1851 – Samuel Smith opens his first jewellery shop in south London, which would be the start of what is today Smiths Group. In 1872, the family firm expands into the fashionable West End when his son, Samuel Jnr, establishes himself as a diamond merchant with several jewellery stores on the Strand, meters from where the Savoy Hotel would be built a few years later.
1884 – The company enters watches under the “Smiths” name for precision testing at the renowned Kew chronometry trials. Favourable results are used to help market the brand for the next two decades.
1904 – Eyeing the potential of the motor car, Allan Gordon-Smith, the founder’s grandson, is a pioneer in the development of speedometers. Fitting one to King Edward VII’s new Mercedes is the first of many such publicity coups. The speedometer was the result of a royal request: “why can’t you make an instrument to show the speed I am travelling, as well as the distance?” Many Royal Warrants followed.
1904 – Smiths opens a Motor Accessory Department at No.9 Strand as demand for precision instruments soars; as does the reputation of Smiths among motorists, since the renowned accuracy of its speedometers leads to a string of acquittals in police prosecutions for speeding. The speed limit was raised in 1904 from 12mph to 20mph.
1912 – A Smiths speedometer is adapted as a sledge-meter for Captain Robert Scott’s epic expedition to the South Pole on the 17th January; another example of the company’s engineering ingenuity. However, Scott, along with his expedition companions, perishes on the return journey with news of their death reaching London in February 1913. Smiths also supplies watches and instruments in what would become a recurring story of support for historic endeavours.
1913 – Speedometer House, Great Portland Street, London, specially built for Smiths, opens in June. The basement is laid out for carburettors and the two top floors for speedometers, clocks, gauges and other instruments. At the Olympia Motor Show the number of cars fitted with Smiths speedometers numbers 169 versus 29 made by competitors – Smiths is clearly the market leader.
1914 – S. Smith & Sons (Motor Accessories) Ltd. floats on the London Stock Exchange on 21 July, only days before the First World War breaks out. In the company’s prospectus, it is estimated 50,000 Smiths speedometers are in use; the company’s carburettors are standard equipment on various models of cars, and nearly 300 employees are employed at Speedometer House.
1915 – Smiths again adapts to changed circumstances and devotes its newly built factory in Cricklewood, north London, to munitions-related work. By 1916 employee numbers had risen from 400 to 2,000.
1917 – Aircraft production, still in its infancy, is accelerated by the war effort and, in yet another demonstration of its capacity for reinvention, Smiths expands into aviation instruments by purchasing a small local company that specialises in altimeters. During the war, Smiths supplied upwards of 8 million fuzes and large quantities of lighting sets, signalling lamps, generators, and aircraft instruments.
1919 – Smiths acquires global rights to the sale of KLG sparkplugs, developed by the leading racing driver of the day, Kenelm Lee Guinness. The close links between Smiths and the auto industry, and motor sports in particular, are further strengthened. Full control of KLG was achieved a decade later.
In June 1919, Capt. John Alcock and Lieut. Arthur Brown make the world’s first direct transatlantic flight, from Newfoundland to Ireland, in a modified World War I Vickers Vimy bomber fitted with Smiths instruments and KLG spark plugs. Flight time: 16 hours 27 minutes.
1927 – Now producing 80% of speedometers sold in the UK, Smiths consolidates its position by recruiting gifted engineer Robert Lenoir, who goes on to develop many Smiths products. Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the accuracy of the “British-made” description on a car-clock persuades Smiths to manufacture all its parts in the UK.
1930 – It is a similar story in British clock-making. Smiths dominates the home market, patenting its first synchronous electric clock, using the 50hz AC frequency to achieve new levels of accurate time-keeping at affordable prices for homes and offices.
1934 – By the mid-30s Smiths produces half of all clocks made in the UK, manufacturing 4,000 electric and up to 10,000 mechanical clocks a week. The first prototype of a heater for vehicles, designed by Smiths, is engineered.
1935 – A controlling stake in Henry Hughes is acquired, allowing Smiths to branch into early sonar-type technology used in air and sea operations. A Henry Hughes echo-sounder locates the wreck of the Lusitania, sunk by a German submarine off Ireland in 1915. Smiths formally structures around the three sectors most associated with the company throughout much of the 20th century - Motors, Aviation and Clocks.
1936 – A De Havilland Dragon is purchased to demonstrate Smiths aviation instruments, the first of various aircraft purchased for this purpose. The following year, a team of Smiths executives visit the US for a comprehensive survey and study of American techniques in aviation instruments and equipment.
