Read all about the history of one the most forefront leaders in lighting today with a pedigree of excellence in their field.
The Thorn brand started life as the Electric Lamp Service Company Limited, established by Sir Jules Thorn on 29 March 1928, importing incandescent filament lamps and radio valves from the continent. Faced with increased import duties, introduced to aid British manufacturing, Jules Thorn bought his first lighting factory, the Atlas Lamp Works Ltd in Edmonton, north London in 1932. In 1936 the company went public as Thorn Electrical Industries.
The lamp businesses prospered until 1939 when production was geared to military needs. When war broke out a second lamp site, run by the Vale Royal Electric Lamp Company, was bought in nearby Tottenham - in case Edmonton was bombed.
When the war ended, Jules Thorn continued expansion through investing in new plants, partnerships and acquisitions, including the opening of an incandescent lamp operation in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales in 1947; a technology transfer with Sylvania Electric Products Inc. to mass-produce tubular fluorescent lamps in Enfield, north London and taking over 51% of Ekco-Ensign Electric (Ekco) in 1950, which added a further incandescent lamp factory – in Preston, Lancashire.
In 1951, Thorn took over Smart & Brown (Engineers) Ltd’s luminaire factory at Spennymoor, near Durham. In the mid-1950s specialist incandescent lamp factories were opened in Buckie, Scotland and in Wimbledon, London (the Omega Electric Lamp Works Ltd).
Between 1952 and 1964 Thorn established additional overseas connections, including a controlling interest in an Italian lamp manufacturer (SIVI Illuminazione SpA) and plants in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, followed by agencies in the Middle East and Hong Kong, the latter with Jardine Pacific.
In September 1959 a new London-based HQ was opened. Thorn House, designed by Sir Basil Spence, was at the time England’s tallest office block.
In 1964, driven by the need to compete more effectively in world markets, Thorn merged its lighting interests with those of Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) to form British Lighting Industries Ltd, taking a controlling 65% share (the remaining 35% being acquired three years later). AEI Lamp and Lighting brought to the BLI group three significant lighting interests: The British Thompson-Houston Co Ltd (BTH) which owned major factories, especially at Leicester in the East Midlands of England (producing discharge lamps) and in Hereford, near the Welsh border (making luminaires), and sold lamps under the ‘Mazda’ brand; the Metropolitan-Vickers Electric Co Ltd (MV) which drew supplies from the BTH factories, selling them under the 'Metrovick' brand; and the Edison Swan Electric Co. Ltd (Ediswan), which had recently transferred its factory at Ponders End and ‘Royal Ediswan’ brand over to BTH.
Within a year of its formation BLI reorganised - consolidating laboratories, factories, and selling functions - to operate under just three main brands: Atlas, Mazda and Ekco (the remaining 49% interest in Ekco-Ensign being secured in 1966). Once complete, in 1969, the BLI name was changed to Thorn Lighting Ltd and subsequently the Ekco and Atlas brand names were replaced by the Thorn name.
Indeed, by 1976 over 50% of sales were from outside the United Kingdom. 1979 saw Thorn acquire Gebr Kaiser GmbH & Co. Leuchten K.G, a West German manufacturer of lighting fittings, and two years later close the Tottenham lamp factory.
In 1987 the purchase of the Jarnkonst group of Nordic light fitting companies and closure of the Buckie lamp factory signalled a new drive by parent Thorn EMI to trade an export and ‘colonies’ mentality for a multi-cultural, international outlook, one that took account of the forthcoming Single European Act. Gaining critical mass in lighting fixtures – defined as 10% market share in any one county – was identified as a priority.
In 1988 Thorn EMI bought the French group Holophane to gain access to its luminaire subsidiary, Europhane. The Jardine relationship in Asia was developed into an 18-year joint-venture, and the lighting brands of Sydney-based Howard Smith were acquired.
On 14 November 1990, Thorn announced that it had agreed to sell its principal light source interests to GE of the US. Under the agreement, GE acquired the lamp plants at Enfield, Leicester and Wimbledon, as well as Thorn’s 51% in SIVI Illuminazione in Italy and 100% holding in Gluhlampenfabrik Jahn, a small specialist manufacturer in Germany. Thorn subsequently closed its Merthyr Tydfil lamp factory, consolidated its UK distribution centres and sold its South African business. In 1991, Thorn won Management Today’s Business in Europe Award.
Using Hong Kong as a platform, the company entered Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and Japan, while additional offices and agents were established in Eastern Europe. In 1992, placing staff in Jardine offices throughout mainland China secured more projects (at £35m Chek Lap Kok airport became, and remains today, Thorn’s largest ever contract) and laid the groundwork for local manufacturing. The Guangzhou fluorescent fittings factory opened in 1996 and Tianjin followed a year later, making road and tunnel luminaires. That same year, an interest in Thorn India was established. European activities centred on the purchase of Jakobsson in Denmark.
On-going consolidation in the late 1990s saw the closure of the Hereford factory and luminaire production transfer from the Kaiser Leuchten factory to other sites.
The new millennium marked a new beginning as the Zumtobel Group invested heavily in Thorn, particularly in technological innovation, and consolidating the former regionally structured production operations of Zumtobel and Thorn into a single worldwide supply chain. It also sought organic growth in clearly defined regions and market sectors.
In 2006, the Zumtobel Group sold Thorn’s airfield ground lighting activities (Thorn AFL) to the Swedish airport specialist Safegate, and two years later merged two former luminaire production facilities to form a new plant at Wetherill Park, New South Wales, near Sydney.
In 2009, Thorn invested in a new factory, laboratory and training and exhibition complex (the Thorn Academy of Light) in Spennymoor. The Distribution Centre at the former site nearby was retained. The plant was named UK Factory of the Year for 2009. This year also saw Thorn and Hess AG of Germany enter into a long-term sales partnership for outdoor lighting products. Initially, activity centred on Germany, where Hess’ subsidiary, Vulkan, marketed Thorn’s range, but further agreements were reached in 2011, extending Thorn rights to Hess products in France, East and Southeast Europe, and the UK and Ireland.