ELECTRIC VEHICLES

More than a century before Elon Musk released Tesla’s first car, a small factory in Suffolk were already producing a range of electric vehicles and transforming factory production methods.  

Yet being ahead of the curve was not enough to save the company from decline, as the combustion engine became the preferred standard over cleaner electric powered vehicles. 


Richard Garrett and Sons were at the forefront of electric vehicle development; their ‘first foray into the market was with a 3½ ton battery-powered vehicle, intended for local deliveries’ (Wikipedia). How different the world might be today if the company had won through with their electric vehicles?

Short Film commissioned by Richard Garrett and Sons for potential customers of their single and double-decker electric trolley buses, produced near the end of the 1920s. (The Long Shop Museum website) [1]

The Long Shop Museum

The Long Shop is a lovingly restored museum sitting at the heart of Leiston, a small Suffolk town with 6,000 residents. Housed on the former Richard Garrett and Sons factory site, the museum charts the company’s history of innovation and odd inventions while illustrating some of the difficulties when a business is too far ahead of the curve.

Images: 1 The Long Shop building, 2. Production assembly line building, 3, Assembly line skylight

Early Production Line Assembly

Believed to have developed one the World’s first production assembly lines, Richard Garrett & Sons manufactured agricultural machinery, steam engines and trolleybuses from 1782 until 1932, when the company was acquired. The factory eventually closed in 1981 with 577 job loses (source, museum volunteer). The first half of the 19th century was the company’s golden period, with rapid growth, generous profits and reaching a global market.

Adaptability

The museum exhibits many of the ingenious ways Richard Garrett and Sons were willing to adapt to changing needs, tastes and innovations. Over the course of 160 years they made everything from tractors to fire hose nozzles. Sometimes the company was late to the party, with the market already carved up, whereas in good periods they were among global leaders. The story provides a good illustration of the wider factors when developing successful business ideas.

L to R: 1. Tractor wheel tracks, 2. World War Two air raid warning klaxon

Riding The Wave

For a business idea to become reality, a new product to succeed, and a company to grow and survive, requires some favourable factors. In its early decades, Richard Garrett and Sons benefited hugely from Britain leading an industrial revolution. Downstream suppliers were inventing breakthrough methods and machines that the company could apply and use in their own production. Upstream there was increasing demand from clients for steam engines, locomotives and heavy machinery. It was perfect conditions for any business.

Later, the electric vehicle foray damaged the company, as oil interests teamed up with diesel and petrol vehicle manufacturers to monopolise transportation. The company was on the right side of history, as we are seeing today, electric should have been the way to go, but global forces went against them, and subsequently killed off the business.

Breaking With Convention

Conventions exist when those involved in creating a policy, technology or method agree to general terms of use. Users begin adopting certain ways of working before eventual codification leads to a standard that then becomes the convention or norm. Standards have certainly aided human progress, yet can also close down further innovation, competition and, as I argue on Standardising Life, create political crisis.

L to R: 1. Princess Marina steam engine, 2. Original Steam Roller, 3. Work spanners, 4. Early steam vehicle, 5. Long Shop clock and window

Resistant Places

Richard Garrett and Sons no doubt contributed to creating standards yet they were also real innovators and prepared to take risks and challenge convention. As with other entrepreneurs, challenging convention was not limited to business; the family appear to be at the forefront of social change and produced several of the most remarkable women of the age: Agnes Garrett, the first woman to set up an interior design company, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a prominent suffragist and her mother Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Britain’s first female doctor, whom I write more about here.

The town of Leiston gave me a sense of resistance to convention. The museum was restored by a local group, who fought hard to stop a developer turning it all into flats, a triumph in delivering such an interesting and informative place to visit. The town is full of signs resisting a range of things which local people disagree, see Leiston and Sizewell, for more. Despite it small population, if you spend a day in Leiston you know you have been there, it stands out and makes a mark.

Conclusion

In relation to creating an Innovation Hub, The Long Shop Museum is a good reminder of the many broader considerations required to grow a business idea, and serves as a warning that being ahead of the curve does not always mean a successful business.

Other related blog posts include Leiston and Sizewell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Innovation Hub and Standardising Life.

DONATE

If you are enjoying this Haphazard journey then please think of donating, this is presently a self-funded project. Thanks, John M

£5.00

John M

Images of exhibits at The Long Shop Museum | John McKiernan

  1. The Long Shop Museum website, Garrett’s Electric Trolley Buses, online { http://www.longshopmuseum.co.uk/garretts-electric-trolleys/ }

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