The ELMA story


The corporate logo of the Electric Lamp Manufacturers association of Australia Pty.Ltd. The ‘ELMA lady’ was a hallmark of quality, and appeared throughout the site from the entry doors of the administration office to letterheads and company notices. She watched over the entire operation before retiring at the ripe old age of 72 Years, when the plant closed its doors for the last time on the 24th April, 2002.

Invitation cut

Exciting times: E.L.M.A reaches out to the Australian business community , inviting managers and wholesalers to tour the new plant. The above image is from the E.L.M.A “Invitation Booklet”,  and kindly provided by The University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections, Services (CCS) Auchmuty Library Academic Division. 

World War 1 was no easy time to buy light bulbs, or anything else for that matter. Around the world, factories had been requisitioned to produce supplies for the war, leaving them with greatly reduced resources to produce household items. By the end of World War 1, corporations surviving the war had gradually resumed normal manufacturing processes.

The early twentieth century was pivotal in terms of lighting technology, because the incandescent lamp in it’s raw form had at least twenty years of serious scientific development under its belt. Modern lamps were lasting longer, and lamp life was becoming more readily predictable with the transition from carbon to tungsten filament technologies. Thus manufacturers soon realized the commercial benefits of global mass production, although it was important to be undertaken quickly before competing nations could claim the market for themselves.

By the early 1900’s, The Australian General Electric Company (A.G.E), a subsidiary of General Electric Corporation, had established business producing appliances such as electric stoves, toasters and irons for some years. The company had also been producing MAZDA lamps under license from engineering giant, British Thomson-Houston (BT-H), in the United Kingdom. With the end of World War 1, Australia was growing rapidly, and with demand for the new electric lamps outstripping supply capabilities of the plant, management of A.G.E advised the then Government Minister for Customs, Mr. Forde, of plans to establish a plant to manufacture incandescent in Newcastle, N.S.W. Production was planned to commence around August 1930, and the plant would employ 200 people. In order to create a sustainable business capable of supplying lamps to the whole of Australia, A.G.E would need to build a factory capable of mass output.

00000002E.L.M.A’s inception involved complex mergers and legal agreements between multiple international corporations and entities. To cover all aspects of these complex arrangements would be beyond the scope of my website, although more  detailed information is readily available. If you would like to know more, I will be delighted to put you in touch with the right people. The information you find here is derived from factory documentation, recovered and carefully conserved by the University of Newcastle, the Tamworth Power Station Museum and also dedicated individuals.

To realize this goal, it needed the financial and technical backing of the UK’s biggest lamp manufacturers: British Thompson-Houston Company Ltd. (UK), Philips Glow-Lamp Works Ltd., Siemens Lamps and supplies Ltd. as well as parent company, The General Electric Company Ltd.  A co-operative was formed and soon an agreement was reached to mass produce lamps in Australia. This co-operative of manufacturing specialists would soon be known as known as “Electric Lamp Manufacturers of Australia Pty. Ltd.” (or simply “ELMA”). Crompton Parkinson later joined as a shareholder in 1943.

By 1929, agreement had been reached on a location in Clyde Street, Hamilton, Newcastle and construction of the factory commenced which took some 13 months to complete. The plant was installed by February 1931, and the first lamp rolled off the production line a month later. The first lamp was encased in timber and glass, and conserved for many years by prominent Australian lamp collector Fin Stewart – after he saved it from being dumped!


Above: The first electric lamp made in Australia, circa 1931.

Below left, right: The last electric lamp made in Australia on 24 April, 2002.



The Newcastle Glass works

(Extracted from ‘History of the Newcastle Glass Works by MR. P.H. Gastelaars’ – a document provided by courtesy of the University of Newcastle Auchmuty Library)

Mr Gastelaars, engineer, Philips Eindhoven, writes:

“……..When the second world war broke out in September 1939 I had been working for fifteen years at Philips at Eindhoven, Holland. I had been married even years and had two little daughters, two and five years of age. When I actually started work in February 1924 at Philips Eindhoven, every lamp bulb was blown by hand. We had some 400 glass blowers, each blower had a helper, mostly a boy or learner, invariably a young man which would eventually become a glass blower. Glass blowers then worked six days per week, from 8am to 12 noon, then 1pm to 5pm, Saturday included. Tubing glass was also drawn by hand, and at least two furnaces, sometimes three, each with six glass melting pots were manned by hand tube drawers, a very skilled job with better pay than a glass blower……..”

In his manuscript, Mr Gastellars went on to state that by the time Hitler had marched into Poland on 31 August 1939, several lamp factories had been established outside the Netherlands. Preparations had begun in the years leading up so as to prevent losses in the markets for the electric lamp. Most of the countries had tariff barriers in place, requiring local manufacture to be established. Several factories had their own hand blowers and were accessing raw materials from the mother factory in Eindhoven.

