On February 10, 1919, Charles Arnold set up Heavy Current Electric Accessories Company, the company that subsequently became MK Electric, a household name and one with its headquarters and factories still based in the UK. Charles Arnold’s first factory in Park Road, Edmonton didn’t need sophisticated electrical equipment. It had gas lighting and the company’s machinery was a second hand lathe and drilling machine. Both were treadle operated like old fashioned sewing machines.
The workforce consisted of three people. Two of them, Mr Arnold himself and Jack Brett, a 13 year old Tottenham lad, clocked up a combined century of service. Jack’s original wage was tuppence farthing an hour (less than a penny in today’s money) and he was expected to arrive at 7.30 and work till 6pm (except on Saturdays when he could leave at 1pm. though he still had to be there at 7.30!).
The company was based on the Multy Kontact socket, patented by Charles Arnold. Before the Multy Kontact pretty much all that was available was split pin-style sockets. They were mostly made from thick gauge slotted brass tubes, offering practically no flexibility. Plug pins were split to allow compression; but poorly made small pins would often produce a loose fit and poor contact. Large pins, on the other hand, needed too much force to insert and remove them.
Multy Kontact was better and safer, though no-one knows why it was decided to spell Multy with a y rather than an i or Kontact with a k rather than a C. Just as well they did though, since the whole company eventually got named MK Electric after that one product. MC Electric doesn't sound right somehow.
At the heart of the MK socket there are "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 the original patent filed in April 1919. You don't get flowery language like that in many modern patent applications.
MK invented the modern light switch and a safety socket with a three-pin shutter system that prevents fingers from getting into danger. These are now so commonplace that it is possible to ignore the fact that they were the foundation for the British domestic electrical system.
Charles Arnold’s entrepreneurial career actually started in 1912 when he formed Belling & Company, an electric fire venture, with another Charles (Belling), with whom he shared digs. But at the start of the First World War in 1914 Charles Arnold enlisted, selling his interest in the company to Belling.
At the end of the war when Charles Arnold was demobbed from the Royal Artillery – where he had risen to the rank of Captain-- his old friend Charles Belling pointed out the need for a company producing switches and sockets, if only for the fires Belling was making.
The company was well on the way to becoming a household name when the British Engineering Standards Association (BESA) revised its standards effectively making the Multy Kontact the standard.
Not long after MK bought a five horsepower motor to replace its treadles and pulleys, the whole of Edmonton and District electricity (and the local trams) was brought to a standstill for six hours by a short circuit. The old man (as Mr Arnold was called when he wasn’t around) generously gave the employees the rest of the day off work.
In 1926 a small electroplating operation was added to the factory and the company bought its first delivery van. No-one was more delighted than Jack Brett. It had been his job to transport metal plates to the electroplaters in Ponders End four miles away by hand barrow!
By 1928 MK was using the revolutionary new insulating material Bakelite, the same stuff those old fashioned radios were made from. MK also introduced 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. Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters all used MK products.
In the early 60s the company opened a factory in Southend, where it continues to be based, but this new location had its challenges. Half a century ago many of the workers used to disappear in the summer to pick hops and fruit, rather like a chapter from The Darling Buds of May.
Charles Arnold continued to guide the company for more than five decades, always managing to be the first into work each morning, until he died at the age of 83 in 1969.
The 100 millionth Safetyplug rolled of the production line as long ago as November 1984. MK Electric, unusually for the sector, still manufactures its products for the UK in the UK; with a factory in St Asaph as well as Southend. The company has had the Royal Warrant of Appointment by Her Majesty the Queen since 1986 – and, in fact, there are probably very few, if any, homes, shops, offices or business premises in the country without a plug, socket or other electrical device with that distinctive MK logo on it.