A History of Mather & Platt Ltd.
CHAPTER 5 - Technical Invention and Business EnterpriseLink to full frames site if you have arrived on this single page.
Part 3 - Electrical Machinery

In the year 1831 Michael Faraday invented the electric dynamo an invention which proved to be the foundation stone of the electrical industry. It was left to the engineers to produce a practicable as distinct from a laboratory model, but progress was slow.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851 the only effective electrical exhibit was a child’s toy, although the Jury of Experts set up by the Royal Commission was “far from despairing” of the successful application of electricity to mechanical motion. It was in the thirty years after 1851 that engineers on the continent and in the U.S.A. succeeded in building a number of crude dynamos and it became apparent that the production of electricity from mechanical power was a workable proposition. There seems no doubt that during this period William Mather, who had visited the Exhibition as a boy, foresaw the possibility that the exploitation of this invention could, with advantage, be undertaken by his firm.

At the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881, the first major electrical exhibition, which attracted scientists from all parts of the world, a number of dynamos were exhibited. One in particular, the machine built by Thomas A. Edison, stirred up great interest and was regarded by many as the most advanced development of Faraday’s invention. In the following year William Mather made an arrangement with Edison to manufacture his dynamo in this country.

Salford Iron Works was an ideal cradle for this new child because, on account of the wide variety of high grade engineering products that had been developed and perfected there during many years, the mechanical “know how” already existed. Furthermore, steam engines suitable for driving dynamos were already in production, and there was wide scope for the application of electric motors to the many machines, which were regularly being built there for the textile and other industries. John Hopkinson, then thirty three years old, who had interested himself in the technical aspects of dynamos, was engaged to advise on the manufacture of Edison’s machine, and the combination of his ability to design and the ability of Mather & Platt to manufacture a sound machine soon resulted in the production of an improved dynamo, the Edison-Hopkinson machine, so well known and respected in those pioneering days. To support Hopkinson in his work, his brother Edward was engaged to serve Mather & Platt as manager of the new Electrical Department.

When the manufacture of electrical machinery began at Park Works it was generally believed that the main use of electricity would be for lighting, and at that time William Siemens in fact, although prophesying the sure victory of electricity, thought of it only as” the light of luxury” and not as a source of power. (1)

(1) J.H. Clapham, An Economic History of Modern Britain VoLII (l932),p.108.

There seems to be no doubt that Mather & Platt thought otherwise, for although they built many of the early dynamos for electric lighting duty, they were very early makers of electric motors to supply power for the industries for which they were already building machinery and for other purposes where the new electric motor could be applied with advantage. When a factory inspector wrote in 1901 “In the age of steam this country led the way, whereas in the age of electricity we seem to follow America and other countries”, he was under estimating the important pioneer work in the development of electrical machinery that had already been performed by Mather & Platt.

Very few dynamos were built by the firm to Edison’s original design, which was not efficient. Hopkinson very early introduced modifications which rendered possible a marked improvement in the efficiency of converting mechanical power to electric power. The outstanding modification was an alteration to the shape and proportions of the magnetic circuit, the change being worked out experimentally by means of laboratory models of different types of magnet systems, and these models are preserved in the Science Museum at South Kensington. The first working machine of the new design gave on test more than double the output of the Edison machine of the same weight (1). Edison’s original design became obsolete and the improved Edison-Hopkinson machine became a standard which was manufactured until the late ‘nineties. A radical departure from Edison's arrangement of the magnet system was introduced in 1884 when the “Manchester” type machine was introduced, and proved most satisfactory for the smaller dynamos and motors. The “Manchester” type of magnet system provided an important stepping stone to the development of the later multi-polar magnet systems which have remained in use up to the present time. The first experimental multi-polar machine was constructed in 1890, and there were great improvements in design in 1896.

The first dynamos built by Mather & Platt and other early constructors produced direct current, and all early electric light and power installations made use of this form of electric energy. Alternating current, in which form almost all electric energy is now generated and distributed, was to come later, particularly after power stations had begun to grow in size and engine speeds continued to rise.

By stepping into the electrical industry so early, Mather & Platt was able to recruit many large scale customers. The first order recorded for an Edison-Hopkinson machine was in June 1883, (2) and the model was characteristically despatched to an exhibition in November 1884 the first order for a “Manchester type” dynamo came from a sugar works in Moscow. (3) Other interesting orders of the early period came from the “Manchester Guardian" office; the old Theatre Royal in Manchester; the Manchester Corporation Electricity department; the City and South London Railway, the first electrical underground railway to be built; (4) and. the Royal Navy, for two motors for one of the earliest submarines.

