Each year when I watch “A Christmas Story,” I enjoy the scene where Ralphie’s younger brother Randy unwraps a gift and happily finds a toy Zeppelin. I am reminded of my boyhood when I had received a similar Christmas gift. For those of you whose education has been sadly neglected, a Zeppelin was the first rigid airship. It was conceived and developed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany. The first commercial flights (by Von Zeppelin’s own German airline) were in 1910, and by 1914 some 10,000 passengers had flown in Zeppelins. During World War I, 84 Zeppelins were built. By late 1915, the German Navy had commissioned 15. They were used primarily for observation. The German Army’s Zeppelins were used to bomb enemy targets.
The postwar Treaty of Versailles banned the construction of Zeppelins by Germany. Those restrictions were lifted in 1926, and in the 1930s the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg made routine transatlantic flights. The Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst in 1937 hastened the demise of the Zeppelin company.
So it came as something of a surprise to learn that in the 1990s a reborn Zeppelin company had begun developing a modified airship to be identified as the Zeppelin NT (“New Technology”). By 2011, Goodyear had announced it would replace its aging blimps with the Zeppelin NTs, and in 2014 began tests of its first one at the Goodyear airfield at Akron. The Zeppelin NT is 54 feet longer than the old blimps and features a semi-rigid skeleton.
The resurrection of the Zeppelin company led me to wonder if there might be comparable rebirths of companies or of brand names that some may have thought defunct. Let’s look at just a few possibilities.
It began as a maker of electric storage batteries in 1904 as the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company. Introducing the trademark “Philco” in 1909, it prospered in supplying auto batteries, and decided to enter the radio business in 1926. Some 800 companies were already producing radios. Philco reportedly sold 1,250,000 sets in 1934, compared to RCA’s 500,000.
Philco also produced several industry firsts, including the famous “cathedral” radio style. By the mid-1950s Philco had led radio makers in sales volume for 24 consecutive years, with a total exceeding 30 million sets.
With Philo Farnsworth’s help, Philco began experimenting with television in the early 1930s, introducing its first consumer set, a 10-inch table model, in 1948. Its classic Predicta model has become a collector’s item.
In 1961, Ford Motor Company purchased Philco, and in 1966 branded all Philco products “Philco-Ford.” Ford sold Philco to GTE in 1974, which resold it in 1977. Its new owner was acquired by Philips in 1981. Philips uses the Philco name and has also licensed the brand name to companies in South America and Europe.
Philco’s founders might be astonished to know their logo is still valued and displayed worldwide.
Digital Equipment Corporation
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was a major computer maker, at one point second only to IBM. Founded in 1957, its PDP and VAX-II series of computers made it the largest private employer in Massachusetts. During its heyday, DEC’s research was conducted by five labs in the United States and one in France. It had subsidiaries in 24 countries worldwide. Employment peaked at 140,000.
However, the company did not keep pace with the rise of competitive microcomputers and was acquired by Compaq in 1998, which itself was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2002. Many DEC products continued to be produced by Compaq and HP under the Compaq and, later, HP brand. Evidently the company name and/or logo have not survived.
RCA was assembled through encouragement by the U.S. War and Navy Departments during and at the end of World War I. General Electric was thus urged to create a monopoly radio production company by purchasing the existing Marconi Wireless Company of America and renaming it Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The newly-created RCA would also include the assets of the Pan-American Telegraph Co. and others controlled by the U.S. Navy. General Electric would retain a controlling interest in RCA, and Westinghouse would also have a piece of the action. But by 1930, antitrust charges by the Department of Justice resulted in the separation of GE and Westinghouse from any ownership role in RCA.
More than five decades of successful radio and television developments followed, making RCA a well-known household brand. In its later years, unfortunate diversification included ventures in frozen foods and greeting cards, and profitability of its NBC broadcast network declined.
In 1980, GE purchased the foundering RCA, then sold off all of its units but one. The RCA name remained highly desirable, and GE sold the rights to the trademark to Thomson SA (now Technicolor SA), which licensed the RCA name to companies producing televisions, audio, telephones, and electric appliances.
