a factory at Manchester, Peel Conners old Witton Engineering Works, to meet the demand for electrical goods.
The telephones they were originally importing are unknown, but were probably from Fuld Gmbh. By the start of World War 1 they had added rebadged Sterling and Peel Conner telephones and intercoms to their ever-expanding range. They had also moved into PABXs and CB switchboards. These were probably bought-in Peel Conner models initially, but they later manufactured their own. In 1909 they bought the remnants of Peel Conner, and added that companys phones to their range.
Gustav Byng died in 1910, but Hugo Hirst continued the expansion of the company by setting up agencies worldwide. By the start of the First World War, GEC had become a major player in British industry and produced wireless sets, searchlights, and signalling lamps as well as telephones, switchgear and electrical apparatus. In 1916 GEC started manufacturing magnetos, an item previously imported from Germany. These were not telephone magnetos, but the large generators used to provide power. They were built at the old Peel Conner factory at Coventry, which they had bought in 1893 following a fire at their Salford works. It was to become the centre of their telephone manufacturing. They still built part of the range of Peel Conner phones there.
The company was not particularly inventive, usually confining itself to producing and refining the inventions of others or buying out other companies. This was actually a strength, as they were able to adapt rapidly to new technologies without the expense of inventing them. They did, however, open a large industrial research laboratory at Wembley in 1919 the first in Britain. Leading up to the Second World War this laboratory, working through the University of Birmingham, was instrumental in developing to production stage the Cavity Magnetron valve. This was the heart of the Radar network that proved vital to Britain in the early days of the war.
In the period between the
wars GEC produced a wider range of telephones, including the tin box
style of desk phone, and they adopted bakelite very early. Their classic Gecophone
was a rather more attractive alternative to the BPOs 200 series. It had
the bellset moulded into the phone rather than bolted on underneath. It was made
in white, red, green and mottled brown as well as the usual black. The mottled
colour was called walnut and seems to have been something of a GEC
specialty. They offered it in many of their products, not just phones. For further
information on the Gecophone and its lookalikes, go to http://www.phone-pages.org.uk/geco.htm.
The Muraphone K, released some time later, was the wall equivalent. Although both phones were widely used on PAXs leased by rental companies such as Reliance, they were never accepted by the BPO as an alternative to the 200 and 300 series. Both phones made useful sales, however, especially overseas. Railways seemed to be rather fond of the Muraphone, as it did not have the fragile cradle of the 200 series. These phones are quite well-known in Australia.
Other changes took longer. Some curious phones from their 1935 catalogue still have the spidery, ornate cradles and wooden bases of the earlier era topped with the new bakelite handsets. See the Model K7851 for instance. My example has a walnut bakelite handset an attractive little phone, but a strange combination of the old and the new. There never seems to have been a GEC style as such. By now they were producing phones to the British Post Office standard patterns, such as their K7855, but the 1935 catalogue still shows a number of the older styles lingering on - perhaps old stock? Many of these were still Sterling designs. They had bought Sterlings telephone assets following that companys sale to Marconi in 1926.
They also had the usual range of mining, tramways and intercom phones. For a rather ugly example, see the Model K8056 with its basic steel case. The K8105 mining phone was, however, still being built in wood. A small but important market was ships phones for the Royal Navy. Obviously export-oriented, the 1935 catalogue shows an exchange installation in Singapore and mentions that all equipment is built for tropical conditions.
In 1936 GEC produced the Chad Valley telephone, an unusually shaped kids phone. Even though intended as a toy, it was still a very well-made product. It came in black or the simulated walnut finish. The photo is courtesy of Bob Freshwaters Telephone File website.
At various times they used different BPO manufacturers codes:
AEG GEC Telecommunications, Glenross
AEK GEC-AEI Telecommunications, Kirkaldy
G General Electric
GEC GEC Telephones, Coventry
GEN GEC-AEI Telecommunications, Newton Aycliffe
Hugo Hirst died in 1943 and the company started to lose its direction after the war. Profits began to fall in the face of competition and new products from abroad. Although the firm was investing heavily in new technology such as nuclear power, they suffered from internal conflict and were losing money in too many areas.
The telephone part of the company still did fairly well, though. GEC was a major supplier of bakelite phones to Britain and its ex-colonies, and the small gold GEC transfer is found under many Australian phones. They also supplied parts and components for the post World War 2 growth. In 1953 they released their 1000 series phone, a more rounded version of the BPOs 300. It was based on a 1947 Ericsson design but featured a more comfortable, less angular handset that was later copied for the BPOs phones and Australias 400 series. All 1000 series phones had a black handset and dial, regardless of the body colour, to reduce the number of spare parts needed.
In 1961 GEC bought out Radio and Allied Industries. This was a good move for the firm, as they also got the companys Managing Director, Arnold Weinstock. He set about a program of rejuvenation. By the late 1960s GEC had bought out or merged with most of Britains major electrical firms, including Marconi. In 1966 they released a new version of the Muraphone, designed to compete with the BPOs 700 series. Again, though, it was only used on private installations. In 1970 they released their first touchphone.
By 1979 GEC was Britains largest private employer. During the 1980s the growth continued as they formed joint venture companies with Plessey and then Siemens. The companies were moving strongly into defence contracting, electricity generation and shipbuilding as well as electronics.
After the retirement of (now Lord) Weinstock in 1996 the company started to rationalise its wide range of companies in a series of selloffs and mergers. In 1999 it renamed itself Marconi plc and went back to communications, internet and electronics. Then in a major setback the company failed to get even a minor share of a huge British Telecom network upgrade contract. Share prices fell and the company was only rescued by bank and shareholder support.
The internet bubble burst in 2000, and by 2001 the new companys shares had dropped to an alltime low. On Tuesday, October 25, 2005, the company announced that it had sold its business and its name to L M Ericssons.
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