The Bessbrook and Newry Tramway in 1884 provides an interesting example of work of a pioneer nature. This was the first, albeit small electric traction system in the world to be operated entirely from water power, and it is interesting to know that this tramway remained in use until 1948, the original dynamos and motors remaining in service for the 64 years of this tramway’s life. One of the two original tramcars supplied to this railway is now preserved at Park Works. (5)

(1)     J. Grieg, John Hopkinson in Engineering, 13 and 20 December 1950.

(2) EL. 24/1883

(3) EL. 160/1884:

(4) For details, see The Electrical Review, 22 December 1950, and an interesting letter by a correspondent, 12 January 1951. There was a contemporary article in The Railway World., August 1893.

(5)  See E. Hopkinson, Electric Tramways Bessbrook and Newry in The Bessbrook Electric Tramway in The Railway World. June 1893.

Another early example of commercial enterprise, of a more diverting nature, was the sale of dynamos to travelling showman visiting country fairs. It was the practice, when this line of business commenced in the early years of the present century, to arrange for the purchaser to come to the works to see the dynamo running on load and to make payment at the same time. On one of those occasions considerable amusement was caused when the purchaser, who was a buxom woman, hoisted up her skirts when the account was presented to her and produced about 70 in gold sovereigns from a capacious pocket suspended from her waist.

Technical development was closely associated with business enterprise. In the year 1886 an experimental single-phase alternator was constructed by Mather & Platt and shortly afterwards single-phase alternators, built to the designs of the Hopkinson brothers, were supplied to provide energy for Lighting systems. In 1891 the Frankfurt Electrical Exhibition demonstrated the use of 3-phase current for transmission and seven years later the first 3-phase alternators were built by the firm together with induction motors for power installations on the alternating current system. An early installation (1904) of this nature supplied by the firm was appropriately enough for a cotton mill in Burnley and the complete success of this early example of all-electric drive in this industry placed Mather & Platt Ltd in the forefront when later electrification schemes were being considered at home and abroad.

The application of electric driving to mills was a slow process. The Factory Inspectors reported the Burnley pioneer experiment with interest, (1) and although Mather & Platt were supplying electric driving for mills in Spain, as late as 1918 reporters noted that "electric power is very little used in Lancashire for driving textile machinery”. (2)

The addition of alternators and induction motors to the products of the Electrical Department of the Company established a complete range of prototype machines and subsequent developments were confined to steady evolution of existing types. It was between 1906 and 1914 that standard lines were evolved, particularly after the move of the Electrical Department to Park Works in 1909, During the same period there were economic changes in the balance of production. Just as the firm ceased to produce water purification machinery for large-scale municipal contracts, so it also stopped producing on a large scale for municipal electrical plant. The supply of electrical machinery for industrial processes has always been the logical field for the products of this Company’s Electrical Department and, consequently, when other manufacturers in this country entered the field to supply electrical machinery Mather & Platt tended to confine their energies to meeting the ever increasing demand for machinery for factories whilst the new comers catered more for the public supply and the tramway and railway systems.

From the 1890’s onwards the firm had specialised in the provision of industrial electrical machinery. Certain types of factories were particularly suited to electrification because of the layout of the plant. For example, in heavy chemical works, where the ground area occupied is large in relation to the power requirements, a demand for driving power occurs at a large number of relatively widely separated points, and a common prime mover with mechanical transmission of power is impracticable. Before the advent of electric power, such factories derived power from a multiplicity of small, inefficient steam engines, but when electric power was available a central generating station producing electricity efficiently and feeding a large number of small motors spread over the factory site simplified production. Textile and similar factories where it was possible to arrange mechanical drives from a single prime mover were originally less responsive to proposals to electrify.

The mining industry offered a steady outlet for the firm’s electrical products. An early application of electricity in mines was to the pumping of water for mine drainage by motor driven centrifugal pumps. In addition to supplying these, the firm was a pioneer also in producing machines for electric coal cutting in collieries.

(1) At La Auroro Mill in Malaga, power consumption was reduced by 40% and the steadier drive in the spinning mill increased yarn production by 20% owing to the avoidance of yarn breakages. It was pointed out by technical computators that "an increased output, amounting to only 2% is sufficient to wipe out entirely the coal bill of a mill"

(2)   Two machines described as A.C. motors, were supplied in 1896 (EL.932/96) and in 1897 (EL.160/97), but their make is not clear, and it is probable that they were not built by Mather & Platt.