1939 - An aircraft instrument factory is established in rural Gloucestershire, out of range of most German bombers. The Cheltenham site, with a workforce peaking at 8,000, would become one of the company’s main factories for the rest of the 20th century, along with Cricklewood. Smiths wartime production tally includes: 13 million spark plugs, over 10 million aircraft instruments, 4 million clocks and 1.5 million speedometers and mileage counters.
1944 - A fourth division, Industrial Instruments, is created specialising in the manufacture of precision equipment, measuring everything from speed and frequency to temperature and pressure. This expansion marks another milestone in the transformation of a family firm into a modern managerial enterprise.
1946 – The post-war Labour government embarks on a publicly-funded investment and export drive helping Smiths consolidate its dominant role in domestic instrument-making. The UK’s booming aircraft and motor industries fuel strong post-war growth. In 1946, S. Smith & Sons is established in both Australia and Canada, and in 1948, “Smiths” is registered as the company’s trademark.
1951 – The 100th anniversary of the foundation of Smiths coincides with the opening of its most advanced clock factory. Sited in Wishaw, Scotland, the highly automated plant makes up to 25,000 clocks a day, using “best practice” management and production techniques pioneered in the US. A Smiths expedition, consisting of cars of various types, set off on New Year’s Day for Norway for research on car heaters.
1952 – The world’s first commercial jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, makes its maiden flight equipped with an array of Smiths instruments including compass, sextant, gauges and automatic pilot. Though hailed an outstanding triumph for British aero-engineering, airframe design faults and metal fatigue resulted in crashes. Subsequent research resulted in discoveries that shaped future aircraft design.
1953 – Edmund Hillary leads the first successful ascent of Everest using Smiths equipment and wearing a Smiths De Luxe watch, featuring a specially created low-temperature lubricant. Exploiting global publicity that most companies could only dream of, Smiths launches a £100,000 advertising campaign featuring the newly knighted Sir Edmund. Smiths promptly launches the “Everest” watch range.
1957 – In a statement that foresaw the direction the company would follow into the 21st century, Chairman Ralph Gordon-Smith describes his philosophy of the three “D’s” - Decentralisation of operations; Delegation of authority; and Diversification of products.
1958 – Sir Vivian Fuchs reaches the South Pole on the 19th January aided by Smiths equipment, including sledge meters, watches, and clocks to the value of £15,000. Captain Robert Scott’s Smiths watch, used on the 1910-12 Antarctic expedition, is worn by Sir Vivian on a leather thong around his neck, entrusted to him by Smiths to take to the South Pole. Sir Edmund Hillary beats the Fuchs expedition, arriving at the South Pole 17 days earlier.
1958 - The “reinvention” of Smiths takes another twist on the purchase of Portland Plastics, a small medical supplies firm. The acquisition is initially intended to gain Portland’s expertise in plastics and nylon for use in aerospace and automobiles. From such inauspicious beginnings is born the division that will eventually become Smiths Medical. The medically renowned Portex brand (originally its telex call-sign) is a reminder of the company’s origins.
Meanwhile in a parallel medical development of great clinical impact, a Smiths engineer at Kelvin Electronics collaborates with a local obstetrician, adapting an ultrasonic fault-finder used in shipyards into a functioning, safe medical ultrasound device to produce clear images of human organs and unborn babies—ground-breaking research featured in The Lancet.
1960 - The Bluebird Proteus CN7, driven by British racing legend Donald Campbell, was completed in 1960 with the help of a specialist ‘competitions team’ from the Smiths industrial instruments division. Ken Reaks from Smiths travelled with the racing team to Bonneville Salt Flats for an attempt on the world land speed record, but the Bluebird crashed at high speed. Four years later the record was finally his with the rebuilt Bluebird reaching 710km/h.
1962 – On 4 December a Vickers training plane touches down in dense fog at Heathrow Airport – the first successful landing in zero visibility without human control. The Smiths autopilot instruments, already used by 50 airlines, had completed some 10,000 “blind” landings in test planes but always in good visibility. In 1965 at the same airport, a BAC Trident was the first passenger plane to complete an automatic landing, again using Smiths instruments.
1966 - Smiths Industries Ltd. is adopted as the new name for the company in recognition of the widening range of its operations, a trend that continues into the next century.
