Saga of a scientific family by a seventh generation son


Trade Names: Mason Technology is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the State, writes Rose Doyle

Standish Mason reckons Mason Technology is the oldest family-owned business in the State. They've been around, weathering storms as well as the peaks of success, since 1780. The family roots went down a lot earlier, but more of that anon.

"I'd be interested to find out if there's anyone older . . ." Stan Mason muses with all the quiet confidence of one sure of the family's place, the certain knowledge that there's not a lot of competition. Chairman of Mason Technology, he's a ninth generation Mason, the seventh generation Mason to run the company.

At the cutting-edge of science and technology, today's company deals in Olympus microscopes, weighing equipment, laboratory equipment and analytical instrumentation. The Mason family and business tale is classic, weaving a hard-working, sometimes turbulent, way through Irish life since 1712. That was the year Robert Mason, a leather worker from Seacome, near Liverpool, arrived in Dublin. He'd been enticed this way by a government plan encouraging trades and business to expand in the provinces - what Stan Mason calls "the IDA of the day".

Robert Mason, as part of the deal, became a Freeman of the city - a distinction passed from father to son through the ages until, the way of things changing, the entitlement died with Stan Mason's grandfather.

Of an obvious go-ahead nature, Robert Mason set himself up as a tanner, with premises in Watling Street, and became head of the Guild of Skinners and Glovers. It was his son, Thomas, who sold the family property in Liverpool when he took over the business, broke the link with England and established the Masons as a distinctly Irish family. Thomas's eldest son and third generation Mason, Seacome, would be the one to found today's business.

Seacome Mason was born in l745 and apprenticed to a Monsieur Alment, a French optician and political refugee with a place in Capel Street. When M Alment returned home, Seacome Mason, optician, set up his own business at 8 Arran Quay. An ad in the Dublin Chronicle of May 10th, l787 has him giving "sincere thanks to his Friends and the Public for their kind Encouragement since his Commencement in Business".

His list of sale items included "telescopes, glasses, microscopes, concave and opera glasses, celestial and terrestial globes of all sizes, electrical machines with apparatus . . . goggles for protecting the eyes from dust or wind, ditto for children with the squint . . ."

Things went well for Seacome Mason; he was in business until his death in 1804.

Stan Mason, who put together the family story in l980 in celebration of 200 years in business, falls to musing again. "This company shouldn't be here," he says, without conviction. "Family businesses don't usually survive more than three generations - the first establishes, the second builds and the third loses it! That's the way it happened with us too. The third generation of Masons were not good at business."

Seacome Mason had nine children. His sons, Thomas and Jonathon moved the business to 11 Essex Bridge (now Parliament Street) in 1813. Thomas made history when he gave the family name to Mason's Hygrometer - the old name for the Wet & Dry Bulb Thermometer invented by Apjohn, one time professor of anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. It became a world-seller for Masons, then known as Opticians and Mathematical Instrument Suppliers.

And so to the fateful third generation of Masons. Seacome, Thomas's son, ran the business with his son Standish - and it went bankrupt, "asses out the window" as Stan, 2003, puts it.

Another of Seacome's sons, Thomas, was brought back from London in the 1870s to salvage things. A couple of guarantors moved in and the firm, with Thomas from London at its head, began to climb back to credibility and profitability.

"He was my great-grandfather," Stan explains, rounding the picture and moving it on towards today. Thomas Mason's son, Thomas Holmes, was born in 1877. The grandfather of today's company chairman, Thomas H was a remarkable man.

He worked alongside his father in the company until the latter's death in 1913, at which point the company was called Thomas H Mason. Stan explains how the company, under his grandfather's direction, made a "dramatic move with the technology of the time". "In the late 1890s he introduced photography to the business in the form of picture postcards. We went on to become the biggest producer of picture postcards in Ireland, right up until the 1940s, when the price of silver, a major component in developing solutions, rocketed because of the war."

He takes a book from a glass case - Thomas H Mason's book The Islands of Ireland, published 1936. "My grandfather was interested in archaeology, ornithology, historical sites on the islands off Ireland, interests which brought him all over the country with his full-plate camera. He built up a huge and very fine collection of pictures which, unfortunately, were destroyed by fire in 1963. There's a vast collection of his picture postcards in the Civic Museum, however."

Thomas H Mason ran the company with energy and vision. By 19l6 business had expanded to deal in optician/precision instruments, photography and laboratory supplies to the universities. It had also moved to 5 Dame Street in 1894. In 1914 they expanded further and bought the next door building. A watercolour picture of the time shows the legend "Laboratory Apparatus Scientific Instruments. Estb. 1870" writ large on the facade with "Thomas H Mason, Optician" precisely lettered over the door.

Thomas H Mason married Meta Gray: they had four sons, Standish, Alexander, Barry and Dermot. Standish would grow up to father today's chairman and ensure a seventh generation of Masons ran the company.

In 1932, the company became a limited one and Thomas H Mason & Sons Ltd was formed. "After the war the instrumentation area of things grew," Stan says, "with the development of valves and such, forerunners of electronics."

Fire tragedies struck twice in the 1960s: in 1963 a fire in the company's stores destroyed Thomas H Mason's photographs; the second, in l965, "took out the whole Dame Street building", Stan says, adding that it was "fairly dramatic at the time. I remember them as terrible. But we survived.

"My father took over the optical end of things and my uncle Alex, who was more the businessman, the scientific. We used Crane Lane, which had been rebuilt, as a laboratory/works and opened a retail outlet at the top of Dawson Street. I was a trainee accountant at the time. My father died in March 1969. He was 59. I came into the company on August 6th, 1969. I was 27. Alex, who was running the business, recruited me. I've never regretted joining. Never. Alex and I worked exceptionally well together. He died in l987."

The company moved to Parliament Street in 1977 and in 1989 to the Greenville Hall building at 228 South Circular Road, which houses today's company. Streamlined, modern and with wonderful light from stained glass windows, it was once a synagogue.

"I bought it from the Jewish community," Stan says with clear affection for the building, "and levelled out the balcony. It's a lovely spot with offices, seminar and showroom areas as well as a purpose-built 400 sq m technical service centre. We shift in excess of one million microscopes per year.

"Things have changed dramatically in recent times. When I joined we'd 23 employees, now we've 73. We've Cork premises now too, where 14 of those employees work."

There's another change - the eighth generation of Masons in the business is represented by a woman, Stan's daughter, Jean, who works in customer care.