Updated 21-III-2020

Providence Base

The origins of the Providence Base Plant of General Electric can be traced back to 1853, with the start of production of lamp bases as early as 1887. In 1902 the company wa taken over by the National Electric Lamp Company. It was ultimately absorbed into GE and moved to a new location in 1916. The factory developed the first mass-production process for robust and simplified Edison Screw type bases, and quickly grew to become the largest lamp base manufacturing operation in the world. This impressive position was maintained until 2000 when the factory was closed.

View of Providence Base Plant from Atwells Avenue8

Address GE Providence Base Plant #7667, 586 Atwells Avenue, Providence, Rhode Island, RI-02909, U.S.A.
Location Centre of site approximately 41.5475°N, -81.5730°E
Floorspace 245,612 sq.ft.
Opened 1916.
Closed 2000.
Products Lamp Bases and Caps.

Early Origins
The factory at Providence was established on 18th April 1953, when Messrs Mooney and Emerson commenced the manufacture of gas burners for domestic and commercial use. In 1865 Mooney sold his interest in the firm, and it became known as Mooney and Gleason. The name was later changed again to Mooney, Arnold and Shaw. Arnold died in 1870 and the resulting partnership was re-named Mooney and Shaw. The partnership ended in 1875 when the name was changed to Providence Gas Burner Company.

One of the early employees was General C.H. Barney, the company treasurer. In 1882 he resigned to take a new position with the Sawyer-Man Electric Company of New York, an early pioneer in the manufacture of electric lamps which which ultimately led to the foundation of the Westinghouse electric lamp company. Sawyer-Man produced its own lamp bases and General Barney was quick to realise the similarities between that operation and the capabilities at Providence. In 1887 he wrote to his former employer with a request to quote for the supply of 5000 bases. The new line of business was clearly a success, and by 1890 more than half the company's revenue was generated from the manufacture of brass bases for the electric lamp industry. In 1895 Providence was making bases for every one of the 175 different types of lamp socket on the U.S. market.

Absorption into General Electric
So effective were the Providence bases that many other lamp manufacturers sourced their bases from this factory - including the National Electric Lamp Company which had been formed in 1901. Its leaders Franklin Terry and Burton Tremaine decided to purchase the strategically important Providence company, and that happened in 1902. In 1910 the original gas burner business was dropped.

National was substantially owned by the General Electric Company, and following a series of antitrust lawsuits brought against GE by the U.S. Government it was required to take over National completely in 1911. As such the Providence works became a part of GE in that year, and was re-named the Providence Base Works of General Electric. In view of its monopolistic position Providence became the worlds largest manufacturer of lamp bases.

Relocation into New Building
During the period 1916-1918 a new factory was built and the manufacture of lamp bases was relocated, to the present site on Atwells Avenue and Harris Avenue. The predominantly two story brick structure employs a steel frame and heavy timber floors, which permitted wider production spaces than earlier buildings. Until this time factories tended to be long, narrow constructions with large window areas so as to allow the maximum possible influx of natural daylight. However, Providence was one of the first factories to be lit entirely by electric light, which allowed considerably wider production halls. After the 1970s the buildings lost some of their elegance when the windows were filled in, probably to improve the energy efficiency and reduce heating expenses.

The factory is centred around Building 8 at the southeast corner, known as the 'Glass Room', which is where the principal base making operation was carried out. This consisted of joining the threaded metal cap shell with the electrical contact plates by fusing them together with an intermediate material of electrically insulating black glass known as Vitrite - this process having been invented in 1901 by National's employee Alfred Swan, brother of Sir Joseph Swan who invented one of the first incandescent lamps in England. Moulded bases then flowed to an adjacent two-storey building with basement that handled finishing operations such as plating, polishing, sorting, packaging and inventory. The surrounding buildings housed a research laboratory as well as the management offices.

The Lamp Base Monopoly
The acquisition by GE provided that company with an ideal opportunity to further exploit its dominance over the entire American lamp manufacturing industry, as well as the vast majority of the overseas business. As the sole manufacturer producing the full line of bases required by lamp manufacturers, GE swiftly made it a condition of supply that customers were forced to sign agreements to refrain from challenging GE's lamp-related patents. Moreover, competitors were enforced to purchase certain other critical raw materials from GE, as well as their requirements for lampmaking machinery. The arrangement also provided GE with strategically important information concerning the quantity of lamps produced by all of its competitors, since one base was required for every lamp produced.

