Retrotechtacular: Philips Factory Tour, Circa 1930s

If you’ve got a half-hour or so to spare, you could do worse than this video trip through a Philips factory in the 1930s.

The film is presented without narration, but from the Dutch title cards and the fact that it’s Philips, we gather that this factory of gigantic proportions was somewhere in the Netherlands. In any case, it looks like something right out of [Fritz Lang]’s Metropolis and turned the rawest of materials into finished consumer products.

Much of the film focuses on the making of vacuum tubes; the sheer physicality of the job is what really stands out here. The upper body strength that the glassblowers had to have boggles the mind. Check out the chops — and the soon-to-be very unfashionable mustache — on the glassblower at the 12:00 mark. And it wasn’t just the gents who had mad skills — the fine motor control needed for the delicate assembly of the innards of the tubes, which seems to be mostly staffed by women, is just as impressive. We were also surprised by the amount these manual crafts were assisted by automated systems.

Especially interesting is the section where they build the luidspreker. Without narration or captions, it’s a little hard to tell what’s going on, but it appears that they used an enormous press to form chips of Bakelite into sleek covers for the speakers, which themselves are super-chunky affairs made from scratch in the factory. We’re also treated to assembly of the radios, packaging of finished products, and a group of dockworkers who clearly didn’t read the “Fragile” labels pasted on the boxes.

One can’t help but wonder if these people had the slightest inkling of what was about to sweep over them and the rest of the world. And if they did, would they even begin to comprehend how much the very products that they were making would contribute to both the slaughter of the coming war as well as to the sparing of so many lives? Likely not, but the film is still an interesting glimpse into the creation of an industry, one that relied very much on craftsmanship to get it started.


34 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Philips Factory Tour, Circa 1930s

  1. “somewhere in the Netherlands” is actually Eindhoven. At that time, most of the Philips production was centred in and around Eindhoven. It was the ultimate company town back then with everything from theatres to schools and sportsclubs affiliated wth the company. Philips was Eindhoven and vice versa.

    Ful disclosure: my grandfather and most of my uncles worked at Philips; some at the famous NatLab research facility

  2. What’s with the mention of WWII?

    The factory is shown producing civilian products (light bulbs and broadcast receivers.) There’s also a section showing power tubes for 30kW transmitter – and it broadcasting music.

    Germany attacked The Netherlands – the Dutch were the victims, not the perpetrators.

    One of the Philips owners stayed in country after Germany invaded The Netherlands, and saved several hundred Jewish people from the German concentration camps.


    Wikipedia, history of Philips:

    NYTimes article:

      1. Really?

        “would they even begin to comprehend how much the very products that they were making would contribute to both the slaughter of the coming war as well as to the sparing of so many lives?”

        That looks to me an awful lot like saying that the devices Philips made had a lot to do with killing people.

        1. Germany used Philips vacuum tubes after the occupation. Which is why Britain bombed the factory.

          However, EF 50, another Philips product, helped the Allies.

          Hope that helps.

        2. I read it the same too, and nearly spit out my coffee. Let’s not rewrite culpability on WWII. While there were Dutch sympathizers, I don’t think they were anywhere in the majority.

  3. The workers at the end are clearly aware of the “Fragile” markings. They are tossing the boxes to each other, and carefully catching them. They aren’t just throwing the boxes into piles or onto the trucks.

  4. Wonderful, thank you.

    I love the use of an hourglass to time the machine. In a factory with a huge team of skilled glass blowers, what else would you use?

    I am struck not only by the amount of labor required to make a product, but also the amount of labor that must have been required to make the machines that help make the product.

    And, 90-odd years later, how a good many Youtube video makers could take lessons from this on adding and varying accomanying music.

    1. There was a (quite large) Philips machine factory in the Eindhoven region working almost solely to produce parts and machinery for the productionlines. I work for what the company that factory has now become. There’s still a detailed map of the old Philips “complex” hanging in one of the old facilities office, detailing the extend of the Philips buildings scattered across Eindhoven. It’s not an exaggeration to say that half of the city area used to be Philips factories.

