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 7 - Invention and Enterprise

Surveying the whole story of Mather & Platt Ltd it is possible to draw certain conclusions concerning the economic success of the Company in relation to its technical development. Economic success depended on close knowledge of existing market needs and shrewd awareness of new market opportunities. Technical development, as we have seen, depended on scientific co-operation and internal organisation. As market needs and market opportunities changed, the Company was quick to adapt itself, and. technical development never lagged far behind business necessities.

There was obviously scope in the early nineteenth century for a business firm in Manchester which would not only manufacture machines for an expanding industry, but would also install and repair them as occasion might demand. Until 1850 in an industry like calico printing the number of firms was large and their machine capital limited. Maintenance and servicing were as important as the provision of new equipment. In the latter half of the century, however, the number of firms was reduced and capital concentration, rather than an increase in the number of firms, marked the new form of economic expansion.

During this second period in the history of the textiles industry Mather & Platt Ltd. began to specialise on the provision of finishing apparatus. The emphasis on machinery for washing, steaming, dyeing and finishing cotton, linen and woollen fabrics can be seen in the patents taken out by Colin and William Mather from 1850 to 1881. Twelve out of sixteen were concerned with washing, bleaching and dyeing, (2) three with printing, (3) and only one with weaving (4). None of the inventions protected by these patents was labour saving in its essentials. All were cost reducing through improved technical performance, or concerned with new processes like the fixing of colours upon the fibres of fabrics. With the exception of improvements in automatic warp—stop motion devices, the firm was not intimately connected with weaving but focussed its attention on the many branches of the finishing industry.

(1) See G. Turnbull, A History of the Calico Printing Industry of Great Britain (1951)

(2) 2 November 1850, No. 13,31O, William and Colin Mather in conjunction with Ferdinand Kasclowsky; 11 March 1852, No. l4;022, Colin Mather in conjunction withEnnest Rolffs; 29 April 1853, No. 1045, Colin Mather; 30 May 1870, No. 1575, Colin Mather; 9 February 1875, No. 479, William Mather in conjunction with H.F.A. Cordillot; 21 January 1876, No. 250, William Mather; 28 December 1878, No. 5308, William Mather in conjunction with J. J. Sachs; 23 October 1879, No. 4323, William Mather; 10 February 1881, No. 590, William Mather; 26 May 1881, No. 2310, William Mather; 17 September 1881, No. 4015, William Mather.

(3) 6 February 1864, No. 319, Colin Mather; 18 March 1876, No. 1174, William Mather; 14 January 1881, No. 193, William Mather (a communication from Shaeffer,Lalance and Co.)

(4) 7 April, 1853, No. 838, Colin Mather.

Safe within the confines of that specialised territory and producing machinery for finishing cotton “as good as any in the world”; (1) Mather & Platt Ltd. could afford to let other firms tackle different sectors of textile machinery design and production.

If the fortunes of’ Mather & Platt Ltd. had been tied to textiles, and increasing specialisation had been the only theme in the Company’s history, the possibilities of business expansion would have depended on finding new markets or acquiring new patents. Both of’ these possibilities were indeed realised and the work of the General Machinery department was extended to include the manufacture of equipment for industries other than textiles but the period of real expansion began when centrifugal pump, electrical machinery and, later, fire-fighting equipment were added to the lines of production.

The timing of the development of these other lines of production followed and in some ways anticipated national economic trends, but the continued success of the increasingly diversified enterprise depended upon business sense as much as upon technical superiority. Part of the success lay in the willingness of the Directors of the Company to stop producing certain unprofitable lines of output and to resist developing inventions which, although marketable as well as technically efficient, would have disturbed the balance of the enterprise. Among the casualties have been two complete department's -the Gas Engine Department and the Water Purification Department - as well as certain electrical products like electric traction plant, electric conveyers and turbines. Even before these activities were dropped, the manufacture of steam engines and of the Mather & Platt patented piston had been abandoned.

The case of gas engines provides a good example of the factors involved in the deliberate abandonment of a particular line of production. The theoretical advantages of large gas engines as prime movers were widely canvassed from 1881 onwards, when Dowson introduced a self-contained gas engine plant, incorporating first a pressure and later a suction-gas producer. Mather & Platt Ltd. took up the manufacture of large gas engines about 1900, after they had become popular in Germany. The Korting type engine was manufactured as the result of an agreement with German producers, and was capable of developing more than 700 brake horsepower in a single cylinder (2). Later on two cylinder types were developed, which did much to counteract prevailing criticisms of gas engines, particularly as compared with steam turbines; first that they were not fully reliable and second that the cost of installation was far too high. (3) The firm ceased producing gas engines because the department concerned with their manufacture and installation consistently lost money.

(1) Report of the Machinery Sub—Committee of the Cotton Working Party, Report,p.80.

(2) Mather & Platt Ltd., Single Cylinder Two Cycle Gas Engines (September 1902).

(3) A.E.Chorlton, A New Type of Large Gas Engine, a Paper read to the Iron and Steel Institute at Leeds, 2 October 1912. For the wide horizons of Chorlton’s interests see The Application of the Gas Engine to Ship propulsion, a Paper read before the Liverpool Engineering Society, 8 January 1913.

In the inter-war years this decision was more than justified by the gradual disappearance of the gas engine from industry largely owing to the increasing popularity of oil engines, using cheap fuel oil and running far more efficiently than their earlier prototypes.

The abandonment of gas engines was not the only example of an apparent opportunity being deliberately discarded. Far more important historically was the decision not to produce motor cars. The temptation to pass from large internal combustion gas-engines to engines’ for motor cars must have been a real one in the 1900’s, but John Taylor, who was responsible for the decision to drop gas engines as a whole, firmly resisted the challenge. His reasons, that the demand for motor cars would be dependent on fashion, whereas Mather & Platt Ltd should produce for performance and output rather than for appearance, were justified by the subsequent history both of the firm and of the automobile industry as a whole. To produce motor cars would have upset the whole balance of the enterprise. As it was the British motor car industry developed in a different part of England and was dominated either by new firms, drawing upon older firms for accessories and parts, or by concerns, which found that old lines of production had ceased to pay. By the 1890’s the diversified enterprise of Mather & Platt Ltd. was in a flourishing condition and the Company was contemplating the extension of facilities for producing existing lines on a new site rather than the taking up of new specialities.

A full economic study of the inter-relationship of inventions, patent law, profit expectations, industrial fluctuation and the degree of competition would involve a far fuller set of statistics than is available in the case of most firms. Indeed it is easier to proceed in those fascinating fields of enquiry by means of models than by means of real examples. Certain broad conclusions emerge however from the story of Mather & Platt Ltd. Business initiative, whether in an entrepreneurial age like the nineteenth century or a managerial age like the twentieth, depended both upon technical insight and an eye for openings; the development of new lines of output depended not only upon the technical and economic possibilities they seemed to afford, but also on the profitability of existing lines of production; terms of borrowing, the rate of interest, or the state of the capital market had little effect on the emerging strategy of the firm; the acquisition of patents, sometimes from foreign sources, carved out the shape of productive enterprise for years to come; and finally the flexible policy which enabled the directors to drop unprofitable lines was as important as the ingenuity which made them take up new ones. The willingness to discard risks as well as to accept them made for the success of the Company. It resulted in a diversified modern structure, which ran counter to the many tendencies in British engineering, which were making for combination, integration and specialisation.

Its success and its transformation from a family business into a large scale modern undertaking was based on its willingness of its directors to allow each department to follow its own course, while securing the benefits of unified control.