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Industry Electronics & Defence
Fate Bankrupt & broken up
Successor GEC-Marconi, Matra Marconi Space
Founded 1905 (as Ferranti Ltd)
Defunct Bankrupt 1993 (the Belgian subsidiary lives on as Ferranti Computer Systems and is now part of the Nijkerk Holding)
Headquarters Hollinwood, Greater Manchester, United Kingdom
Key people
Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti

Ferranti or Ferranti International plc was a UK electrical engineering and equipment firm that operated for over a century from 1885 until it went bankrupt in 1993 (the Belgian subsidiary lives on as Ferranti Computer Systems and is now part of the Nijkerk Holding). Known primarily for defence electronics, the company was once a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index.

The firm was known for work in the area of power grid systems and defence electronics. In addition, in 1951 Ferranti began selling the first commercially available computer, the Ferranti Mark 1.



Ferranti steam generating set, c. 1900

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti established his first business Ferranti, Thompson and Ince in 1882.[1] The company developed the Ferranti-Thompson Alternator. Ferranti focused on alternating current power distribution early on, and was one of the few UK experts. To avoid confusion, he is often referred to as Dr Ferranti to distinguish him from the Ferranti company itself. In 1885 Dr Ferranti established a new business, with Francis Ince and Charles Sparks as partners, known as S. Z. de Ferranti.[2] According to J F Wilson [3], Dr Ferranti's association with the electricity meter persuaded Ince to partner him in this new venture, and meter development was fundamental to the survival and growth of his business for several decades to come. Despite being a proponent of AC Ferranti became an important supplier to many electric utility firms and power-distribution companies for both AC and DC meters. In 1887, the London Electric Supply Corporation (LESCo) hired Dr Ferranti for the design of their power station at Deptford. He designed the building, the generating plant and the distribution system and on its completion in October 1890, was the first truly modern power station. It supplied high-voltage AC power at 10,000 Volts, which was transformed to a lower voltage for consumer use where required.[1] Success followed and Ferranti started producing electrical equipment (especially transformers) for sale. Soon the company was looking for considerably more manufacturing space. Land prices in the London area were too high, so the company moved to Hollinwood in Oldham in 1896.[2] In July 1901, Ferranti Limited was formed, specifically to take over the assets of S. Z. de Ferranti Ltd and raise equity, but failed to impress potential new investors as it was still dominated by family ownership. Over-optimistic market projections in the boom of 1896-1903, declining revenues and liquidity problems, forced the company bankers Parrs to send the company into receivership in 1903.[3]The business was restructured in 1905, Dr Ferranti’s shareholding being reduced to less than 10%.[2] For the next eleven years the company was run by receiver managers and Dr Ferranti was effectively excluded from commercial financial strategies. He spent much of this period working in partnership with the likes of J P Coats of Paisley on cotton spinning machinery and Vickers on re-superheating turbines.[3]

Rapid growth[edit]

Through the early part of the century power was supplied by small companies, typically as an offshoot of plant set up to provide power to local industry. Each plant supplied a different standard, which made the mass production of electrical equipment for home users rather difficult. In 1910 Ferranti promoted an effort to standardize the power supply, supplying large numbers of power transformers, an initiative which eventually culminated in the National Grid in 1926.[4]

High voltage power transformers became an important product for Ferranti;[2] some of the largest types weighed over a hundred tons. Ferranti built a new power transformer works at Hollinwood in the late 1940s; however, the orders the company had hoped for did not materialize, and the transformer division closed in 1979, severing the last link Ferranti had with heavy electrical engineering.[citation needed] In the early 1980s, Ferranti Engineering Holdings Limited's business consisted of container handling and tapchanger (transformer part) manufacture, and the purchase and resale of agricultural machinery.[citation needed]

In 1935 Ferranti purchased a disused wire drawing mill at Moston: from here it manufactured many "brown goods" such as televisions, radios, and electric clocks.[2] The company later sold its radio and television interests to EKCO in 1957.[5] In addition Ferranti Instruments, again based at Moston developed various items for scientific measurements, including one of the first cone and plate viscometers.

Defence electronics[edit]

During World War II, Ferranti became a major supplier of electronics, fuzes, valves, and was, through development of the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, heavily involved in the early development of radar in the United Kingdom.[2] In the post-war era this became a large segment of the company, with various branches supplying radar sets, avionics and other military electronics, both in the UK and the various international offices.

