Updated 23-XII-2019

Lexington Lamp Plant

The Lexington Lamp Plant was opened in 1947 to provide extra capacity for GE's rapidly expanding business of sealed beam automotive headlamps. It followed the 1946 opening the Kentucky Glass Plant in the same town, which produced the raw pressed glass components used in the lamp assembly. For the following seventy years Lexington was GE's principal sealed beam production facility and it enjoyed considerable success, many of its products gaining the reputation of the best performing PAR lamps in the world. Unfortunately at the beginning of the 21st century these lamps began to decline sharply in popularity as they were superseded by more energy-efficient light sources, which led to the closure of Lexington at the end of 2017.

The General Electric Lexington Lamp Plant, 19472

Address GE Lexington Lamp Plant #3343, 1801 GE Drive (formerly Edison Avenue), Lexington, Kentucky 40503, U.S.A.
Location 38.0221°N, -84.5210°E.
Opened 1947.
Closed 2017.
Floorspace Unknown.
Products Sealed Beam PAR Lamps.

Sealed Beam Manufacturing
The Sealed Beam pressed-glass reflector lamp was invented by GE's Daniel Wright and Alfred Greiner in 1938 and at once introduced numerous advantages, in particular for automotive headlamps. The first lamps were almost certainly prototyped at the company's Nela Park HQ and probably based on pressed glass reflectors and lenses produced by Corning. Until that time GE had paid little attention to the borosilicate hard glasses required for this kind of lamp, and had no internal factory for hard glass pressings.

The onset of WWII brought a swift termination to the manufacture of new cars and curtailed the growth of sealed beam lamps for that application - but the war effort saw tremendous development of PAR lamps for various other applications such as aircraft landing lights, vibration resistant headlights for military vehicles, and countless different signalling and projection lamps. Demand grew so rapidly that dedicated new production facilities were established for making these lamps at the Trumbull Lamp Plant in Warren (OH), and for the glass pressings at the Mahoning Glass Plant in Niles (OH).

The postwar boom saw an almost overnight additional explosion in demand from the automotive industry, which outstripped the capacity of Trumbull and Mahoning plants. In the early days the sealed beam glass and lamp plants operated as a pair, the entire output of a single glassworks being absorbed by a single lampworks. It therefore made sense to bring the two close together so as to minimise transportation costs and the quantity of raw material stocks. That is precisely what GE planned at the southern town of Lexington (KY), in which the Kentucky Glass Plant was opened in 1946, and the adjacent Lexington Lamp Plant began operations in 1947. Its construction represented an investment of $ 2 million, and provided employment for 350 workers by 1953.

The previous two factories were not closed down and for many years all ran in parallel. However, the business of glass pressings grew somewhat faster than the sealed beam lamps, because these were also employed in the reflectors for countless different photographic and projection lamps, refractors for streetlighting luminaires, and the envelopes of high-power electronic valves and cathode ray tubes. Kentucky Glass quickly outgrew its facilities, which led to the construction of the new and larger Somerset Glass Plant during 1957-1959 to accommodate all pressed glass production. The Kentucky Glass Plant did not close, but was re-tooled to become GE's third glassworks for the mass production of soft glass ribbon bulb shells for ordinary incandescent lamps.

Over the years most of the new sealed beam lamp types were produced at Lexington, and Trumbull began to be dwarfed by its operations. This led to the closure of Trumbull in 1989 with all sealed beam production being absorbed by Lexington, except the high volume general lighting PAR38 types which were produced at the Ohio Lamp Plant.

Lexington grew again in 2011-12 when GE made a major $ 10 million investment to produce its new Silv-IR lamps at this site, creating 38 new jobs in addition to the existing 124 employees. These top efficacy PAR38 lamps contained a halogen inner capsule with infrared recyling coating to redirect radiated heat back onto the filament, and a novel shift from aluminium to silver for the metallic light-reflective coating on the pressed glass reflector. Silver has a light reflectivity of about 97% vs the 92% of aluminium, leading to a substantial improvement in optical efficacy which facilitated an additional energy saving from these types. The new equipment was installed between August 2011 and January 2012, and production began in April 2012.

