Immigrants Made Good – Hugo Hirst

Hugo Hirst is perhaps best known as the Father of the British General Electric Company (not to be confused with the American company General Electric). He was a brilliant businessman and industrialist and played a key role in the advancement and manufacturing of electric appliances, communications and engineering. He would eventually become Lord Hirst of Witton and a naturalized British citizen, but this great man began life under a different name – and in a much humbler setting.

Scans from Forty Years of Electrical Progress ...
Sir Hugo Hirst, Bart. Chairman and Managing Director of the General Electric Company, Ltd. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hugo Hirst was born Hugo Hirsch on November 26, 1863 in a tiny Bavarian market town called Altenstadt. His family was decidedly middle class, though his Jewish parents were well established as part-owners of a local distillery. Hugo’s father Emanuel ran the firm of Meyer and Hirsch with his three brothers.

The Hirsch family soon moved to Munich, where Emanuel Hirsch set up a new distillery. Young Hugo was enrolled in the technical school Städtische Handelsschule where he excelled in mathematics. As he progressed academically, he chose to specialize in chemistry with plans to enter his father’s business. Before he could follow through on those plans, he became unhappy with life in Munich, and he instead launched out to begin a career of his own in England.

He was greatly encouraged in his immigration plans by his uncle, Dr. Henry Dick, who worked as a medical consultant on Wimpole Street. A distant cousin, Gustav Binswanger had also emigrated in 1872 and the two shared lodging for a time. Hirsch loved England immediately, and quickly took on the language and customs of the land – even Anglicizing his name to Hirst within months of arriving.

Hugo took a job with a mercantile shipping firm, though he received no salary at first and survived on a small allowance from his father. Soon the firm discovered that young Hugo was proficient in Morse Code – a skill that was vital to the firm’s daily communications with their Indian office. Messages were often long and prone to error, but as soon as Hugo took over, he developed an error correction system that resulted in a significant reduction in messages that had to be re-sent – resulting in major financial savings. In spite of this, his employer refused to pay him more than a pittance, so he began looking for a new job.

He found work with the Electric Power Storage Company, and this marked his entrance into the world of Electrical Engineering. At the same time, his cousin Gustav Binswanger had founded G. Binswanger and Company (an electrical good wholesale company). Hugo soon formed a partnership with Binswanger and they changed the name of the company to The General Electric Apparatus Company.

The original version of General Electric's cir...
The original version of General Electric’s circular logo and trademark. The trademark application was filed on July 24, 1899, and registered on September 18, 1900 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The two found almost immediate success through selling electrical components. The entrepreneurial Hirst saw the potential of electricity and capitalized on the budding industry. The company soon acquired its first factory where telephones, electric switches and electric bells were produced.

As the company continued to expand, they began opening new factories and branches that offered “everything electrical”.  They incorporated as a private company in 1889 and became known as General Electric Company Ltd. In 1909, the company’s name was changed to Osram and was soon leading the way in electric lamp design, producing some of the best tungsten filament lamps at the time.

In 1910, Hugo became Chairman and Managing Director and the company began to export their products overseas. GEC continued to expand throughout WWI, as they became heavily involved in war time production.

In 1925, Hugo Hirst was made the Baron of Witton in the County of Warwick. He passed away in 1943 at the age of 79.


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