Spitfire gyro gunsight

In 1943 Ferranti opened a factory at Crewe Toll in Edinburgh to manufacture Gyro Gunsights for the Spitfire aircraft.[2] After the war this business (Ferranti Scotland) grew to employ 8,000 staff in 8 locations, becoming the birthplace of the Scottish electronics industry, and a major contributor to company profitability. Later products included solid state ring laser gyros.

From 1949, Ferranti assisted the Royal Canadian Navy develop DATAR (Digital Automated Tracking and Resolving). DATAR was a pioneering computerized battlefield information system that combined radar and sonar information to provide commanders with an "overall view" of a battlefield, allowing them to coordinate attacks on submarines and aircraft.[6]

In the 1950s work focused on the development of airborne radar with the company subsequently supplying radars to most of the UK's fast jet and helicopter fleets:[7] today the Crewe Toll site (now owned by Selex ES) leads the consortium providing the radar for the Eurofighter Typhoon.[8]

In the 1960s and 1970s inertial navigation systems became an important product line for the company with systems designed for fast jet (Harrier, Phantom, Tornado), space and land applications.[9] The electro-mechanical inertial navigation systems were constructed at the Silverknowes site in Edinburgh, in addition to their other military and civil applications were used in the ESA Ariane 4 and first Ariane 5 launches. Ferranti also produced the PADS (Position and Azimuth Determining System). This was an inertial navigation system which could be mounted in a vehicle and was used by the British Army.[10]

With the invention of the laser in the 1960s the company quickly established itself in the electro-optics arena. From the early 1970s it was delivering the Laser Rangefinder and Marked Target Seeker (LRMTS) for the Jaguar and Harrier fleets, and later for Tornado.[11] It supplied the world's first man-portable laser rangefinder/designator (Laser Target Marker, or LTM) to the British Army in 1974,[12] and had notable successes in the US market, establishing Ferranti Electro-optics Inc in Huntington Beach, California. Its TIALD Pod (Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator) has been in almost constant combat operation on the Tornado since it was rushed into service during the first Gulf War.[13]

From the 1960s through to the late 1980s the Bristol Ferranti Bloodhound SAM, for which Ferranti developed radar systems, was a key money earner.[14]

In 1970 Ferranti became involved in the sonar field through its involvement with Plessey in a new series of sonars, for which it designed and built the computer subsystems. This work later expanded when it won a contract for the complete Sonar 2050. The work was originally carried out at the Wythenshawe factory and then at Cheadle Heath. Takeovers of other companies gave it expertise in sonar arrays. This business later became Ferranti Thomson Sonar Systems.[15]

The selection of the radar for the EFA (now known as the Eurofighter Typhoon) became a major international issue in the early 1990s. Britain, Italy and Spain supported the Ferranti-led ECR-90, while Germany preferred the MSD2000 (a collaboration between Hughes, AEG and GEC. An agreement was reached after UK Defence Secretary Tom King assured his West German counterpart Gerhard Stoltenberg that the British government would underwrite the project and allow GEC to acquire Ferranti Defence Systems from its troubled parent.[16] Hughes sued GEC for $600 million for its role in the selection of the EFA and alleged that it used Hughes technology in the ECR-90 when it took over Ferranti. It later dropped this allegation and was awarded $23 million, the court judged that the MSD-2000 "had a real or substantial chance of succeeding had GEC not tortuously intervened... and had the companies, which were bound by the Collaboration Agreement, faithfully and diligently performed their continuing obligations thereunder to press and promote the case for MSD-2000."[17]

Industrial electronics[edit]

In the late 1980s there were several sections of the company involved in non-military areas. These included microwave communications equipment (Ferranti Communications), and petrol (gas) station pumps (Ferranti Autocourt). Both of these departments were based at Dalkeith, Scotland.