This situation was maintained until 1923 when GE sold the rights for its lamp base production process to its favoured competitor Westinghouse, for a one-off payment of $ 25,000. In the following years after GE was forced to relax its monopolistic and anticompetitive practices, Providence assisted many other lampmakers in the establishment of their own base production facilities in South America, Europe, Japan and China. However this was always to other controlled companies, and GE always maintained its own leading position at Providence. In 1952 the plant reached the milestone of producing more than one billion lamp bases, and at the peak of its operations employed 500 people.

Even as late as the 1950s GE attempted to continue its domination of the lamp industry via its strong position in the supply of bases. For instance, when that company invented the 3-Way lamps which are common in American residential lighting, it at first only offered these lamps in a 100-200-300W rating. The high wattage naturally required the use of a mogul size base, and the E39d triple-contact base was introduced. For GE the purpose of the new lamp was not only to offer consumers the possibility to adjust the light level, but to encourage them to consume more electricity - hence the rather high power rating. For many decades it was a primary objective of GE to drive up demand for power consumption, because of its similarly dominant role in supplying electricity generating equipment and the benefits it received for the same via its control of the electricity distribution companies.

There was substantial interest among other lampmakers to develop a low power 3-Way lamp, such as the 50-100-150W and 30-70-100W ratings which have since become the market leaders. The lower wattage lamps could be made physically smaller and it was logical that they should use a 3-contact medium-size base. However GE actively resisted this trend, notably by refusing to offer The Northern Incandescent Lamp Corporation a new medium size E26d base.

When charged by the US Government on this topic, GE attempted to justify its action by stating that such a lamp was not in the interests of the consumer, because low power incandescent lamps have a lower luminous efficacy. Eventually a small independent factory, The Eagle Manufacturing Company, did commence production of a medium-sized 3-Way base to meet consumer demand. GE became fearful that Eagle might grow to become a formidable competitor in the lamp base industry, and swiftly moved to develop its own medium E26d base at Providence, which was positioned to undercut its new competitor and put them out of business. The risk of losing its monopolistic position was viewed as more of a threat than being unable to drive up power consumption. GE eventually also offered its own line of lower power 3-Way lamps - and used that fact to evade prosecution and claim that it did not in fact attempt to unfairly limit competition.

Decline and Closure
Following GE's 1991 acquisition of the former Hungarian state-run lampmaker 'Tungsram', its local American lamp and component manufacturing plants began to come under pressure of the considerably lower labour rates in less developed countries. Increasingly globalisation was putting its domestic manufacturing under steadily rising levels of pressure. At the time GE operated two base plants in the USA, one at Providence and the other at Conneaut, OH, which had been opened much more recently in 1941. It was decided that one plant should close in order to remain cost-competitive. This led to the closure of the Providence Base Plant in 2000, with much of its base production being relocated to Mexico.

The buildings lay vacant for many years, while local residents attempted to save these important historic buildings from destruction. A detailed study was carried out by architects Fletcher-Thompson, which concluded that the deep proportions of the substantially windowless building were not attractive for conversion to either office space or residential use. The only proposed uses were for industrial buildings, however the century-old construction required considerable renovation whose cost would not have been recovered by such low value occupancy. Moreover, the ground was believed to have been heavily contaminated with petroleum and other organic solvents employed in the base manufacturing processes, which would have required prohibitive decontamination investments. The site was ultimately demolished, and following a $ 12.5 million investment was replaced in 2019 by a modern greenhouse for agricultural production.

References & Bibliography
  1. A Century of Light, James A. Cox, published by The Benjamin Company / Rutgers, 1979, ISBN 0-87502-062-3, p.144.
  2. The Electric Lamp Industry, Arthur A. Bright, published by The Macmillan Company, 1949, pp.152, 158, 251, 280.
  3. Early Incandescent Lamps, Edward J. Covington, published by GE NELA Press, 1992, pp.191-192
  4. Letter from Fletcher-Thompson Architecture Engineering concerning redevelopment of GE Providence Base Plant, 7th February 2014
  5. International Aspects of Antitrust, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, Part 1, 1966, pp.865-866, 959, 1005.
  6. Letter of Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission concerning former GE Providence Base Plant, 28 April 2014.
  7. US Federal Register Vol.64 No.28 11th February 1999 concerning plant closure and relocation to Mexico.
  8. Anselm Molina Photography - photo of factory.
  9. Gotham Greens marks grand opening of massive greenhouse in Providence, Providence Business News, 5th December 2019.