Updated 24-I-2020

Memphis Lamp Plant

Although the Memphis Lamp Plant was General Electric's principal manufacturing operation for miniature incandescent lamps, there was nothing miniature at all about the truly vast scale of its operations. GE was fortunate to hold a dominant position in the production of automotive lamps for the North American automobile industry, which created a vast demand for incandescent lamps. It was also market leader in Christmas decoration lamps, another product required in enormous quantities. Put together these helped the factory's output peak at around half a billion lamps per year, with the daily production output easily surpassing a million miniature lamps. The fierce competition of the automotive industry placed intense cost pressures on its suppliers, and this gradually drove production away to low labour cost countries. Memphis Lamp Plant was closed down in 1999, with its production being relocated to other GE plants in Mexico and Hungary.

The General Electric Memphis Lamp Plant building, pictured two decades after its closure in 2020

Address GE Memphis Lamp Plant #3344, 1356 South Riverside Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee 38109, U.S.A.
Location 35.1117°N, -90.0734°E.
Opened 1947 February 1st.
Closed 1999.
Floorspace Unknown.
Products Miniature incandescent, Christmas decoration, automotive lamps, aircraft indicators, glass halogen.

Start of Operations
Memphis lamp plant was opened in 1947 during a period when GE was undergoing considerable expansion - it was one of seven major new American GE lamp factories built over a 3-year period. Its purpose was to provide a low-cost production base for miniature incandescent lamps having special applications beyond general illumination. The factory was not a new build for GE but was purchased from Kimberly-Clark. Its products included Christmas bulbs, automobile and aircraft lamps, and other miniature incandescents for battery-operated flashlight lamps, toys, pinball machines etc. However not all miniature lamps were produced at Memphis. It concentrated on the standard range types required in high volumes, while the special miniature lamps required in smaller volumes were produced at the Euclid Lamp Plant in Cleveland, Ohio.

The first products of Memphis were Christmas lamps, and within a few years these had been joined by several other miniature and sub-miniature types. By 1956, the factory hit the milestone of having produced its first billion lamps - it had taken nine years. Thanks to the expansion to automotive lamps the second billion came much faster, and by 1967 the factory employed 1100 people and was producing a billion lamps every two years. After the loss of Christmas production the tempo decreased, with the ten-billionth lamp having been produced in 1981.

Christmas Lamps
Christmas tree and decoration lamps made up a substantial part of the Memphis production, and in this category GE was market leader in the Americas for many decades. Of course, such lamps were sold in multi-lamp sets and used by the billions during the festive season, and this created an almost unimaginably vast requirement for large production volumes. Christmas lamps were the first types to be produced in Memphis, with three production groups having started on 1st February 1947.

Prior to that time GE's Christmas lamps had been produced at its East Boston Lamp Works. Boston has always been a relatively affluent city, and after WW2 the Christmas lamp business became intensely cost-competitive due to the low-technology nature of these light sources. For ordinary general lighting lamps, the Western manufacturers built up a solid reputation based on producing the highest efficacy and long-lived lamps with excellent quality. However, customers of Christmas lamps naturally tended to make their choice based primarily on visual appearance and cost, with factors such as lamp lifetime, efficacy and reliability being of little to no consequence. Consequently, it was easy for foreign competitors to sell their low cost and poor quality versions into the American market, and GE had to fight hard to maintain its market share in this business. Despite the very high degree of production mechanisation at GE, a low-cost production centre was the only way to survive. This is believed to be the reason why Memphis Lamp Plant was opened - due to labour rates in the South being very considerably lower than Boston. Its first employees earned just 66 cents per hour. As such, it seems likely that the first three production groups to be installed at Memphis would perhaps have been relocated from East Boston.

During the following years competition continued to escalate, especially during the 1960s when the Japanese entered the Christmas lamp business in force. Many of GE's major customers that produced the Christmas light strings were abandoning its American production and sourced their lamp requirements from Japan. In 1962 Robert D. Corning, then general manager of the Miniature Lamp Department, took two major steps to strengthen GE's dominance of the Christmas lighting business.

Firstly, GE would set up in direct competition with its former customers and established its own production of the first full-GE string lighting sets and decorations - naturally based around its own American-made lamps. Normally no OEM will compete with its own customers, however the situation had become so severe that in effect its customers were abandoning GE anyway, so there was little to lose.

