Sprague Electric Company

Sprague Specialties (changed to Sprague Electric in April 1944) began in 1926 in the Quincy, Massachusetts, kitchen of a young naval officer, Ensign Robert C. (“R. C.”) Sprague. At least part of Robert Sprague’s brilliance came from his father, electrical inventor Frank J. Sprague, who was the father of electric railroads and also made contributions to safety control technologies. Sprague Specialties’ core “Midget” capacitor served as the foundation of what became one of the world’s most successful electronic component suppliers.

Seeking additional space and labor for its growing consumer-oriented capacitor lines, Sprague Electric expanded and moved to North Adams, Massachusetts, in 1929. During World War II, Sprague fabricated such varied products as gas masks for civilian distribution and casings for incendiary bombs used during James Doolittle’s April 1942 air raid. Crucial components for the VT proximity fuze that helped win the war flowed off Sprague Electric’s North Adams production lines. In recognition of Sprague Electric’s accomplishments, the factories involved received a remarkable five Army-Navy “E” Awards, as well as a Navy Department Bureau of Ordnance “E” for their VT proximity fuze contributions.

World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Space Age solidified Sprague’s position as a crucial supplier of high-performance and reliable military-grade components. In 1960, the company received a $1.3 million contract from Autonetics to develop super high-reliability components for the Minuteman ICBM guidance and control system. Sprague’s new solid tantalum capacitor not only filled the bill admirably, it also filled a need in the expanding computer market. IBM eventually became Sprague’s largest customer (Delco Radio, the electronics division of General Motors, and AT&T were the next two largest). There were more than 50,000 Sprague devices in every Apollo mission and more than 25,000 in every Space Shuttle, not to mention thousands more in the related ground control equipment. Sprague also pioneered the multi-layer ceramic capacitor that came to dominate the world capacitor industry.

The 1947 invention of the transistor at Bell Telephone Labs, followed during the 1950s by the development of the integrated circuit, generated a revolution in electronics. Sprague Electric played an early pivotal role with Kurt Lehovec’s invention of PN junction isolation, without which integrated circuits would not be possible. The development of the ion implantation process by two Sprague researchers made possible the early success of Mostek, at one time a minority subsidiary of Sprague Electric. Nevertheless, Sprague Electric had a long and rocky road to success in semiconductors which didn’t occur until the early-1970s after the company had settled on a niche strategy of offering unique circuits for consumer applications, Hall Cells, and power integrated circuits. The last two remain key strategies today, but for a legacy company under very different ownership.

Despite these successes, Sprague Electric ceased to exist as an entity by 1992, although many of its former business units continued operations under different management and ownership.

For Further Reading

Sprague Electric: An Electronic Giant's Rise, Fall, and Life after Death -- a history of the Sprague Electric Company with a wealth of detail on how capacitors, condensers, and other electronics work and are manufactured.