The full history of the Pye Group of Companies can be traced from 1896 to the present day (), with a number of surviving and thriving descendant companies still active in the field of radio communications and electronics. It began in 1896 with the scientific instrument maker Mr. W. G. Pye leaving his employment with the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge to establish his own instrument business.
Over the course of the intervening 118 or so years, Pye Group companies established leading positions in many fields including industrial electronics, domestic radio broadcast receivers, television receivers, audio and Hi-Fi, television studios and TV transmission, scientific instruments, radio and line communications, electronics components and various supporting industries. To date research has identified 60 UK companies and 20 overseas companies.
The Pye Group was always headquartered in the City of Cambridge in the East of England and at its war-time peak in 1945 employed 14,000 workers spread around East Anglia. Later the world-wide group grew to 30,000 employees.
Origins of W. G. Pye and Company
In 1896 William George Pye left his employment as workshop superintendent at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and, assisted by his wife Annie Eliza Pye, set up W.G. Pye and Company to design and manufacture high precision scientific instruments. William Pye was a trained instrument maker and his equipment for use in school physics lessons was soon in great demand from centres of learning and research all around the world. Gradually he began to take on staff and in 1913 he moved to larger premises in Montague Road, Cambridge which later (and greatly expanded) formed part of the Pye Haig Road/St. Andrews Road complex, trading first as Pye Radio Ltd, then as Pye Ltd and later as Pye Telecom.
W. G. Pye & Co benefited from the enormous demand for military equipment during World War 1 such as telescopes, ALDIS lamps, gun-sights and surveying equipment, but by 1921 this market had more or less disappeared. Short-time working was introduced as a temporary measure, but the company also searched for something else to manufacture.
The Wireless Receiver
The Pye management decided to try the new field of domestic broadcast wireless receivers and planned what became Pye’s first wireless set, designed to receive the experimental broadcast signals then being radiated from station 2LO in London. A small number of receivers were produced and, due to the Company’s background, were superbly made precision instruments. Because they were more compliant with the Post Office specifications than some of their competitors’ products (the Post Office was the type approval authority) they tended to be somewhat insensitive and therefore did not find a very enthusiastic market.
William Pye’s son Harold, after graduating from St. John’s College Cambridge, joined his father in the business, and in 1924 designed the first commercially successful Pye broadcast receivers, the ‘700 Series’. From then on the business made good commercial progress and eventually radio receivers became so important that a separate division was formed called Pye Radio Limited, with Charles Orr Stanley appointed to manage the division.
New Management at W. G. Pye
C. O. Stanley had previously worked for Arks Publicity, an advertising agency. One of Ark’s most important clients was Captain Stanley Robert Mullard who, in September 1920, had set up the Mullard Radio Valve Co Ltd to supply valves to the Navy. Stanley Mullard’s Company prospered and in 1924, in an attempt to solve some problems he had experienced with glass-to-metal seals, he approached Philips Lamps of Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The most important outcome of the relationship formed from this liaison was that by January 1927 Philips had taken over Mullard to form its main UK operation. This gave it access to the restricted British valve supply market through Mullard’s membership of the British Valve Association (a trade cartel).
The association of Pye with Mullard was, from the beginning, very important in terms of the bond of friendship between C. O. Stanley and S. R. Mullard, the prices paid for valves, and the technical assistance exchanged between the two companies. Meanwhile the Pye family was unhappy with the rate of growth of Pye Radio Limited and it was suggested that C. O. Stanley should negotiate to sell the business to Philips Lamps. In 1928 C. O. Stanley offered Pye Radio Ltd to Philips for £65,000, of which £5,000 was to be his own commission. Philips countered by offering £60,000 saying that the commission was too much. C. O. Stanley, as the manager, declined to sell the business and instead, he himself raised the money from his family and the banks and bought Pye Radio Limited for £60,000.
Brisk expansion followed under the Stanley family management and in 1929 the Haig Road factory, by then called Pye Radio Works, was expanded to occupy an area of 8,000 square metres. By 1933 Pye was producing more than 40,000 radio sets per year and had moved on from the early ‘Tuned Radio Frequency’ (TRF) design of receivers to the latest ‘Super-Sonic Heterodyne’; (Superhet) receiver concept.
The Significance of Television
From as early as 1925 Pye had taken a keen interest in the television experiments and in 1930 started developing Television receivers. In 1935 Pye set up a company called Cathodeon Ltd to manufacture cathode ray tubes (CRT).
By 1936, when the BBC began the worlds’ first high-definition (405-line) electronic television broadcasts (using the EMI system), Pye had already been making TV sets with a 9" screen for more than a year. The high point of Pye pre-World War 2 TV development came with the development of the Model 915 TV, which was a high-gain ‘fringe area’ receiver of advanced design. By 1939, a production line had been set up in Cambridge and samples produced. Interestingly, the Pye Model 915 TV receiver was a ‘straight’ or ‘tuned radio frequency’ (TRF) receiver design, centered on the BBC London TV carrier frequency of 45MHz, and used what at the time was a revolutionary new all-glass, high gain, low-capacitance radio valve suitable for very high frequency (VHF) operation. This valve was the famous type EF50, developed by Philips at Eindhoven, later to be manufactured by its subsidiary company Mullard Ltd in the UK, and by the millions by American companies such as Sylvania, for the Allied war effort.
When World War 2 began on 3rd September 1939, UK TV broadcasting came to an end, as did the production of the 45 MHz Pye Model 915 TV receiver, and Pye was switched over to the design and production of first radar and later wireless transmitting and receiving equipment for the British Military.
Sources: 1. Mr. D. B. Delanoy 2003, 2. The Story of Pye, Pye Limited, 1956, 3. Bowen E. G., Radar Days, 1987, Adam Hilger, Bristol, 4. Gough J., Watching the Skies, 1993, HMSO, London, 5. Memories of Radar Research, Cockroft J. D., IEE Proceedings-A Vol. 132, Part A, Number 6, October 1985 (original paper Royal Signals and Radar Establishment 4136A (S7, E15))