Gerard Philips (1858–1942)

Gerard Leonard Frederik Philips was an entrepreneur whose company produced on a large scale some of the consumer goods that characterised the material culture of the 20th century. He transformed the economy of a part of the Netherlands that had previously been economically backward.

He was born at Zaltbommel on the River Waal, the son of a banker, and in his twenties began to investigate the incandescent lamp that had been demonstrated by Thomas Alva Edison in 1879. With capital provided by his father he established in 1891 a company based in an old factory building in Eindhoven whose objective was to manufacture incandescent light bulbs and other electrical products. Philips’s principal expertise was in manufacturing technology, but he was joined in 1894 by his brother Anton, who had commercial expertise, and promoted the sale of the company’s products in other countries. By 1900 Philips was the third largest supplier of light bulbs in Europe.

Much of the company’s subsequent success was based on the research laboratory that Gerard Philips established in 1914. The manufacturing technology used for bulbs could also be applied in the production of radio valves, and from valves the company progressed in the 1920s to become one of Europe’s principal producers of radio receivers, making a million by 1932. From experience gained in maintaining X-ray apparatus for the combatant armies during the First World War, from 1925 the research staff at Philips, led by Erik de Vries, experimented with television apparatus, which was to be one of the company’s principal products in the 1950s. One of the most successful consumer products was the Philishave electric razor, launched in 1939.

Gerard Philips established a philanthropic tradition in Eindhoven, providing housing and health benefits for employees, and founding a sports club in 1913 whose football team is now one of the most eminent in Europe.