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The Reyrolle Story: Six - The Take-Off Years (1905- 1920)

Robert Owen continues his history of one of Britain's most important engineering firms.

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Many people regard 1905 as the watershed in the history of the Company. By then, Reyrolle employed about 200 workers. One of them was named Henry William Clothier - born in 1872 to affluent parents who lived in Kensington, London. Following an engineering apprenticeship, he joined Ferranti Ltd. in 1894, where he became Estimating Manager. He left in 1904 to join a small Manchester company where he became Chief Engineer. Unfortunately, the firm went into liquidation and in 1905, he came to Newcastle at the invitation of Charles Merz to join the Merz-McLenan Consultancy.

He was seconded to Reyrolle to develop his concept of "ironclad" switchgear. Alphonse must have spotted his potential, because he quickly offered him a full-time contract. It was perhaps the most significant appointment Reyrolle ever made. Clothier was initially employed as Sales Manager, but his undoubted major contribution to the company was the development of metal-clad switchgear. Prior to 1906, there had always been considerable danger to operating personnel (and equipment) in breaking high voltage circuits. Electrical engineers everywhere were seeking a solution that would make switchgear safe to handle.

From Clothier's designs came the metal-clad draw out principle, where the use of an earthed metal enclosure would always be an adequate protection against electric shock. In the field of switchgear design, the metal-clad draw out construction was nothing short of revolutionary. The first units were produced in 1906 and an initial reluctance by other manufacturers to accept design change, enabled Reyrolle to exploit an early monopoly which produced good profits.

With Charles Merz promoting a regional supply of electricity for light and power Clothier designing the high-capacity switchgear that the scheme necessitated and Reyrolle providing the engineering and production facilities to produce the equipment the Company took off. Within 12 months, the value of sales grew by 35% and the number of workers doubled to 520.

The first installation of Reyrolle metal-clad switchgear was for a Swan-Hunter.


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