If like me you’re the wrong end of 50, you may recall many household electrical goodies showing the brand Ferguson, HMV, Marconi, Ultra etc.
It all started with Joules Thorn who was a salesman for the Austrian Oslo company, selling gas mantles. Those little furry things that vanished when you poked them. The company, like the product, went pop and a chap called Alfred Deutsch, who made lightbulbs, persuaded Joules to start a light bulb business. The Electric Lamp Service Company was born in 1928.
After a while, they acquired a company, Atlas lamps. Atlas made bulbs for projectors and so on. By 1936, the firm had expanded massively and were probably the biggest manufacturer of light bulbs, fittings and associated parts in Europe. Some of the lighting equipment was beautiful and reflected. Art Nouveau styles at the time. By now the company was renamed Thorn Lighting.
Having cash in the bank, Thorn started to diversify and acquired Ferguson Radio Corporation. This was a US-Canadian company making well built rather fancy looking (Big flash US style) radios in the UK. Ferguson sets of the ‘30s were relatively expensive, mainly due to the “Valve tax” the government placed on each radio at the time. This was calculated on the number of valves a set had. Being US based, they stuffed upwards of 8 or more in a set. Valve makers; Mullard, GEC, Osram etc, started developing valves that had 2-3 separate assemblies in one glass bulb, doing the job of 3 valves. Clever way round the tax ah?
Ferguson became a household name for TVs, budget radios, big radiograms and so on. Sets were normally quite fancy and appealed to those living on the East side of big towns and cities. In ’60 Thorn bought Ultra Radio & Television. This company had been making TV and radio sets since before the war and had spread out into all kinds of other electronic equipment.
By now, Thorn group was probably responsible for 40% of the radio and TV sales in the UK. Thorn TV sets were reliable and rental companies favoured them as a result. In the late 60s, Thorn had developed the first UK fully transistorised colour TV, the 2000 chassis. This set the benchmark for other set makers such as GEC, Bush etc. who were still using rather unreliable valve designs that were partial to the odd internal bonfire. The 2000 chassis was very complex and I recall fixing a few of these. The service manual suggested an engineer having a treble Teachers before taking the back off. The set gave a good picture and behaved itself.
Thorn acquired the well know Radio Rentals company. This company at it’s peak, had upwards of 500 shops around the UK, had in excess of 2 million customers and thousands of well trained engineers and support staff. With the availability of colour TV transmissions in the late ‘60s the demand for TVs was massive. Great outlet for Thorn’s TV manufacturing. Others companies snapped up were the well known DER and Rumbelows group.
In the ‘70s, less that 2% of households had a video recorder. Radio Rentals saw an opportunity to add this product to their portfolio. They settled on a VHS machine made by JVC. Thorn branded it under the Baird name, a company also purchased years previously. It was a solid machine and reliable and certainly helped VHS standard become the more dominant system, with pre recorded tapes being made widely available. Although, other systems such as Betamax and Philips 2000, were technically superior.
Thorn went on buying companies such as Kidde (fire alarms), Mazda (lightbulbs), Tricity (electric cooker company) and the HMV record group and even Kenwood (food mixers). Thorn went through many changes and as a result of the increase in reliability of TV sets and VCRs, purchase of equipment was more attractive than renting. As a result, the rental parts of the business were sold off to smaller household chains and holding companies. There we go. A huge company started by a gas mantle door to door salesman.
Here’s a food mixer joke; I went to a kitchen store and it took ages to get served. I shouted “can someone sell me a food mixer??” A voice from behind the counter said “Kenwood?” I shouted “yes he will do”…. I’m wasted in this job.