Here’s a red letter date in the history of science, and electric guitar tone, September 1920… the day that Stanley R. Mullard formed the Mullard Radio Valve Company. As all guitarists know, the thermionic valve (or vacuum tube if you happen to live on the other side of the pond) is what makes great guitar tone possible and Mullard were without a doubt the best of the best when it came to making tubes. Further, this year marks Mullard’s centenary, which means they sprang into existence exactly one hundred years ago to the month. Now, being bona fide tube anoraks, it would be remiss of us to let this historic event slip quietly by without at least telling something of Mullard’s marvellous story. So here goes…
The story begins way back in 1919 where a young Stanley Mullard worked as a technician at the “Z” Electric Lamp Manufacturing Company in Southfields, London. “Z” Electric were an established manufacturer of carbon and filament lamps, however the Admiralty (the British government department responsible for the command of the Royal Navy) contracted them to develop receiving and transmitting valves for wireless communication (a.k.a. radio). Stanley’s knowledge and experience of vacuum techniques enabled him to guide the company through the new and uncharted waters of tube manufacture for the Admiralty, R.A.F. (Royal Air Force) and G.P.O. (General Post Office). Their new thermionic devices were sold under the brand name of S R Mullard and Stanley swiftly ascended to the position of managing director—he was just 24 years old.
A few months later an order for 250 silica envelope transmitting tubes (at £66 each) generated sufficient capital for Stanley to set up his own company, the Mullard Radio Valve Company and over the coming years the ever spiralling demand for receiving tubes (tubes used in radio receiving equipment) exceeded Mullard’s manufacturing capacity time and time again. The formation of the B.B.C. (British Broadcasting Company) in 1922 and the introduction of their London transmitter, 2LO fuelled demand yet further and Mullard’s company grew and grew. In 1924 their production exceeded over two million tubes a year.
It was at this point that Stanley sold half his shares in the Mullard Radio Valve Company to Philips in Eindhoven, Netherlands. The injection of enormous capital from Philips made possible the construction of a new factory in Blackburn—this became the largest and most advanced tube works in the world. When the factory opened its doors in 1938, the new site employed only 28 staff, but by 1945 this grew to about 3,000 and by 1954 the site was producing half a million tubes a day. At its zenith in 1961, the Blackburn site even generated its own gas and electricity, making it completely independent from the local town supplies. Over 6,200 people were employed at the Blackburn site along with the other feeder factories situated in Fleetwood, Rawtenstall, Lytham and Southport, which supplied raw materials and sub-components to the Blackburn tube works.
By this time Stanley had long since resigned as managing director, leaving the complexities of vacuum tube research and development to Philips after they’d acquired the remainder of Mullard in 1927. He went on to pursue an interest in horticulture in which he became a recognised authority, however he did continue on as a director in an advisory capacity. Even after his retirement he still spent time on the shop floor of the Mullard works, always keen to listen to his workers, particularly regarding any practical knowledge they might share on how to improve production methods, active in the company’s affairs up until its Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1970. To mark their 50th anniversary of the founding of the company, Mullard paid a record fee of £10,000 to have a rose specially named after the company: the Mullard Jubilee “Electron” rose bush—it’s colour was electric deep pink!
Stanley Mullard lived to see the small venture he founded grow to become an organisation employing more than 11,000 people and occupying a leading place in the world’s electronic industry. By demonstrating reliable tubes could be made cost effectively he helped lay the foundations of the British radio, the tube amplifier industry and electric guitar. Now, that has to be something worth celebrating, so why not join us all here at Effectrode and raise a glass to Stanley, the maker of the valve—Happy 100th Birthday Mullard!
Photo of S. R. Mullard taken from “Wireless, the Modern Magic Carpet” by Ralph Stranger