In the late 1940s Ferranti joined with various university-based research groups to develop computers. Their first effort was the Ferranti Mark 1, completed in 1951,[2] about nine delivered between 1951 and 1957. The Pegasus introduced in 1956 was their most popular valve (vacuum tube) system,[18] with 38 units sold. Circa 1956, Ivan Idelson, at Ferranti, originated the Cluff-Foster-Idelson coding of characters on 7-track paper tape for a BSI committee. This eventually became ASCII.[18]

In collaboration with the University of Manchester they built a new version of the famous Mark 1 that replaced valve diodes with solid state versions, which allowed the speed to be increased dramatically as well as increasing reliability.[19] Ferranti offered the result commercially as the Mercury starting in 1957, and eventually sold nineteen in total. Although a small part of Ferranti's empire, the computer division was nevertheless highly visible and operated out of a former steam locomotive factory in West Gorton.

Work on a completely new design, the Atlas,[18] started soon after the delivery of the Mercury, aiming to dramatically improve performance. The machine first ran in 1962, and Ferranti eventually built three machines in total. A version of the Atlas modified for the needs of the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory led to the Titan (or Atlas 2), which was the mainstay of scientific computing in Cambridge for nearly 8 years.

By the early 1960s their mid-size machines were no longer competitive, but efforts to design a replacement were bogged down. Into this void stepped the Canadian division, Ferranti-Packard, who had used several of the ideas under development in England to very quickly produce the Ferranti-Packard 6000.[6] By this time Ferranti's management had tired of the market and were looking for someone to buy the entire division. Eventually it was merged into International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) in 1963, becoming the Large Systems Division of ICL in 1968. After studying several options, ICT selected the FP 6000 as the basis for their ICT 1900 series line which sold into the 1970s.

The deal setting up ICT excluded Ferranti from the commercial sector of computing, but left the industrial field free. Some of the technology of the FP 6000 was later used in its Ferranti Argus range of industrial computers which were developed in its Wythenshawe factory. The first of these, simply Argus, was initially developed for military use.[20]

Meanwhile in Bracknell the Digital Systems Division was developing a range of mainframe computers for naval applications. Early computers using discrete transistors were the Hermes and Poseidon and these were followed by the F1600 in the mid 1960s. Some of these machines remained in active service on naval vessels for many years. The FM1600B was the first of the range to use integrated circuits and was used in many naval and commercial applications. The FM1600D was a single-rack version of the computer for smaller systems. An airborne version of this was also made and used aboard the RAF Nimrod. The FM1600E was a redesigned and updated version of the FM1600B, and the last in the series was the F2420,[21] an upgraded FM1600E, still in service at sea in 2010.


Ferranti had been involved in the production of electronic devices including radio valves, cathode ray tubes and germanium semiconductors for some time before it became the first European company to produce a silicon diode, in 1955. Ferranti Semiconductor Ltd. went on to produce a range of silicon bipolar devices including, in 1977, the Ferranti F100-L, an early 16-bit microprocessor with 16-bit addressing. An F100-L was carried into space on the amateur radio satellite UoSAT-1 (Oscar 9). Ferranti's ZTX series bipolar transistors gave their name to the inheritor of Ferranti Semiconductor's discrete semiconductor business, Zetex plc.[22]

In the early eighties, Ferranti produced some of the first large uncommitted logic arrays (ULAs), used in home computers such as the Sinclair ZX81, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron and BBC Microcomputer. The microelectronics business was sold to Plessey in 1988.[2]

Acquisition of International Signal & Control[edit]

In 1987 Ferranti purchased International Signal and Control (ISC), a US defence contractor based in Pennsylvania.[23] The company subsequently changed its name to Ferranti International plc. and restructured the combined business into the following divisions: Ferranti Computer Systems, Ferranti Defence Systems, Ferranti Dynamics, Ferranti Satcomms, Ferranti Telecoms, Ferranti Technologies and International Signal & Control.

Unknown to Ferranti, ISC's business primarily consisted of illegal arms sales started at the behest of various US clandestine organizations. On paper the company looked to be extremely profitable on sales of high-priced "above board" items, but in fact these profits were essentially non-existent. With the sale to Ferranti all illegal sales ended immediately, leaving the company with no obvious cash flow.[23]

In 1989 the UK's Serious Fraud Office started criminal investigation regarding alleged massive fraud at ISC. In December 1991 James Guerin, founder of ISC and co-Chairman of the merged company, pleaded guilty before the federal court in Philadelphia to fraud committed both in the USA and UK. All offences which would have formed part of any UK prosecution were encompassed by the US trial and as such no UK trial proceeded.[23]