Secondly, for the first time in the company's history, GE would begin selling lamps in the USA that had been outsourced from other foreign lampmakers. This was commenced with the "Merry Midget" strings, based around the tiny 5mm pointed-tubular lamps with E5 screw bases that had been pioneered in Hong Kong and were becoming increasingly popular vs the Western big-bulb lamps. As a spinoff GE's components business became a major supplier to the Christmas industry, with its ultra high speed Ribbon machines for the production of glass bulb envelopes being adapted to blow spherical and bell-shaped glass shells for supply to Christmas ornament and bauble decorators.

The relocation of production to a low labour cost region bought time for GE, but did not solve the challenges and over the following years more and more types migrated to overseas sourcing. By 1975 the situation had become hopeless and GE abandoned production of its own Christmas lamps altogether. It remained a dominant player in the sales and marketing of both lamps as well as decoration strings, but based entirely on products sourced from low-cost overseas vendors. This was a difficult time for Memphis which lost a major portion of its volume - however it was soon compensated by the rapid growth of another key business in automotive lamps.

Automotive Lamps
During they heydays of the Memphis lamp plant, the average American automobile contained 35 miniature incandescent lamps. These included of course the headlamps, brake, tail indicators and sidelights, interior lamps as well as sub-miniature signals for the dashboard and illuminated buttons. Memphis produced every one of them except for the headlamps. Some miniature glass-halogen types were also produced.

Aside from cost-competitiveness, suppliers to the automotive industry are under enormous pressure to deliver absolute consistency in performance, and only those achieving the lowest defects-per-million rates can survive. This is the only way to be able to win the lucrative business of supplying relatively high-value lamps with good profit margins directly to the automobile manufacturers. The aftermarket part of the business for replacement lamps does not demand such stringent quality levels, and is largely served by low-cost variants which fail more frequently - however once the car has passed beyond its warranty period, that is no longer the concern of its manufacturer.

GE invested tremendously in driving its quality standards to the maximum attainable, and the small Southern lamp plant at Memphis had more in-house electronic process controls and automation systems than any other GE production site. It is interesting to note than in 1980 the plant received an average of just 12 quality complaints per hundred million shipped lamps. As a result of this exceptional quality Memphis earned the valuable status of delivering more than 70% of its lamps directly to the major car producers such as Ford and General Motors, leaving competitors to pick up the remaining low-margin aftermarket business. Its principal competitors in the fight for the OEM business were Sylvania and Wagner, and it took many decades before the European and other overseas factories began to creep up on the outstanding quality levels of the Memphis lamps.

Memphis was aided in its strategy of excellence by GE's impressive degree of vertical integration. Every one of the components processed into lamps was itself manufactured by another GE plant which was under the same pressures of cost and quality. Its raw filament wire for coilwinding was supplied by the Tungsten Products Plant in Cleveland, with leadwires arriving from the Caroline Welds Plant. Glass tubing was obtained from Bridgeville Glass and Logan Glass, while miniature glass bulbs were produced by Andover Bulb with the slightly larger types arriving from Pitney Glass. The lamp bases were provided by Providence Base, and all ancillary chemicals such as getters, marking inks, coloured lacquers etc. were produced by the Ivanhoe Road facility. When the Andover Bulb Plant closed in 1985 it is believed that the miniature bulb-forming machines were also integrated into Memphis.

Following General Electric's 1990 purchase of the Hungarian state-run lampmaker Tungsram, and the 1991 acquisition of the Thorn lampmaking operations in the UK, this provided the company with two low-cost manufacturing bases of automotive lamps outside the USA. The Hungarian operations were especially attractive in view of the very low labour costs in that former communist country, and the following years saw a major restructuring of GE's automotive lighting operations. Much of the UK production aside from the high speed miniature wedge base lamps was relocated to Hungary, along with some of the Memphis production. The balance of the Memphis production came under increasing cost pressures after GE established its own production in Mexico, which offered an easy cost reduction just by moving the factory a short distance south over the border. Regrettably this brought Memphis' 52 years of lampmaking excellence to an end in 1999, when the final production was shifted to the GE Acuña Lamp Plant in Mexico.

References & Bibliography
  1. A Century of Light, James A. Cox, published by The Benjamin Company / Rutgers, 1979, ISBN 0-87502-062-3, p.125.
  2. GE Lighting World Internal Newsletter, April 1981, pp.1-3.
  3. Employment, Administration of Justice, and Health Services in Memphis-Shelby County, Tennessee State Advisory Committe, August 1967, p.5.