The IET Archives has just received a donation of papers and photographs, mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that originally belonged to two highly capable brothers called Charles and Edward Gimingham. They both worked at a senior level in the pioneering and dominant light bulb company of that time called the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company (Edison and Swan United) with both brothers having a close working relationship with the company’s famous founder Sir Joseph Wilson Swan.
The elder brother, Charles Henry Gimingham, died when still quite young, but the younger brother, Edward Alfred Gimingham, who ran Edison and Swan United’s Ponders End factory, went on to become the Technical Director and a member of the Board of the successor company The Edison Swan Electric Company.
Charles Henry Gimingham (1853-1890)
The elder brother Charles, shown in the photograph above, had his obituary published in The Electrician in October 1890. An extract of that obituary is given below
Mr Gimingham was born in 1853, and educated at the City of London School. At the age of 16 he became private assistant to Mr William Crookes FRS with whom he remained 12 years, assisting him in his researches on the radiometer and radiant matter, also in his other researches in chemistry. In 1876 he invented his now widely used multiple tube Sprengel air pump, reading a short paper on the subject before the Royal Society. In July 1881, he joined the original Swan Company, and superintended the fitting up of their lamp factory at Benwell, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and introduced his 5-tube form of Sprengel, which has since been almost exclusively used for the exhaustion of incandescent lamps. He also greatly simplified and improved the manufacture of incandescent lamps. On the formation of the Swan United Electric Light Company in London, who bought up the Swan Company’s business, he became manager of their Benwell factory. Again, on their amalgamation with the Edison Company, he was appointed resident superintendent of the Edison and Swan lamp factories at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. During the latter part of 1885 he planned and arranged a new and very extensive factory at Ponder’s End for the Edison and Swan Company, and removed to London to manage the same in February 1886. During the last 4 years he carried out for the Edison-Swan company considerable extensions in their works, and up to the last was engaged in numerous improvements in the manufacturing operations under his care.
Amongst the material in the collection is Charles’ ledger of earnings and work that he carried out in the period from 1878 up until his employment with the Swan Company in July 1881 (extract shown below).
This ledger shows that Charles had a very impressive list of clients for whom he wrote engineering reports and carried out a range of engineering design work. Clients and work included; writing a water works report for Josiah Wedgwood III (grandson of the English potter Josiah Wedgwood, who married the sister of Charles Darwin, Caroline Darwin); working on drainage issues for Charles Darwin at his home Down House; writing a report for Arthur James Balfour (later Prime Minister); and extensive design and alteration work on the photo-nephoscope (a nephoscope is an instrument for measuring the altitude, direction and velocity of clouds) for Sir William Abney, the English astronomer, chemist and photographer.
Edward Alfred Gimingham (1868-1953)
Edward, whose photograph is shown above, joined Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company in 1885, 4 years after his brother. In a biographical article about Edward upon his retirement that appeared in AEI news (AEI was then the parent company of The Edison Swan Electric Company), in May 1942, the following was said about him;
“When Charles Gimingham joined hands with Swan to help solve the scientific difficulties which lay in the path of fullest commercial exploitation of the newly invented lamp, Edward commenced his career beside them. Swan was the father of the electric lamp, and Charles and Edward Gimingham may be regarded as its lawful guardians, for Swan had other big scientific problems to solve while the Giminghams nursed the infant Swan lamp to robust health.”
The article goes on to say;
“It was Edward Gimingham who made the first vacuum flasks for Sir James Dewar and the first oscillator valves for Sir Ambrose Fleming, for whom he also conducted the experiments leading to the production of the first practical radio valve. Indeed, in the Ediswan laboratory at Ponder’s End Mr Gimingham worked for many of the most eminent Victorian and Edwardian scientists.”
This point concerning working with eminent Victorian/Edwardian scientists is amply demonstrated by the correspondence within this collection (primarily dating to the years 1889 to 1892). The correspondence is mostly between Edward and the Secretary or Assistant Secretary of Edison and Swan United and discusses matters relating to the Ponders End factory such as lamp trials and producing exhibits for the Crystal Palace Electrical Exhibition of 1892. However there are also letters from scientists requiring instrumentation. One such letter is from Silvanus P Thompson, Professor of Physics at the City & Guilds of London Institute, Technical College, Finsbury, and it says;
“My dear Sir, Major Flood-Page [the Secretary of Edison and Swan United] directed me to apply to you in connection with the instruments which I desired to borrow for my Monday lectures. Last Monday Mr Bate was good enough to bring us some voltmeters (one of which – the Fleming reading to 120 Volts we want to purchase), and now, for next Monday night I am anxious to be able to show one of the Edison chemical meters. Major Flood-Page was not certain that this could be done. But I am very anxious to exhibit one – even if it is only an old one. Can you help me to this? Believe me, yours very truly, Silvanus P Thompson.”
Edward, so closely involved with the Ponder’s End factory of Edison and Swan United, also has some lovely staff photographs amongst his papers. The first image below shows the factory staff at Rye House, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, in 1892. The photograph is titled, ‘E Gimingham’s dinner to the staff, Rye House, 1892’. Many of the individuals are shown wearing firemen’s uniforms as in the 19th century many factories maintained their own fire brigades.
This second image shows staff at Hastings on the south coast of England in 1893 – note the appropriate beachwear!
Edward’s character is perhaps shown by a story that is told about Edward and the monopoly that Edison and Swan United had over lamp making for many years. There came a time when a judge ruled that the company must prove its ability to make these lamps practically. Edward pointed out the impossibility of making lamps in court, and the whole court personnel – solicitors, counsel, and experts – moved to Ponder’s End where Edward made the lamps himself, one by one and put them on circuit. The lamps with their High Court labels still attached went on to form part of the Ediswan Collection of Historic Lamps. The photograph below shows Edward, together with the noted electrical engineer Sir Arthur Percy Morris Fleming (1881-1960), at the inauguration of the Ediswan Collection of Historic Lamps in November 1938.
Putting aside his inventive genius and technical ability my favourite story about Edward concerns his unapproved action in buying horses for the Ponder’s End factory. A strictly confidential letter from Samuel Flood-Page to Edward from 1891 says;
“Dear Mr Gimingham, I was not well enough to be at the Board yesterday, as I am sorry to say I am still on my back, and the Dr will not let me get out of a recumbent position. I am writing this in strict confidence so that you need not show it to anyone else. I am sorry to inform you that the Board entirely disapprove of the purchase of horses for Ponders End, and further that they state that the horses ought not to have been purchased, without the purchase having firstly been directly approved by the Board.
Unluckily I am not able to come down and have a talk with you, but have to express my opinion on paper, which is rather a round-about way of doing it. From a pretty long experience, however, I have found that when the powers that be disapprove of anything, it is the simplest way out of it, immediately to conform to their wishes, and I therefore have to request that you will have the goodness immediately to ascertain at what price you could get these horses taken off our hands.
It is not a question for discussion, but it is simply a question that the Directors disapprove of our owning the horses, and having the risks etc connected therewith. I will not complicate the matter further by any suggestion as to the mode in which the business is to be done, but simply request that you will have the kindness to let me know forthwith at what price you could get these horses again taken off our hands.
With the exception of Mr Gover and Mr Chappell who takes this letter down, no one knows that it has been written. Please mark your reply to it ‘private’, in like manner. Yours very truly, S Flood Page.”
For further insights into the lives Charles and Edward Gimingham and Edison and Swan United, their papers have been catalogued with an archive reference SC MSS 285 and are available to consult by appointment at the IET Archive Centre, Savoy Hill House, London.