The financial and legal difficulties that resulted forced Ferranti into bankruptcy in December 1993.[2]


De Havilland Heron operated from Manchester Airport 1962-1970 as an executive transport, particularly between the factories in Lancashire and Scotland. The company name is on the lower fin

The company had factories in Greater Manchester at Hollinwood, Moston, Chadderton (Gem Mill), Waterhead (Cairo Mill), Derker, Wythenshawe, Cheadle Heath, West Gorton, and Poynton. Eventually it set up branch-plants in Edinburgh (Silverknowes, Crewe Toll, Gyle, Granton and Robertson Avenue factories), Dalkeith, Aberdeen, Dundee, Bracknell, Barrow in Furness and Cwmbran as well as Germany and the United States (inc. Ferranti International Controls Corporation in Sugar Land, Texas) and several British Commonwealth countries including Canada, Australia and Singapore.

Ferranti Australia was based in Revesby, Sydney NSW. There was also a primarily defence-related branch office in South Australia.

Products manufactured by Ferranti Defence Systems included cockpit displays (moving map, head-down, head-up) video cameras and recorders, gunsight cameras, motion detectors, pilot's night vision goggles, integrated helmets, and pilot's stick controls.

On the Tornado aircraft, Ferranti supplied the radar transmitter, inertial navigation system, LRMTS, TIALD pod, mission recording equipment, and cockpit displays.

Current ownership of former Ferranti businesses[edit]

Ferranti Autocourt
acquired by Wayne Dresser, renamed to Wayne Autocourt, before Autocourt name dropped
Ferranti Communications
acquired by Thorn and branded Thorn Communications and Telecontrol Systems (CATS). Later acquired by Tyco International and renamed Tyco Communications. Still operating under the name TS Technology Services.
Ferranti Computer Systems
the Belgian subsidiary lives on as Ferranti Computer Systems and is now part of the Nijkerk Holding. The remainder was acquired out of administration by SYSECA, the IT arm of Thomson-CSF and renamed Ferranti-SYSECA Ltd, later the Ferranti was dropped and when Thomson changed its name to Thales, SYSECA became Thales Information Systems. Thales Information Systems later sold its German interest to Consinto Gmbh. The department dealing with airport systems was bought by Datel in around 1995 and continued to trade under the name Ferranti Airport Systems[24] until it was bought by Ultra Electronics. Other parts of Ferranti Computer Systems were acquired out of administration by GEC-Marconi, when GEC-Marconi sold on its defence related businesses to BAE Systems many of these former Ferranti entities became part of the BAE/Finmeccanica joint venture called Alenia Marconi Systems. The JV has now been dissolved and the former Ferranti entities are now part of BAE Systems Integrated System Technologies (Insyte).
Ferranti Defence Systems
acquired by GEC-Marconi out of administration and renamed GEC Ferranti, later changing to GEC Marconi Avionics (GMAv). This business was acquired in 2000 by BAE Systems (BAE Systems Avionics). Part of this business, including the heritage Ferranti operation, was acquired by Finmeccanica in 2007 and renamed SELEX Galileo (now Selex ES). At one time there were design offices at Silverknowes, Robertson Avenue, South Gyle 1 and 2, Crewe Toll, Granton. After BAE Systems was formed the remaining factories at South Gyle were sold off and the remaining staff of Avionics Systems were made redundant despite their ground breaking work on the Avionics Helmet for EFA and Aircraft Mission Computers.
Ferranti Dynamics
acquired by GEC-Marconi in 1992
Ferranti Electronics (Ceramic Seals division)
acquired by Ceramic Seals Limited in 1990.
Ferranti Instrumentation
dissolved. Some assets acquired by GEC-Marconi and Ravenfield Designs
Ferranti Satcomms
acquired out of administration by Matra Marconi Space in 1994
Ferranti Technologies
was bought out by management and continues in Oldham specialising in avionics, defence electronics, and electronic power systems. It was acquired by Elbit Systems in 2007.[25]
Ferranti Air Systems
acquired by Datel then turned into an independent company. Later bought by Ultra Electronics
Ferranti Thomson Sonar Systems
50% share acquired by GEC-Marconi. Now owned by Thales and renamed Thales Underwater Systems.
Ferranti Helicopters
acquired by British Caledonian Airways in April 1979 to become British Caledonian Helicopters which was in turn acquired by Bristow Helicopters in 1987
Ferranti Subsea Systems
Management buyout in the early 1990s, renamed FSSL. Kværner bought more shares in 1994 and then turned to Kværner FSSL. Kværner is now known as Aker Solutions
Ferranti Computer Systems Service Department
This was acquired by the third party maintenance company ServiceTec. The regional Service Centres were rebranded as ServiceTec and all of the service engineers and management were taken on. The support of the Argus computers dominated activities although new (non-Argus) business was added to the regional centres. The repair centre at Cairo Mill also became part of the ServiceTec group, ultimately as a separate entity.
Ferranti Semiconductors
became Zetex Semiconductors after a management buyout in 1989. In 2008 it was acquired by Diodes Inc.
Ferranti Photonics Ltd.
independent, liquidated after bankruptcy in 2005

