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The Sparks-Withington (Sparton) Company

The last presentation in a series of 3 about significant companies in the history of The Commercial Exchange building.

Commercial Exchange, Inc.

on 10 October 2013

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Transcript of The Sparks-Withington (Sparton) Company

Sparks-Withington Co

The Commercial Exchange
Sparton returned to consumer electronics by making circuit boards for other companies' products. Over the years they have expanded to electromechanical systems and products of their own, employing 1,300 people worldwide in 6 locations throughout the US and Vietnam. It's hard to comprehend that a company that started out making parts for farm tools made $224 million in fiscal revenue in 2012 alone.

Sadly, their story in Jackson ended in 2009 when their headquarters at 2400 E Ganton closed for good. A part of the Jackson community for 109 years, they are still remembered with fondness by many past employees and community members.
Like many companies, S-W greatly reduced normal production during the World Wars in order to manufacture wartime materials. In WWI alone they produced 60,000 hand grenades per day, 1/3 of the steel helmets used by American armies, aircraft engine parts, hand cranked gas attack alarms, vehicle horns, and 75 mm shells.
The Takeover
In 1950, a disgruntled stockholder named John Smith decided he wanted to change the company. He flew his plane across the country to visit other stockholders, hoping to convince them that he could make the company more progressive and profitable. At the next stockholder meeting, the founding sons were voted out and replaced with stockholders. John Smith himself replaced Harry Sparks as president. Soon after, the company adopted their Sparton trade name as their official company name.
The origins of the Sparks-Withington Company can be traced back to 1900, when it was founded as part of the Withington-Cooley Co. The owner had his sons, Philip and Winthrop Withington, take control of the new branch called simply the "Withington Company".

They soon hired in William Sparks as a bookkeeper, but his skills as an organizer, salesman, and marketer earned him a promotion to General Manager and partner. The company's name was officially changed to the Sparks-Withington Company.
Roots of the Company
Major Divisions
Though they originally made small steel parts for farm equipment, the arrival of Sparks and the automobile revolution soon changed their product line. The company was officially incorporated in Ohio in 1916, and joined the NYSE on March 29, 1929.

During these early years, it is said that 1 in 15 workers in Jackson were employed by S-W. Despite expansion and growth, in 1940 85% of the company's employees had been with them 5 years, 71% had been there over 10, and none of their plants had been closed for more than 2 weeks at a time since they started.
Sparks-Withington had interest in many different fields in the 1900s. Not only did they produce items in the way of farm and automobile instruments, they also made parts for carriages, developed their own refrigerator, built and developed early radios and televisions, produced items for WWI and II, designed systems for general military defense, had a hand in natural gas and oil exploration, and even produced and distributed medical and aerospace equipment.

While not all of these interests were profitable, a few of them played a large role in the company's history and that of the US.
The Automobile Industry
Sparks-Withington started making auto parts early on, stamping out hubcaps and brake drums. By 1909 they were making other parts, such as radiator fan assemblies (275,000 units by 1917). They made these under the Sparton trade name, a contraction of SPARks-WithingTON.

In 1910 they expanded for the first time, constructing a building on West North Street just north of the Michigan Prison. This is when Sparks, the innovator and "driving force" of the company, began experimenting with electric automobile horns. By 1911 the first ever all electric horn was a patented reality and, in order to commercially produce it, the company built another building on North St in 1912 right next to the first one. (These buildings are now owned by The Commercial Exchange.)

The horn was soon adopted by a plethora of auto companies as standard equipment, and S-W soon entered into contracts with Hudson and Packard to produce the horns for their vehicles. By 1960, S-W was producing 6,600 horns a day. At one point, they produced horns for all Studebakers, 65% of Chryslers, and 75% American Motors vehicles.
In 1915, Spark's sons personally packed up some signs in a Ford Model T truck and took off down the Lincoln Highway for San Francisco. The signs read "Safety First - Sound Sparton" and were placed along the highway at every turn, crossroads, bridge, and any other place deemed to be hazardous.

