OBITUARY : Fred Lipmann

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It was in 1864 that Manuel Lipmann founded the factory at Besancon which was to create the famous Lip watch. It was in 1904 that Ernest Lip worked with the Curies to create a watch with illuminated hands so that they could be seen in the dark. In 1952 their grandson and son Frederic invented the electronic watch.

Lip was thus a great French achievement. The French were beating the Swiss at their own game. The days of French technological backwardness were over. And in Fred Lipmann they had a businessman who rivalled Henry Ford in ability and character. He was himself a skilful manipulator of machines and had, in his youth, invented a new type of motor-cycle. He organised his factory on the most modern methods. He installed a creche for the benefit of his many women workers, and he decorated the entrance to his factory with astrological signs and with a portrait of himself in conversation with Einstein.

His relations with his workforce were equally eccentric. He paid good wages and he was concerned about their welfare; he spoke to them frequently and they admired his skill and his knowledge of their work. But at the same time it was impossible to have a discussion with him, whether the would-be interlocutor was a colleague, a trade-union leader, a government inspector of factories, or a supplier. "Le Fred", as he was called, was not popular in Besancon.

And there was much that was wrong with Lip. In spite of its fame, it was small even in French terms. Various parts were manufactured in Besancon which could have been bought more cheaply from outside. The electronic watch, supposedly the greatest invention in time-keeping instruments since the 18th century, was not appreciated by everyone and at one point you were described as being a traitor to the working class if you had a watch that did not need winding.

More importantly, Japanese and Swiss competition got the better of Lip and soon it was impossible to pay the relatively high wages as profits declined. Lipmann was obliged to accept that a Swiss firm should take over much of his capital and in February 1971, at the age of 65, he decided to retire.

But in June 1973, Lip achieved its greatest fame. On 12 June a worker found a briefcase lying unattended in the factory, and when he opened it he discovered scribbled notes written by one of the administrators of the company that had acquired Lip. He discovered that some 480 of the workforce (numbering 1,300 in all) were to be dismissed and that the diversification of production which Lipmann had introduced when he realised that the sale of watches was declining was to be abolished. This involved the manufacture of machine tools and some products for the air force.

The news of these intentions spread rapidly to the workers, the majority of whom were members of trade unions. By 4.30 in the afternoon they had occupied the factory and had taken two senior administrators prisoners, along with a government inspector. The police threatened to intervene and by midnight they had freed their prisoners but had seized the whole stock of watches. "We have lost our human hostages, we must therefore have a material hostage" was the statement issued by Charles Piaget, a union leader who had taken command of the operation.

For the next four years the "affaire Lip" dazzled French opinion. Here was a factory, occupied by the workers, who sold the watches they had seized and who paid themselves, who went on to manufacture more watches and to sell them according to prices which they fixed for themselves. The prime minister, Pierre Messmer, periodically announced that Lip was finished and subsequently claimed that the affaire had continued because the newspapers had little else to write about and because his minister for industrial development, Jean Charbonnel, was incompetent.

Charbonnel, in his memoirs, claimed that there was something about the workers making their own watches, selling them and paying their own wages, which seemed to symbolise the romanticism of revolt. Many were those who proudly acquired one of the independent Lip watches, including Francois Mitterrand, but including too many Gaullists.

Lipmann watched what was happening with mixed feelings. He condemned the administrators who had stopped making the diversified products. He condemned the government that was unhelpful, remembering how he had given one of the first electronic watches to General de Gaulle, who had accepted it enthusiastically. He did not believe that the workers would have turned against him. But he did not believe either that Lip could survive, even when it became a co-operative in 1976. It was declared bankrupt in 1990. Lipmann encouraged Jean-Claude Sensemat to buy the name which, in this way, persists.

The union leader Piaget has said that when all was over he received the most friendly letters from Lipmann. He was not surprised. Lipmann was an unusual man in every way.

Douglas Johnson

Frederic Lipmann, watch manufacturer: born Besancon, France 2 November 1905; died Besancon 9 November 1996.