A brief history of Cambridge business

Today Cambridge is a high-technology centre sometimes known as ‘Silicon Fen’, or the ‘Cambridge Cluster’. But its commercial success goes back hundreds of years.

A brief history of Cambridge business

Image:  Stuart Brady

Cambridge’s commercial success can be traced as far back as 1534 when the Cambridge University Press was founded, making it the oldest publishing house in the world. 481 years later it has over 50 offices across the globe, employs over 2,000 people, and publishes over 50,000 titles by authors from over 100 countries.

Charles Darwin’s son Horace was arguably the first technology entrepreneur of Cambridge when he founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company in 1881. This was later amalgamated with other companies and today ABB, the global leader in power and automation technologies, can trace some of its heritage to Horace Darwin.

In 1886, William Pye left Darwin’s company and in time set up a competing business, which became a famous manufacturer of radios and later of televisions. Today Pye lives on in Cambridge via Sepura plc……………†  which designs, manufactures and supplies digital mobile radio products, systems and applications for business and critical communications.

C-130 in hanger

C-130 Hercules undergoing work at Marshall Aerospace (Image: Marshall Group)

The early 20th Century saw the founding of the city’s greatest private company, Marshall of Cambridge……………† …. Set up by David Marshall in 1909 as a chauffeur drive company, the company branched into aviation in the 1920s, opening Cambridge Airport and a flying school for the RAF in the late 1930s. The 2nd World War saw the company carry out vital engineering work for the war effort and this continued post-war. Today Marshall Aerospace is the UK’s largest independent aerospace and defence company. Its sister company Marshall Motor Group also flourished after the war and grew into a top 10 UK motor dealer group. Floated as Marshall Motor Holdings on the AIM in 2015, it has a turnover of over £1bn and operates 71 franchise dealerships across the UK.

No brief history of Cambridge business could fail to mention two famous early ‘high-tech’ brands, namely Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers. During the 1980s, these two brands were at the forefront of personal computer design and production in the UK, and achieved global significance. The critical success of Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum and Acorn’s BBC Micro are indelibly etched into Cambridge’s high-tech folklore, with the latter being found in practically every school in the country at one time. Sinclair Research continues to research and trade whilst Acorn’s legacy lives on via the RISC operating system, and its spin-off ARM Holdings plc……………† in Cambridge which is now worth over £16 billion. Acorn is sometimes referred to as one of the most influential businesses in the innovation cluster’s history.

…† Member of Cambridge Ahead