They joined crews working from as far away as New York in order to help make the roads safer for motorists traveling to the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, a world's fair held in San Francisco that year. This campaign was put forth by Sparks with the primary goal of making the roads safer (though the added advertising did not seem to hurt either). As with most things under the Sparton name, the signs were made by the company itself.
By the 1920s, Sparton horns were included on 42 makes of vehicle, their other auto parts possibly in even more. The horns were so valued that people would take them from old cars and put them on new ones.

In 1923 Sparks-Withington developed high frequency vibrator auto signals, such as the Sparton SOS. By 1926 they had developed the Bugle and musical chime horns, which were the precursors to modern musical horns.

They were even the inspiration behind the song “I’m Wild about Horns on Automobiles (That Go Ta-ta-Ta-Ta)” (Da-da-Da-Da by some accounts) by Eddie Cantor, which you can listen to at http://www.bntraaca.org under Multimedia>Car Tunes.

The auto division of Sparks-Withington persisted for 85 years before it was sold in 1996. Now, the early history of S-W lives on in their surviving auto horns, which are the items of envy for a variety of collectors and automobile enthusiasts.
Sparks-Withington made many contributions to the developmental process leading to today's radios. They were on the forefront of automatic phonographs and automobile radios, as well as push button tuning. This innovation meant that consumers could find a radio station without having to painstakingly tune to a receiving range the width of a hair.

In 1927 S-W developed a radio that was completely electric. It was a significant product because it was the first large production radio set to use AC (alternating current) tubes, which would allow many improvements such as better reception, running the radio off of a house current instead of batteries, and reduction of the radio's innate "hum" generated from operation.

1929 saw the founding of the Sparton Scholarship award for young people who arranged for demonstrations of the Sparton radios. The Scholarship allowed them to accumulate points which could be applied to a free year at college or an all-expenses paid vacation to Europe.
Possibly thanks to Spark's interest in electronics and S-W's pioneering spirit, the company had built and tested working television sets before it's 40th anniversary in 1940. However, they recognized that mass producing the sets for the public would not be profitable until there was enough broadcasting to make it worth having a TV. By 1948 they were in full scale production of black and white TV sets, beginning colored set production in 1953. In 1954 S-W even founded their own TV channel out of Cadillac - WWTV.

Though some reports say that S-W was not very successful in the radio business after the '30s, others have it that in the 1950s radio and TV sales made up 2/3 of all Sparton sales. Unfortunately, the amount of competition with these products reduced profits considerably, which may have had a hand in the selling of the radio and TV divisions to Magnavox in 1956.
2301 East Michigan Ave
Jackson, MI 49202

The last of a series of three, this presentation focuses on the Sparks-Withington Company, later known as Sparton.
Jackson, Michigan has an extensive history with the automobile industry that few realize. The Commercial Exchange can appreciate that history as our main office building was home to 3 distinct auto-related companies in the late 1800s and through part of the 1900s. Our historic building was home to the Collins Manufacturing Company, the Jackson Automobile Company, and the Sparks-Withington Company over the years.
In 1918 Sparks began to take interest in radios. By the 1920s S-W began producing them in various forms such as domestic receivers, large ornate cabinet sets, battery powered models, and police radios.

By 1926 this department became a big part of S-W and they had to move the whole division into its own building. That building was known as the old Jackson Automobile building. Today it is known as the Commercial Exchange Building.

Eventually (1930) Sparks-Withington introduced their Sparton radio line in Canada, starting a wholly-owned Canadian subsidiary known as Sparton of Canada, Ltd.
Mr. Smith remained in the company until 2000, having been in the station of CEO the whole time. He did in fact help the company become more profitable and is remembered fondly by past employees still living in Jackson.
In 1945 S-w began developing a sonobouy system for the US Navy, and in 1950 they had their first contract. 6 million+ sonobouys were sold to US and Allied Navies. By 1961 they were producing weapons control equipment and precision aerospace instruments.

It was around this time that Sparton of Canada stopped producing radios and TVs turning instead to military electronics. Through the 60s and 70s their military division accounted for most of their income, making up 60% of their $40 million in sales by end of the 60s.

The end of the Cold War marked a decline of Sparton's investment in military electronics and their return to consumer products.






The 40th Anniversary Book produced by The Sparks-Withington Co, found here:

Full transcript