A second field of enterprise in which the firm played an important part was the Electro-chemical industry. William Mather was himself directly interested in the Castner-Kellner Alkali Company, which he helped to found in 1895 and of which he was first chairman. This Company manufactured caustic soda and chlorine electrolytically on the basis of Castner’s inventions in the U.S.A. and Kellner's in Vienna.

For a time after 1905 Mather & Platt held manufacturing rights for the Zoelly impulse type steam turbine, but after a year or two the exploitation of turbo-generators was left to other firms. After the introduction of geared turbines in 1910, Mather & Platt supplied many direct current generators and alternators for them, and progress in this department of the firm has been maintained. The manufacture of the largest turbo alternators for direct coupling to steam turbines has not been undertaken.

The days before 1914 were the pioneer age of electrical development in this country: after 1918 the “routine” phase of development began, and electrical power was accepted as an essential agent in industrial production. Although in 1918, after the end of the War, there were still many complaints of Britain's late and slow start in the large-scale manufacture of all types of electrical equipment, except cables, (1) the way ahead both technically and economically had been marked out in the decade before 1914. At the Census of Production of 1907, electrical engineering accounted for 14% of the whole national engineering output by value a product already worth one fifth of the whole product of the woollen and worsted mills. In 1913 total exports of electrical machinery and goods, nearly half of them cables, were almost as valuable as those of the whole of the established textile machinery industry. A firm like Mather & Platt was fortunate in being identified with both old and new.

During the period after 1918, although the firm was producing standard ranges of products, it did not emulate some of its competitors by concentrating the whole of its effort on the production of standardised machines designed to meet the average needs of users. The mass produced standardised electric motor can be an excellent article, low in cost and suitable for meeting in a usually efficient manner the ordinary requirements of many industries. It cannot, however, be applied satisfactorily to the individual drive of a wide variety of machines employed by heavy industry.

It is the practice of Mather & Platt Ltd. to make a detailed study of the requirements of the machinery that; for example, a motor is required to drive, together with an investigation into the environment of a plant as it may affect the operation of the motor. A motor is then designed with electrical and mechanical characteristics judged to be best suited to the particular operating conditions, i.e. it is “tailor made” to suit the job it has to do, Concentration on such jobs has ensured continuity of custom with close ties binding the firm and its client, It has also resulted in the Company catering almost exclusively for the heavier industries where working conditions for machinery are onerous and where reliability and continuity of operation are more important to a customer than initial cost. Examples of the industries regularly served with the products of the Electrical Department are the heavy chemical industry, the iron and steel industry, the mining industry, the paper industry, the textile industry and the oil industry. By largely restricting itself to these fields, the firm has tended, in the development of its products since 1918, to steer an individual course rather than to follow prevailing fashion in the electrical engineering industry. By so doing it has continued to act as a pioneer in many fields.

(l) Report .on the Electrical Trades After the War, Cd.9093, 1918, p.9. The cable section of the industry was, of course,. the oldest.

For example, for some time the company has concentrated on the production of an induction motor specially designed for direct-on starting. Machines of this character were devised by Mather & Platt Ltd. soon after the first world war for use with high-speed centrifugal pumps and successful operation in this sphere resulted in the extension of the direct-on-starting principle with the consequent elimination of elaborate switchgear to many industrial drives. By virtue of its simplicity and economy the system is becoming exceedingly popular and machines now available are suitable for practically all duties.

One of these is closely related to the needs of the Mining and other industries in which explosive atmospheres might be encountered and where the increase in the use of electricity created a demand for large flameproof motors. During recent years considerable attention has been paid to the development of a complete range of flameproof motors to meet the needs of the colliery engineer and industrialists in situations where inflammable gases or explosive mixtures of dust and air are present. New technical improvements in manufacture are introduced to take advantage of the properties of new material placed on the market, an example being the growing use of glass fibre insulation's for motors and generators; and the application of a variable voltage grid controlled mercury-arc rectifier and direct-current motor to secure a wide range of speed on a motor when the supply of electricity is by alternating current. These improvements show the continuing trend of innovation in the electrical engineering industry, and the Electrical Department of Mather & Platt Ltd., continues to keep pace with the growth of the use of electric power itself.