  5. A fascinating film.

    Some of the scenes of 30’s technology reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” – especially the typing pool and mail room.

    Philips did for electronics (in Europe) what Henry Ford did for the automobile. Everything that was needed for production was done in house, including all research and product development.

    The specialised, hand-blown glassware was very impressive – especially the huge high-power transmitter tubes – “zendlampen”.

    The art-deco style loudspeaker was designed in the mid-1920s by Louis Kallf – and they occasionally still appear at auctions. No two are identical in colour because the bakelite chips were hand mixed.

    The factories were in general big, bright and modern – with lots of natural daylight where required on the assembly floors.

    The slow moving conveyor belt in the radio assembly shop, with usually a female operator doing a single repetetive task is virtually identical to the Chinese electronics factories I visited in the early 2000s.

    Philips was said to have imported an entire factory and contents (including the building) into south London, when they wanted to set up vacuum tube manufacturing in the UK.

    1. They’re blowing the glass envelopes for light bulbs at the start of the film but the article is talking about the 12:00 point where they’re blowing the envelopes for high power vacuum tubes.

      1. Correction, it looks like at 12:00 they’re blowing glass tubes used as feedstock for things like making the internal parts of vacuum tubes. The high power vacuum tube envelopes are at 14:00.

      2. You’re right. I commented after watching the first 5 minutes of the video. At the 8 minute mark they’re assembling small triode tubes, and huge transmitting tubes start around 14 minutes in.

    1. Labour intensive manufacuring has mostly gone overseas where the labour costs are much cheaper. However in the 1920s and 1930 both Europe and the USA relied on their manufacturing industries to bring wealth to the economy.

      Many of the domestic machines had a very high precision mechanical content – think of typewriters and hand-calculators. The assembly of these precision parts needed a lot of dexterity and needed a large workforce.

      The tube-based broadcast receiver (wireless) was probably one of the first consumer electronic products of the late 1920s, but even it relied on a lot of hand assembled, precision parts. Just a vacuum tube would have 20 or 30 metal parts inside the glass envelope, and a vaned tuning “condenser” was a moving precision mechanical assembly.

      With the advent of transistors, integrated circuits and factory automation, less human assembly skills were needed, but for a decade or two, most consumer electronics was still hand assembled in the Far East, where cheap labour was a viable alternative to factory automation. How many times in the 1970s and 80s did you come across a product with a “Made in Hong Kong” sticker on it?

    2. Each factory would have a large typing pool – where the sound of 50 or 100 girls hammering away on mechanical typewriters would have been deafening.

      Before electronic computing machines, armies of data entry clerks and filing assistants would be needed to run the ordering, procurment, production control and payroll departments. Everything would be done “in-house”.

      Technically educated males would get employment in the drawing office, and spend their hours producing detailed technical drawing in pen and ink. Every component manufactured down to the pins that appear at the base of a tube, would require a full set of drawings and a mechanical and material specification.

      As a high-school student of the late 1970s, there was still an option on the curriculum to learn “technical drawing”.

      Drawing offices were often on the top floor of factory buildings, where sloping roof-lights would bring the maximum amount of light into the workspace.

  6. I don’t tjink the press is crushing bakelite but crushing cardboard chips with added glue powder to obtain the cones. I’m old enough to had play with bakelite (chemist here) and old enough to had play with old speakers cones. Remembering that those cones were easily cut by mistake (scissors, screwdrivers), not possible with bakelite (a very strong plastic, the cone should be flexible to sustain vibrations) that is mostly black in color (cones were mostly grey/brownish).

  7. Nice to see this foundation that shaped mankind as we know it now..

    That documentary is called Philips Radio, made in 1931 by Joris Ivens and commissioned by the Philips Eindhoven company, branches of which refused to show it mainly because of the social content of the film. Also the music artist is Lou Lichtveld.

    There’s also this other documentary from the same year but from a soviet perspective by Dziga Vertov

    How would those people react if they knew were they were leading us, searching information and watching their work wirelessly from one’s couch half a world away 🤔

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