Pilkington plc originated in 1826 as the St. Helens Crown Glass Company in the town of that name in Lancashire. It was founded with the technical knowledge and ability of John William Bell and capital from three of the most influential local families. William Pilkington was one of the original shareholders, and he was later joined by his elder brother Richard. The Pilkington brothers were brought in only for their capital. It was renamed Greenall & Pilkington in 1829 and, after the withdrawal of Peter Greenall, the firm was re-titled Pilkington Brothers in 1849.
The Pilkington family have been involved in the business ever since, enlarging the original plant at St Helens and taking over competitors both in the United Kingdom and abroad. The foundation of the modern success of the company was the invention by Sir Alastair Pilkington in the early 1950s of the float glass process for producing clear flat glass. Although this process had taken over a decade to develop, Pilkington had persevered, reaping rewards, largely through licence agreements, from the late 1960s.
Since the takeover of Chance Brothers of Smethwick in 1951, Pilkington had been a major producer of ophthalmic glass. During 1957 the optical production activities of Pilkington Brothers Ltd at St Helens, Lancashire and Chance Brothers Ltd of Smethwick, Birmingham were brought together in a new factory at St Asaph in North Wales. The venture was the brainchild of Dr Lawrence Pilkington, who was keen to foster this side of the enterprise and eventually took the Group into the grinding and polishing of lenses, and the production of optical systems.
In 1966, as a development from its optical glass operation in St Asaph, Pilkington and the American Perkin Elmer formed Pilkington Perkin Elmer Ltd (Pilkington PE or simply PPE) to design optical and electro-optical systems for the defence industry and also camera and copier lenses and other simple optical devices. Perkin Elmer withdrew in 1972, leaving Pilkington as sole owner. These activities were extended in 1974 with the acquisition of Glasgow based Barr and Stroud . The combined business in 1988 was renamed Pilkington Optronics.
In January 1970 the decision was taken to make Pilkington a public company.
During 1991 Thomson-CSF purchased 50% of Pilkington Optronics followed by a further 40% in 1998 with the final 10% in 2000 and in 2001 the company became Thales Optronics Ltd
Meanwhile in 1999 Avimo, another optical designer and manufacturer, was also partly acquired by Thomson-CSF and completely acquired in 2001. The whole organisation was established at St Asaph in 2002 as Thales-HTO (UK) (Thales High Tech Optics). Yet another upheaval was to happen in January 2005 when Thales announced the sale of its optical components group Thales-HTO which by now included facilities in the U.S.A., Singapore, Germany, and Hungary and, of course, the St Asaph facility to a UK based private equity group called Candover Investments plc of London for £151m. Thales stated that they wished to focus on their core systems integration capability. The group was rebranded as Qioptic with its headquarters at St Asaph in North Wales. (See Qioptic)