Tektronix was founded in 1946, and gained recognition for its popular time-based-triggered oscilloscopes. It introduced the plug-in scope in the late 1950s, the portable scope in 1961, and continued innovations that kept the company ahead of its competitors.
Eventually, it had factories in Europe, Asia, and South America, and expanded its line to include other test equipment, PC boards, etc. Market pressures caused it to revert to its test and measurement niche, and in 2007, it was acquired by Danaher Corporation for $2.85 billion. The line of digital scopes that it introduced is still being produced.
The Tektronix trademark has become so popular that a company in England registered the name Tektronix Ltd. without seeking permission and against the wishes of Tektronix.
It is well known that Fairchild Semiconductor was founded when eight defectors from William Shockley’s Shockley Semiconductor Lab, in 1957, gained funding from Fairchild Camera and Instrument. The fledgling company began fabricating silicon mesa transistors, then pursued the game-changing planar process.
By 1968, the founders of Fairchild Semiconductor had left to form Intel (or join other semiconductor companies). New management took over and, in the 1970s, Fairchild began production of CCDs and microprocessors. Schlumberger Ltd. purchased the parent Fairchild in 1979, and in 1987, sold Fairchild Semiconductor to National Semiconductor. Ten years later, what had become the Fairchild division of National Semiconductor was purchased by the division’s own management and, centered in South Portland, Maine, renamed Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. The newly independent Fairchild acquired five additional semiconductor manufacturers and, in 2015, was itself purchased by ON Semiconductor for $2.4 billion.
Sylvania began as Hygrade Sylvania, electric lamp manufacturers, in 1931. It dropped the Hygrade name in 1942, becoming Sylvania Electric Products Inc., and then Sylvania Electronics. It became a major producer of vacuum tubes and, later, transistors.
Its merger with General Telephone in 1959 created General Telephone and Electronics (GTE). The merged company added a line of electrical distribution equipment that was branded GTE Sylvania. But in 1981, GTE elected to sell off that line and the GTE Sylvania brand was ended. Then in 1993, GTE abandoned the lighting business and sold its North American lighting operations to the German company Osram GmbH, a subsidiary of Siemens AG, and its non-North-American lighting operations to Havells, London. It licensed both Osram and Havells to use the Sylvania brand name. The North American operation, Osram Sylvania, employs some 10,000 people and is headquartered at the former headquarters of the CBS Electronics Division in Danvers, Massachusetts.
These examples yielded few similarities to the Zeppelin situation in which a defunct company rose again using the historic name. “Zeppelin” was sufficiently historically recognizable, warranting its revival for the newly formed company in the early 1990s.
For the other examples, there were some similarities regarding name recognition, durability and value. And a difference or two. To sum up:
- Philco, founded in the U.S. and highly esteemed for its radio and television brands, “left the country” in the 1980s when acquired by Philips. But the Philco brand name is alive and well.
- Digital Equipment Corporation was a major computer maker in the last half of the twentieth century. When acquired by Compaq and later HP, its products lived on but its name did not.
- “RCA,” thought by many to have disappeared as a trade name when the company was acquired by GE in 1986, has not. It has been sought after and licensed to many companies outside the United States.
- Tektronix, respected as a maker of the highest-quality oscilloscopes and other instrumentation, has retained and prospered from the use of its popular trademark throughout its history. With its acquisition by Danaher Corporation, its logo has been modified to include a stylized “K,” possibly avoiding the uninitiated misspelling it “Tectronix.”
- Fairchild Semiconductor, surviving the vicissitudes of varied ownership, has focused on semiconductor device manufacture, and profited from retaining and promoting the Fairchild trade name.
- The original Sylvania is long gone, with its distant offspring linked only by their service to the lighting market and their continuing use of the Sylvania trade name.
While it is difficult to draw many specific conclusions from this brief study, it is obvious that a respected trade name may retain a certain value even though the company and/or product line that inspired its creation may no longer exist. Also, the consistency of a brand name and its “portability” helps mask any shifting ownerships of a product line, as well as the changes in location at which it may be manufactured, thus helping sustain customer loyalty to the product itself.
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