Once the world’s largest manufacturer of clocks and watches, Smiths has a renowned history in horological circles, as a company they also had pioneering technical achievements in both the automotive and aerospace industries. From wall clocks on cruise ships, to railway stations, to wristwatches which have scaled Everest, Smiths was the quintessential go-to brand for timekeeping needs.
Founded in England in 1851 by Samuel Smith (1826-1875), the business began as a jewellery shop in south-east London before relocating to the Strand in 1872, settling amongst some of the world eminent watchmakers, including Charles Frodsham. Smiths started out by making and selling watches to the Admiralty, something of a prestigious entry into watchmaking for a company relatively new to the world of horology. This sealed their position as a reputable firm and it was not long before Smiths grew exponentially.
Watches and clocks of every size soon found their way into households up and down the country. The company then bought up smaller businesses over time including: Ingersoll, Enfield and Empire, each continuing manufacture under the Smiths logo.
By the early 1900s the company had already expanded beyond timekeepers, with the creation of speedometers for the motor industry. Incidentally it was one of these which made its way into the hands of royalty so to speak, installed into Edward VII’s Royal Mercedes. This led to a dramatic increase in demand and the opening of a purpose built factory in Watford to handle supply.
Company offices could then be found at the aptly named Speedometer House on Great Portland Street, which was already home to many car companies leading to it being known more commonly as ‘Motor Row’. Smiths was soon engaged with the manufacture of many other parts including: dynamos, generators, headlamps, tail lamps and side lights.
The outbreak of war led to the business surprisingly expanding rather than contracting. The demise of many international manufactures gave Smiths a free reign to corner the market. A new premises was born at Cricklewood which would remain the company’s headquarters for the rest of its days.
Smiths went from strength to strength and by the 20th century had significant influence within the British automotive industry, buying up smaller businesses, and most importantly, supplying instrumentation to the majority of cars and motorcycles manufactured and distributed around the world. The public soon became accustomed to the SMITHS logo emblazoned on their shiny new dials.
Next came the expansion into the aerospace industry with instrumentation found in a multitude of commercial and military aircraft, including the iconic Spitfire no less…
The company’s influence in these two areas continued to grow up until the late 20th Century, but their timekeepers soon began to dwindle with the quartz/digital revolution of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The same demise would follow within the automotive industry, as many other businesses grew and expanded across the globe, pricing them out competitively was a relatively simple task. Smiths sold off its interests to the Caerbont Group, whom still produce instrumentation with the Smith’s name as part of the sale.
The final remnants of the original Smiths went with the sale of its aerospace manufacture to GE Aviation.
However the story doesn’t end there, as the Smiths Group is very much alive today in Great Britain. It’s interests now lie in sensory equipment for the military as well as the global manufacture and supply of medical devices to healthcare industries.
On personal reflection, it’s Smith’s inception, roots and impact on the horological and automotive industries which holds the most fascination. What they managed to achieve in such a short space of time is impressive.
With so much of today’s technology easily disposable and not designed to last the test of time, Smiths is a clarion call to remember that simple mass production from the past can still be just as effective in the present.
My Smiths watches and clocks still all run well, many of them built over 70 years ago. Incidentally one graces our company’s reception and it’s wonderful characteristic ticking and chiming amongst computers and smartphones still makes for great conversation.
I wonder what Samuel Smith would have thought of that…?