Review: Nye: A Long Time in Making – The History of Smiths

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001
The corporate history of the largest British clock manufacturer of the 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century: "Smiths Industries"
Bookreview 2015 by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

A Long Time in Making - The History of Smiths

By James Nye. Published in 2014 by OxfordUniversity Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. ISBN 978-0-19 - 871725-6. 375 pages, 246x171mm, hardcover, dustjacket. 61 illustrations (reproduced b&w photographs) and 17 figures in the text. Six appendices (I. Family Tree, II. Activities Overview 1851-1014, III. Financial Data 1915-2008, IV. Companies Acquired, Formed and Sold, V. List of officers, VI. List of Interviews. Bibliography with over 38 primary sources, and 146 secondary sources. Index of Names (8 pages), Index of Subjects (15 pages). Available through for US$ xx plus postage at for US$ 45, or from the publisher at .

When most students of horological history think about factory made clocks produced on an industrial scale in the 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century they think of American brands like Seth Thomas, or of towns in the Black Forest, like Junghans in Schramberg, or even of Japy Freres in the French Jura region, but most non-british amateur horological historians don't realize that the United Kingdom also had big clock making enterprises of a similar scale, and one of the biggest was "Smiths", which between 1900 and 1980 produced several hundred million timekeepers. Not much had been published on that maker until recently, but James Nye's 2014 book fills this gap in horological history.

The author is probably best known as the Secretary of the Electrical Horology Group of the Antiquarian Horological Society (the British sister organization to Americas NAWCC); he is a former businessman and international dealmaker, who in recent years has become a part time teacher of business history, and this book reflects this new role. The book is the very comprehensive academic and scholarly history of the Smiths enterprise.

The roots of Smiths go back to the 1851 opening of a retail jewelry store in London's Elephant & Castle district by Samuel Smith, leading to a more prominent and upscale store on the Strand by the beginning of the 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century. At that time the first automobiles appeared, and with them Smiths began offering an 'automobile timepiece'. During the formative, pre first world war, years of the British car industry Smiths pioneered in 1904 a mechanical car speedometer, then an optional after-market accessory, for the very few people who could afford cars. This eventually led to other motor car accessories and components like carburetors, car lights (both acetylene and electricity based). Originally these items were sourced from third party manufacturers, but soon Smiths was not only selling, installing and servicing them but started manufacturing them, and selling them wholesale to the car manufacturers as these items became standard car equipment. Given their precision mechanics knowhow during the 1914-1918 war years military products became a significant business, while the traditional jewelry and retail side diminished in importance. By 1919 they employed over 3000 people, and in 1920 reported making 3000 speedometers, 2000 motorcar clocks, 1000 fuel gauges, 2000 car lighting sets, 2000 carburettors and 2000 mechanical horns per week.

The depression in the 1920s hit the company hard, but the growth of automobile sales in the 1930s led to growth again. Coupled with the desire to decrease the UK dependence on imported goods, such as German made clocks which then dominated the mass market, Smiths invested heavily into clock manufacturing capacity, both for conventional mechanical movements, as well as the then exploding market for electrical synchronous mechanical movements. Separate companies like Smiths English Clocks Ltd., and its subsidiary Synchronous Electric Clocks Ltd. were started and within two years were producing nearly 200,000 synchronous clocks per year. By 1934 Smiths produced over half of all clocks made in the UK that year, and in the following years dominated the British market both for conventional and synchronous clocks.

During World War Two once again the clock factories expanded rapidly and switched to military products (such as center second wristwatches for use in both the army and the navy), and Smith's aviation instrumentation business grew significantly. While producing clocks (and also some watches) steadily at high volumes with in depth manufacturing capacities (dedicated plants making synthetic watch jewels, a platform escapement plant etc.) from 1945 through the early 1960s the clocks business became gradually less important as their automotive components volume exploded as cars became affordable to the masses. By 1970 clocks were but a component of Smith's group C (clocks, appliance controls and industrial instruments). The last proactive move in timekeeping was the presentation of Smiths first line of quartz watches, the Quasar, at the 1973 Basel Fair, at exactly the time it became clear that international competition (the Swiss and Seiko) were way ahead of them. Their buildings, their staff and their employees could produce higher returns with other products and by the end of the decade Smiths was really no longer in the horological business. The last part to close was the Blick time recorder company in 1980. Their horological peaks had been in the late 1930s and the mid-1950s. While overall production figures are very hard to guess the Smiths group undoubtedly produced several 100 million timekeepers, maybe even approaching a billion over the 80 years they produced clocks.

The corporate entity however continues to thrive to the present day as a diversified technology conglomerate with 23'000 employees and a market capitalization of near 5 billion UK Pounds.

Dr. Nye's narrative of their corporate history covers a fascinating, easy to read part of English industrial history and provides one of preciously few insights into a huge - but grossly under documented - chapter of British horology.

Fortunat F. Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ

cvr-Nye Smiths 2014.jpg
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