Decline and Closure
During the 1980s there was a major shift away from Lexington's staple product, the automotive sealed beam headlamps. Initially this was triggered by the migration from incandescent to higher-efficacy halogen lamps, which also solved the problem of bulb blackening during life. One of the advantages of sealed beam lamps over conventional incandescent lamps was their much larger bulb volume, which practically eliminated the blackening problem - but with the advent of halogen technology that feature was eliminated. Another advantage of sealed beam lamps had been their high-precision focussing of the filament within the reflector compared to the large old incandescent lamps - but the new halogen capsules were smaller and equipped with new high-precision pre-focussing bases which once again allowed headlight manufacturers to revert to the cheaper system of a separate lamp and reflector. For a few years Lexington offered a range of halogen sealed beam lamps, in which the reflector and lens were glued togther rather than flame-sealed, and contained a tungsten-halogen capsule rather than a naked incandescent filament. However these offered no advantage for new cars, and were only offered as upgrades for customers having the declining number of older cars made for incandescent sealed beam lamps. As such, the volume of sealed beam automotive lamps began to decline rapidly.

The final nail in the coffin was delivered following the adoption of high intensity discharge metal halide headlamps. These were not compatible with the sealed beam concept, since their far greater luminous flux would have produced too much glare for oncoming traffic. Reflector-based optical systems were gradually replaced by projection headlight optics, and this construction was not practical to integrate in a sealed beam lamp.

A few years later, the same shift away from sealed beam lamps ocurred for the general lighting PAR lamps. In this case the halogen PARs were rather more competitive than in the automotive case and for several decades were produced by the hundreds of millions. However federal regulations on the energy efficacy of light sources gradually made these products obsolete - even the most advanced Silv-IR PAR38 lamps. This resulted in a rapid shift towards compact fluorescent, HID and LED alternatives which could deliver similar lighting results for a fraction of the energy consumption.

In parallel the entertainment lighting business, another major consumer of Lexington's PAR lamps, was migrating to LED light sources.

The inevitable announcement of a combined closure of both Lexington Lamp Plant (with 139 staff) and its raw material supplier the Somerset Glass Plant (71 employees), was made in April 2016. Both were said to be operating at 80% below capacity, and no longer economically viable. Production at both sites came to a close at the end of 2017.

Lexington Lamp Plant, 1947 2 Lexington Lamp Plant, 1947 3 C.Wilson, M.Sloane, N.Gordon 1947 4

References & Bibliography
  1. A Century of Light, James A. Cox, published by The Benjamin Company / Rutgers, 1979, ISBN 0-87502-062-3, p.86.
  2. University of Kentucky Photo Archive, Photo of Lexington Lamp Works in 1947
  3. University of Kentucky Photo Archive, Photo of Lexington Lamp Works in 1947
  4. Women in Lexington, Deirdre A. Scaggs, Arcadia Publishing, 2005, p.29.
  5. GE Lamp Plant Employees on Strike, Kentucky Photo Archive, 23 March 1948.
  6. Proceedings & Debates of the 83rd Congress, Vol.99 Pt.6 p.8468, US Govt. Printing Office, 1953.
  7. International Aspects of Antitrust: Hearings, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, p.1006, US Govt. Printing Office, 1967.
  8. Auto Headlight Glass : Visible Features of Forensic Utility, US National Bureau of Standards Report, February 1978.
  9. GE to add 38 jobs at Lexington Lamp Plant, Stephanie Clouser, Louisville Business Post, 17 Aug 2011.
  10. Governor Beshear Announces GE Lighting to Expand Manufacturing of Energy-Efficient Lighting Products in Lexington, ThinkKentucky, 17 Aug 2011.
  11. GE to close two KY plants; more than 200 jobs lost, WKYT News, 11 Aug 2016.
  12. Razing of GE Plant is Nearing Completion, Bill Mardis, Commonwealth Journal, 23 Mar 2018.