1967 – Smiths Industries develop one of the first versions of the ATM (Automatic Teller Machines) as well as the associated PIN (Personal Identification Number) technology. In an early version the cash dispenser kept the card, which would be later posted back to the owner.
1968 - After more than 100 years, Smiths starts to withdraw from the clock and watch business, faced with mounting international competition and market distortions. Within a decade production of all Smiths timepieces had ceased.
1973 – Years ahead of its time, Smiths trials heads-up displays (HUD) in police cars with the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. HUDs are adopted for the Saab Viggen aircraft from the Cheltenham production line.
1978 – Boeing selects Smiths to provide auto-throttles for its 727 and 737 ranges, in addition to engine indicators for the 747. Management recognises that growing the aerospace business must involve capturing more Boeing contracts - this is achieved via new technology and acquisitions. Medical, still within the automotive division, begins to expand internationally. As more revenue comes in, more is invested in growing the business.
1981 – New Smiths headquarters open at 765 Finchley Road, north London. Two years later, Smiths exits the motor accessories business, and re-focuses resources in both the aerospace and medical areas.
1987 – The acquisition of Lear Siegler companies in the US catapults Smiths to tier-one supplier status with Boeing, and doubles aerospace sales. This crucial acquisition positions Smiths for the next decade. Smiths Industries is now firmly structured into three divisions: Aerospace (producing two-thirds of sales), Medical, and Industrial.
1991 – Contracts won to provide the electrical load management system for the new Boeing 777. Smiths acquires Flexible Technologies (later to become Flex-Tek).
1992 – A controlling interest acquired in H.G. Wallace, an assisted reproduction company, with the remaining equity acquired the following year. H.G. Wallace pioneered IVF culminating in the birth of the world’s first IVF baby in 1978. In 1994, Deltec is acquired in the US, taking Smiths into the ambulatory medical pump and vascular access markets.
1995 – The expansion of Medical continues in the US with the acquisition of Level-1, a market leader in patient and fluid temperature management used in hospital environments. Smiths Industries ranks third of 250 UK companies as ‘most admired’ in a Management Today survey. It joins the FTSE100 index on the London Stock Exchange.
1997 – US growth in the 1990s is consolidated with the acquisition of Graseby plc, acquired for its medication delivery pump business. Graseby brings with it a new business line in threat detection, which rapidly brings strong sales and later becomes Smiths Detection.
1999 - The end of the 90s marks the gradual end of a strong acquisition period that has added many new technologies to Smiths portfolio of businesses, including ventilation and air movement products, emergency and transport ventilators, anaesthesia machines, cables and interconnectors, lighting and surge protection, and advanced avionic management systems. Smiths drops out of the FTSE100.
2000 – Half of Smiths profits come from companies acquired since 1990. Markets are shocked by the £4.3bn merger with TI Group – a transaction that brings greater scale in aerospace, plus new business lines including John Crane, the leading seals manufacturer. Smiths Industries becomes Smiths Group plc and re-joins the FTSE100 index.
2002 – Germany-based Heimann Systems is acquired for £236m, adding baggage-screening technology to an emerging Smiths Detection division. Following this transformative acquisition, Smiths Detection becomes its own division in 2003.
2005 – Smiths Medical makes its largest acquisition with the purchase of Medex, for $925m, bringing expertise in critical care medical products.
2006 – The strapline ‘Bringing Technology to Life’ is introduced.
Between 2000 and 2007, some 25 significant disposals of non-core businesses yield £4.5bn; while a further 33 acquisitions are made at a cost of £1.4bn as the business refocuses around new core activities.
2007 – In another major surprise for the markets, the aerospace division is sold to GE for £2.6bn, some 90 years after Smiths started making aircraft instruments. A third of the company’s activities are sold at a price equal to half its market capitalization, with £2.1bn returned to shareholders.
2008 – The present day’s five division-structure is announced: Smiths Medical, Smiths Detection, Smiths Interconnect, John Crane and Flex-Tek.
By 2009, all five divisions are managed from divisional headquarters in order to be closer to operations, key markets and customers. Four divisions are run from the US leaving only the Smiths Detection headquarters in the UK. The Group’s slimmed-down head office relocates to Victoria, central London.
2014 – Today Smiths Group plc has over 23,000 employees in over 50 countries. From seals enabling the efficient, environmentally friendly extraction of oil and gas to high energy cargo scanners protecting ports and borders; from medication infusion pumps which support safe delivery of medication through to filters enabling next-generation communications networks, we bring technology to life to help make the world safer, healthier and more productive.