The new E.L.M.A lamp works in Newcastle had been pressing to establish it’s own glass works, as it too had been using glass sourced from Eindhoven. The transportation of formed glass was a major undertaking in as much as a shipment of millions of glass parts had to be packed carefully for the trip. By early 1940, an number of glass blowing machines had been designed in different parts of the world, however each machine was suited to a particular output, which didn’t necessarily fit E.L.M.A’s operational requirements.

With a suitable machine selected, the E.L.M.A administration had received and proceeded with advice to commence construction of the glass works factory building. The new machine was to be packed in parts in preparation for shipping to Australia. Accompanying the machine were a team of specialized operators, and a factory manager tasked with assembly and run-up of the new machine. The team comprised of one foreman, one assistant foreman, a furnace-man, two brick layers (one of whom was a specialist in refractory furnace bricklaying), and six operators who worked in shifts. The operators were informed that they will be going to Australia for approximately three months to set up and train operators to use the new plant. The factory manager was contracted to remain in Australia for five years, and that his family would be accommodated for the term.

All the while, World War 2 raged on, presenting an ongoing threat to shipments of lamp making supplies. Most of the ships crossing the North Sea or the English Channel from Holland, Rotterdam, or Amsterdam were sunk because of mines and U-Boats that destroyed any vessel they encountered – regardless of whether they belonged to a country involved in the war. With Denmark and Norway now occupied by the Germans, it surely would follow that Holland too would be occupied. This placed enormous urgency on Philips Eindhoven to have the entire machine packed and loaded onto a ship and on it’s way to Australia. It was decided that the Factory manager and brick layers were to be brought to Australia without delay otherwise they may be lost to the war effort – a humanitarian and commercial disaster!

Mr. Gastelaar’s manuscript is thirty-seven pages in length, and I couldn’t do it full justice on this web site. If you cared to read it, you will learn of the personal accounts of the author and his colleagues at a very challenging time in the worlds history. If you think you would enjoy this, please don’t hesitate to let me know and I will put you in touch with the right people. 

In conclusion, the Newcastle Glass Works (a wholly owned subsiduary of E.L.M.A) was established in 1940. At it’s inception it was able to supply all of the necessary glass components required to make an electric lamp. These materials included silica (sand), soda ash, saltpetre, limestone, magnesite, and potash.


*Fluorescent Factory (editing)


E.L.M.A was well progressed in incandescent lamp production by the time a viable fluorescent lamp was able to be produced. In the mean time, fluorescent lamps had to be imported from the parent companies in the UK. The new fluorescent lamp was revolutionary – it had a larger surface area and thus greater light output per energy unit compared to a standard incandescent bulb.

To the consumer this meant real savings in energy costs because larger areas could be illuminated with fewer fixtures. The disadvantages were that the new lamps could only be operated in series with a ballast, in order to limit (or choke) the supply current to a suitable level to run the lamp. Another concern is the light output was seen by some as clinical and cold. Later developments in phosphors would soon ensure lamps could be produced with a colour rendering factor very similar to that of an incandescent lamp.

In March 1943, the first fluorescent lamps came off the production line. The factory would initially produce 20 Watt tubes. Later equipment was upgraded to enable production of 40 watt tubes and so forth to 65 Watts.


50 Yrs celebration / visit (Editing)

E.L.M.A celebrated her 50th birthday in March 1981. The public enjoyed tours of the factory. I believe (but will confirm) that a staff dinner was held, with the directors and management each presented with a commemorative plate.

New Zealand operations (Editing)

A factory servicing New Zealand and export was set up in the suburb of Miramar, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. It is difficult to find specific information regarding the factory, who adopted the nickname ‘ZELMA’. I believe the factory commenced operations around the end of 1940, with closure occurring some time in 1999.

1-New Zealand Factory - A8519(ii)


The E.L.M.A Lamp works manufactured its last lamp on 24th April, 2002. Thanks to former E.L.M.A employee Robert McLardy for this newsreel


16 thoughts on “The ELMA story

  1. Blake Carlin Post author

    Hi Joe. I’m really grateful for your feedback – much of the factory-centric information in my site had been provided from the Auchmuty Library at UNE, where the E.L.M.A archives reside. If you are able to elaborate on NGW, I would welcome this because it was an integral part of the operations.
    Once again thank you for getting in touch.
    Blake Carlin

  2. Joe Kmetyk

    Little seems to be told about the other half of E.L.M.A. and that is Newcastle Glass Works (NGW) which supplied all E.L.M.A. glass from an adjoining building. As a Group Leader (Foreman) and Furnace Operator I managed to keep the last “gob” of glass and the last few bulb’s to be blown by our 16 Head Carousel Machines. Those bulbs were never sent to be made into the finished product but kept by me for a reminder of my 18 years as a Glassmaker.
    We were all saddened after the last drips of glass came out of the furnace, the packing of machines to be sent to China and the walking out for the last time.
    Joe Kmetyk

  3. Blake Carlin Post author

    Hi John – thanks for the positive feedback! Yes still a few hundred at home here in storage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to make them here again? Kind regards, Blake

  4. John Volpato

    Hi Blake,

    Fantastic site mate – love it!