Other uses of the Ferranti name[edit]

A number of uses of the Ferranti name remain in use. In Edinburgh, the Ferranti Edinburgh Recreation Club (FERC), the Ferranti Mountaineering Club and the Ferranti Ten-pin Bowling League are still in existence. While these organisations no longer have any formal ties with the companies which subsumed the Ferranti companies which operated in Edinburgh, they still operate under the old names.

Ferranti Thistle F.C. was formed in 1943 and joined the Scottish Football League in 1974. Due to strict sponsorship rules it changed its name to Meadowbank Thistle F.C., and later to Livingston F.C..

Denis Ferranti Meters Limited is still owned by a direct descendant of Sebastian de Ferranti but is not directly related to the major Ferranti corporation. The company has over 200 employees that manufacture BT's public phones, oil pumps for large industrial vehicles, electric motors for motorbility solutions, electronics, and small MOD equipment.


  1. ^ a b SWE Historical Society
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ferranti TimelineMuseum of Science and Industry (Accessed 22-02-2012)
  3. ^ a b c Ferranti and the British Electrical Industry J F Wilson ISBN 0719023696
  4. ^ Ferranti: History
  5. ^ Media, Business and Communications timeline
  6. ^ a b John Vardalas, "From DATAR To The FP-6000 Computer", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol 16 No 2, 1994
  7. ^ Ferranti Airpass radar equipment being fitted to a Canberra test aircraft in 1955
  8. ^ SELEX Galileo receives subcontract from CAE
  9. ^ The Ferranti Inertial Land Surveying System (FILS) as part of an integrated navigation and positioning system
  10. ^ The Surveying Handbook by Russell Charles Brinker, Roy Minnick
  11. ^ Targeting pods
  12. ^ Using UHF-AM Radios in Tanks, Page 45
  13. ^ TIALD: The Gulf War GEC Ferranti
  14. ^ Bristol Aero Collection
  15. ^ Ferranti Sonar Unit to go into venture with Thomson
  16. ^ Miller, Charles (1990-05-08). "Radar Deal Keeps Britain in Forefront of Airborne Technology". The Press Association Ltd. 
  17. ^ "Court finds GEC 'intervened' on behalf of onetime EFA rival Ferranti". Aerospace Daily (McGraw-Hill Inc.). 1994-03-15. p. 398. 
  18. ^ a b c UK electronics - a fallen or sleeping giant
  19. ^ Dr. Brian Napper (1999). "The Manchester Mark 1, Final Specification -- October 1949". Computer 50: The University of Manchester Celebrates the Birth of the Modern Computer. Retrieved November 26, 2012. 
  20. ^ Wylie, Andrew (2009). "The Ferranti Argus Computers". Retrieved November 26, 2012. 
  21. ^ Ferranti offers F2420 at five times power of FM1600E
  22. ^ Zetex Semiconductors
  23. ^ a b c The ISC / Ferranti Scandal
  24. ^ FASL
  25. ^ "Elbit Systems Acquires the UK Company Ferranti Technologies for GBP15 Million (US$31 Million)". Aviation Today. 2007-07-26. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Halton, Maurice J., The Impact of Conflict and Political Change on Northern Industrial Towns, 1890 to 1990, MA Dissertation, Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, Manchester Metropolitan University September 2001 MA Dissertation

External links[edit]