Incandescent light bulb lays foundations for Brainport

As many entrepreneurs know: Brainport and the Eindhoven region are inspiring. They stimulate the imagination and open up fantastic opportunities. Where does this fertile Eindhoven soil actually come from? In the upcoming issues, we will be delving into the history of the region. We’ll take a look at the ‘original’ entrepreneurs of bygone days. How did they do it, and what can we entrepreneurs learn from them now, an era later?

Text: Ronald Frencken
Image: Koninklijke Philips/Philips company archives

In these instalments, we’ll visit the early years of Philips. Curator and Philips expert Sergio Derks of the Philips Museum will be accompanying us here. Sergio will serve up some tasty anecdotes about Anton and Gerard Philips as well as their father Frederik, about how their entrepreneurial instincts laid the foundations for the creation of Brainport, and about how watts brought power and energy to the region.

‘In the early years, before the small factory on the Emmasingel was purchased in 1891 – which had previously served as a nail factory and later as a textile factory – Gerard was not concerned at all with light bulbs. As a graduate in mechanical engineering, he was sent to Glasgow, Scotland on behalf of his boss. There, while exploring the shipyards, he saw the potential of electric light. In those days, ships already had electric light, in order to avoid the danger of open flames from candles or oil lamps, for example. It put Gerard on the track towards incandescent light bulbs, which would prove extremely popular, if marketed properly, he thought with foresight.’

Be open to sincere advice

‘After Gerard had discussed his plans for setting up an incandescent lamp factory with his father Frederik, a successful entrepreneur from Zaltbommel and Gerard’s financier, they purchased land in Breda. The decision was made that this was where the incandescent lamp factory should be built. Until a cousin drew their attention to an empty and ready-to-go factory on the Emmasingel in Eindhoven. What a stroke of luck! It already had a steam engine, which was a necessity for making electricity. It was also close to the station, which made logistics easier. Another major advantage was that there was plenty of cheap labour in the Eindhoven region and people with varying degrees of experience in factory work. All in all, there were more than enough reasons to buy the factory for 12,150 guilders.’

Be patient (if it doesn’t work out), or: keep it in the family

‘Gerard had virtually everything going for him. He was a solid entrepreneur, a gifted scientist, technician and production manager. But he lacked one thing: commercial skills. That’s why things did not go quite so well during the first few years. On top of that, the representative that Gerard and his father had hired for sales soon threw in the towel – imagine that. The idea of enlisting Anton as a salesman in 1895 worked out well. Anton was Gerard’s younger brother, the family braggart who at that time was causing a stir on the London stock exchange. He turned out to be the ideal businessman, bringing in countless orders and laying the foundations for Philips’ international growth.’

‘Anton’s adventure ultimately prevented the demise of the incandescent lamp factory. It also made Philips realise that it had to have its own research centre, with its own inventions and patents.’

Stay informed (and take the boat if need be)

‘Alarming news came from America around 1911, where incandescent lamp company General Electric announced a filament made of drawn tungsten wire. This would make light bulbs not only shine much brighter, but also require 75 per cent less energy. It was a groundbreaking innovation, and keeping pace with this development was a must for the future. It prompted Anton, the practical daredevil of the family, to take the boat to America to try to get hold of the new technology there. He succeeded – and who would have thought it, because he never had a real plan of action. Anton’s adventure ultimately prevented the demise of the incandescent lamp factory. It also made Philips realise that it had to have its own research centre, with its own inventions and patents. That was achieved in 1914 with the Philips NatLab, which is now Philips Research.’

Trust in your abilities

‘Anton went to America in 1911 in search of the sought-after drawn tungsten wire. There – because fate had served him well, as he would later say – he met a manufacturer of the tungsten machines during a dinner. The manufacturer proved unreceptive to the price that Anton offered him for the machine, but he was sensitive about his image; so he invited Anton to have dinner at his home. During the dinner, Anton used his best French and all his charm to win over the French-speaking wife of the manufacturer. This worked beautifully and, oh la la, the manufacturer ultimately sold him the machine. As the story goes – this was partially because of the price Anton paid for it, but mostly so that the manufacturer could be rid of his whinging. In the end, Philips was not left behind by the competition and by 1912 it had already entered the market with the new light bulb.’

‘During the dinner, Anton used his best French and all his charm to win over the French-speaking wife of the manufacturer. This worked beautifully and, oh la la, the manufacturer ultimately sold him the machine.’

Put your poker face on!

At the beginning of the last century, setting up cartels was common practice. So in 1903, Gerard and Anton entered into negotiations to join a German light bulb cartel with market leaders AEG and Siemens Halske. But during the preliminary discussions, AEG CEO Rathenau demanded that Philips discontinue its exports to Germany. If not, he would send a telegram to his branches with the order to lower all prices by ten per cent, essentially threatening Gerard and Anton with an all-out price war. But the direct threat failed to have the desired effect. “Pardon me”, Anton said to the top man, “but your telegram seems to have missed the mark. This morning I passed on to all our representatives that as of noon today, the selling price will be the AEG prices minus ten per cent.” Anton’s bluff was instrumental in his becoming a member of the cartel in 1903.’

Business-minded and social-minded: the absolute best combo

Where did Anton and Gerard get their social mind set? Perhaps it was in the family genes – after all, their father Frederick was a full cousin of the philosopher, socialist and communist Karl Marx. Who knows? But it is certainly true that social provisions for employees were introduced early on: sick pay, a pension scheme and a study fund for the children of employees. In 1932, Anton and the Medical Services started a programme to screen all employees for tuberculosis at an early stage, even before any external symptoms appeared, using their own X-ray machines. A year later, all family members were also screened – and later, all the residents of Eindhoven, too. With great results: Eindhoven had two-thirds fewer deaths than the rest of the country. Anton liked to strike while the iron was hot. He wrote a letter to the then Minister of Social Affairs, Drees, to inform him of these remarkable results. Would it not be an idea, he suggested, to do this throughout the Netherlands as a whole? Philips would be happy to provide the x-ray machines in that case…’

Be inventive, seize the opportunities

‘The First World War proved fruitful for Philips. The Netherlands was neutral and that position presented Philips with challenges that ultimately turned out to be opportunities. There were the glass bulbs for the lights, for instance. Before the ban on imports, these were purchased from German and Austrian companies. But after the borders were closed there was a problem. What should they do? Supplies were rapidly dwindling and even the glass city of Leerdam offered no solace. Anton made the decision to quickly build his own glass factory in Eindhoven. It was to be the very first factory at what is now called Strijp-S. The silver sand for making the glass came from Heerlen. The factory made Philips self-sufficient in terms of glass imports.’

Looking beyond the end of your nose

‘Gerard was a very talented scientist who knew a lot about the science involved in incandescent lamp manufacture, such as electricity theory as well as an understanding of chemistry and all kinds of physical processes. His knowledge facilitated the development of other products, such as electron tubes, whose technology was similar to that of incandescent lamps. It led to two important new products in 1918. One was the X-ray tube, the beginning of Philips’ medical branch. And then there was the radio lamp that was designed to amplify radio signals. This was the start of the radio industry. The invention of the picture tube, also a kind of lamp, launched Philips into the television business. And so, with the light bulb, Anton and Gerard opened new doors to a complete electro-technical industry. This would lay the foundations for the growth of Eindhoven and the creation of High Tech Campus and Brainport.’

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