    I covet the Australian made light bulbs I still have stored in the garage – they simply outlast anything made since.

    Interesting to hear the statistic that Indonesia could produce light bulbs for 1 third the cost!

    We have lost so much of our manufacturing sector for the same reason : (

    Take care and stay well!


  5. Blake Carlin Post author

    Hello Donna. How intriguing!
    I would love to see a picture of the lamp, if you could manage it. I am aware of some commemorative lamps made at the lamp works. I could ask Fin Stewart for you as he visited the factory on many occasions while it was running.
    Thank you for getting in touch.
    Kind regards

  6. Donna stauffer

    Hi my Aunt worked at the lamp works In the 50,s when she past away I found a small light bulb with a sailing boat sealed inside. I was wondering if it was made at the lamp works,

  7. Blake Carlin Post author

    Hello Frank.
    Thank you so much for that wonderful information. Your father seems to have loved working at the E.L.M.A and I’d say he’s made a very significant contribution. He may have known my friend Fin Stewart, who had been a lamp collector and historian most of his life. Fin had lived a long time in Tamworth but was a regular visitor to the factory. In recent years (he’s in his 70’s now) he’s donated significant parts of his collection to the Tamworth Power Station Museum, also to the Powerhouse Museum and the University of NSW. He had been the custodian of the first and last lamps to come from the factory. He sold both of these to me a few years ago and I am storing them very carefully! Ultimately they will end up in the Tamworth Power Station Museum along with a few other significant lamps from the early days of production. I received an email recently from a gentleman that I must follow up on, but I will come back to you for more information thank you for your kind offer! Cheers Blake

  8. Frank Milburn

    Hi Blake,
    I have collected quite a bit of information about ELMA, from the time that my father (Bill Milburn) began working for them, when they transferred some of their operations to Wagga Wagga (ie: inland Australia, away from the coast; and possible attack by the Japanese!) during World War 2 (specifically, from early June 1942). ELMA put on almost 40 employees; and operated in Wagga for just over 2 years, until it was deemed safe to return that plant back to Clyde Street. My father was originally employed as the accountant, but on the company’s return to Newcastle (and he was the only Wagga employee to be offered continuing employment!) he spent the ensuing 22 years as ELMA’s purchasing officer; and was often called on to show tours of dignitaries around the operations. On his (compulsory!) retirement in March 1966, he was re-hired immediately as one of the gate-keepers (shift work) at the Clyde Street operations, for about 5 years. That’s just a brief resume of his story. If you’d like more information, just contact me, and I’d be happy to oblige.

  9. Blake Carlin Post author

    Hello Col

    What a wonderful story. I can look into this in time, but I must advise due to a the passing of a family member I will need some time to do this.

    I’ll be please to publish your wonderful account of Mr. Buisma. Kind regards Blake Carlin

  10. Col Schofield.

    I grew up at Toronto on Lake Macquarie & used to gather charcoal for Mr Buisma of ELMA Clyde St & he gave me a reference for my first job in the motor trade.
    He was extremely helpful & kind. His car was a Nash 8 with roller blinds on the rear windows giving privacy to the rear passengers. A huge gas producer on the luggage rack.
    I was the proud owner of a Philips battery charger with a failed Valve & he advised me to see Bill Otty at
    Fennell Bay (a Philips dealer) who fitted 2 available radio valves for me.
    Would love to receive information on this kind man.

  11. Blake Carlin Post author

    Hi Neil. I have tried to keep a representative range of E.L.M.A O.E.M lamps in my collections. I have the whole range, less the fluorescents due to lack of storage. Astrol was not produced by E.L.M.A, but by the Australian Incandescent Lamps works, I believe in Melbourne somewhere. There were ATLAS lamps and possibly the Elton lamps were made there. Very little data available on those companies unfortunately. You know your lamps!

  12. Neil Palmer

    Hi Blake,
    Trying to think of all the brands that ELMA produced: Condor, Crompton, Mazda, Osram, Philips, Sylvania, Thorn. Then for the supermarkets there was Comet, Embassy and Chevron.
    I know there was an Astrol. Was it ELMA produced? And there was one starting with E, Elton or something?
    These are ones that come to mind. There’s other I probably don’t even know about.

  13. Blake Carlin Post author

    I wondered the same thing, Neil. If I ever find out, I’ll tell you. I dare say that 60W Daylight was the last order they needed to fill, probably for supermarkets and hardware chains. As a side note, I have the first and last lamps in my possession. I bought them from Fin Stewart about five years ago.

  14. Neil Palmer

    Hi Blake,
    Interesting that the last lamps made were of the daylight type. I wonder if the thinking behind this was that there was more of a chance of some being preserved rather than clear lamps which could just get used up?

  15. Blake Carlin Post author

    Hello Les, thank you for your interest. I’ll try and find out more for you. kind regards, Blake.

  16. Les Harrison

    I’m researching industrial architecture of this era.
    Is the designer/architect of the Clyde St ELMA works known, please?
    (Would be a bonus if the source of the information could be given, too.)

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