We celebrate the remarkable achievements of MK Electric.
It’s a name which readily trips off the tongue when anything remotely electrical is being discussed, the iconic plugs, sockets and wiring devices a familiar feature of just about every UK building of note. However, the company we know today as MK Electric began life exactly 100 years ago as the rather more cumbersome Heavy Current Electric Accessories Company, with second hand machinery and just three employees.
One of those was the visionary gifted electrical engineer Charles Arnold, whose entrepreneurial career began in 1912 when he teamed up with another Charles, in this case Belling, to begin a venture into electric fires. With the outbreak of war two years later, Charles Arnold enlisted and sold his shares to his business partner who, as we all know of course, would go on to become a household name in domestic appliances.
Returning home four years later as Captain Arnold, his old friend highlighted a need for a business producing bespoke switches and sockets, if only for his own range of Belling fires.
Interestingly, when electricity was first introduced into domestic settings in the 1880s it was primarily used for lighting. One common approach for other appliances (such as vacuum cleaners, electric fans, smoothing irons and curling tong heaters) was to connect to light bulb sockets using lamp holder plugs. In fact in Britain there were recognisable two pin plugs and wall sockets appearing on the market in 1885, but made from thick gauge slotted brass tubes they afforded almost no flexibility. Plug pins were split to offer compression but they often led to a loose fit and poor contact whilst large pins on the other hand needed too much force to insert and remove them.
As electricity became a common method of operating labour-saving appliances it was evident that a safer and better way of connecting to the electric system was required. And so the Multy Kontact socket was invented and patented by Charles Arnold, a key feature being its numerous flexible spring tongues which actually grip the pin in much the same manner as “the legs of two caterpillars on opposite sides of a flower stem”, according to an original patent in April 1919. Such flowery language is unlikely to hold much sway with current patent applications, one would imagine!
Multy Kontact immediately proved better and, importantly, safer to use and was instrumental in the British Engineering Standards association (BESA) revising its standards, effectively making MK the industry norm.
In 1926 a small electroplating operation was added to the factory and the company purchased its first delivery van. No one was more delighted than right hand lad Jack Brett, who had joined at just thirteen on tuppence farthing an hour, working six and a half days a week and was required to push a barrow four miles daily to the electroplaters in Ponders End.
By 1928 the company was using the revolutionary new insulating material Bakelite, the same material old radios were made of. It led shortly after to the introduction of the first ever shuttered socket, concealing the socket tubes and eliminating the alarming flash invariably accompanying plug withdrawal from old fashioned sockets.
During the Second World War, MK switched most of its production from sockets, switches and plugs to detonators, firing systems and centrifuges needed for the war effort, with Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters all employing MK products. The devastation of the war encouraged progress in many areas of society, including the establishment of universal healthcare and the birth of the NHS. The massive programme of building required also presented an opportunity to improve and standardise wiring and electrical outlets with updates to British Standards.
The British ring final circuit system and BS1363 13a plugs, socket outlets, connection units and adaptors were introduced into the UK in 1947 following many years of debate by the IEE which was formed by the then Minister of Works and Planning. Over the ensuing years, MK evolved its shuttered socket design culminating in the development of Logic plus – a range of wiring devices which are widely regarded as one of the most advanced and safest on the market.
In the early sixties the company opened a factory in Southend, where it continues to be based and Charles Arnold continued to guide the company for more than five decades, until he died at 83 in 1969.
The 100 millionth safety plug rolled off the production line as long ago as November 1984 and manufacture of all of its subsequent products is undertaken in the UK with another factory in St Asaph. Anyone with an MK product in their home, and there are literally millions, is in good company, the business holding the Royal Warrant of Appointment by the Queen for more than thirty years.
Today, of course, with the proliferation of the internet and influx of mobile devices, all with different plugs and charging requirements, the socket has further evolved to include USB charging ports and is a world away from the original split pin design of the late 19th century. Charles Arnold quite literally helped us to make that switch and subsequently harness one of our greatest resources in an altogether safer and more sophisticated manner than we could ever have imagined.