The world’s first gigafactory where wild boar now roam

(#06 – Top 10 Highlights from 2015 Tour de Travoy) The photo above shows the entrance to the glass and mirror factory in the village of Saint Gobain in northern France. The company of Saint Gobain is probably the biggest company you have never heard off before but if you have a ClimaCoat windscreen in you car, then it is made by Saint Gobain. They are one of the biggest companies in France and this humble factory is where they started out back in 1693. Elon Musk and Tesla are getting a lot of buzz for their gigafactory in Nevada which will double world battery production when it opens in 2018. Well, in my opinion, this was the world’s first gigafactory because when this place opened in 1693 it also doubled worldwide production of glass and mirrors. Prior to this factory being built, mirror and glass production was monopolized by Venice, and as a result, panes of glass were very expensive. But after this factory was opened , windows and mirrors were added to houses all over Europe. The mirrors in the famous Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles were supplied by Saint Gobain and they exported worldwide from this small factory at a time when there was little global trade in manufactured goods.

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Entrance to the glass and mirror factory in Saint Gobain. A factory was established here in 1693 and remained operational for over 300 years until it was shut down in the mid 1990’s. At one time, over 2,000 people worked in this factory but it is now lying vacant and dis-used. There was no gates at the entrance and I was free to wander about the grounds and get some great photos.

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Manufacture des Glaces church in Saint Gobain. This small church was built as part of the glass and mirror factory in Saint Gobain.

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Plaque commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Saint Gobain company. The inscription says “The Saint Gobain company have installed this plaque in memory of Louis Lucas de Nehou, who in 1691, invented a method of producing mirrors and who, in 1693, established a manufacturing plant at the chateau in Saint Gobain, where he died in 1728”.

Manufacture des Glaces. To celebrate their 350th anniversary, the Saint Gobain company produced this 3D video of how the glass factory would have looked like in 1785 just before the French Revolution. It is a fascinating insight into industrial production techniques over 200 years ago and really brings to life what this factory was like in its heyday.

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Cobblestone road at Saint Gobain mirror and glass factory. Thousands, even millions of loads of mirrors and glass would have trundled along this road and out the stone arch on their way to houses and buildings all over Europe and the world. The loads of glass and mirrors from this factory were transported about 15 km from here to the Oise river by horse and cart. They were then shipped by barge on the Oise to Paris and from Paris then exported all over Europe and later around the world. As early as the end of the 17th century, the Royal Manufactory was sending mirror glass to South-East Asia through the East India Company. At the end of the 18th century, almost half of its turnover was achieved through its exports to England, the United States and the Austrian Hungarian Empire. It was glass from this factory that was used in the construction of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and the glass roof in the Milan Central railway station in 1864.

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A large sheet of glass being transported manually at one of Saint Gobain’s factories. During the 20th Century, Saint Gobain expanded internationally opening about a distribution center in New York in 1830 and acquiring a number of other glass factories, including 2 in Germany. However, competition from other glass manufacturers, such as Pilkington in England forced them to diversify into chemical manufacture. In 1870, they acquired the Perret-Olivier company in Lyon which had devised a novel method on producing sulphuric acid. Initially, Saint Gobain used sulpuhuric acid to manufacture soda ash which is the main raw material in glass. But later, it also pioneered the use of sulphuric acid to break down phosphate rock to make phosphate fertilizer. By the outbreak of World War 1, 60% of the companies revenue were coming from it’s chemical division largely due fertilizer.

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Saint Gobain glass manufactory in 1916. During World War 1, the manufactory in Saint Gobain was occupied by German troops. This photo shows a group of German soldiers standing at the entrance to the manufactory. Notice the sign saying “Bismarck-Hutte” or Bismarck’s factory. Bismarck was the main driving force behind German unification in the 19th Century so this factory was renamed by the Germans after him. The writing on the photo says “Glashutte in Laon 1916” or “Glass factory in Laon 1916”. Laon is the nearest large town to Saint Gobain and is located about 10 km away. The outbreak of the war forced Saint Gobain the company to close most of it’s glass factories and concentrate on chemical manufacture. Their production of sulphuric acid which was used in the manufacture of explosives increased tenfold between 1914-1918.

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New glass factory at Chantereine near Paris. After World War 1 had ended, Saint Gobain the company built a new modern glass factory at Chantereine on the outskirts of Paris, about 100 km away from the town of Saint Gobain. Glass production at the manufactory in Saint Gobain was slowly reduced as more modern factories were used instead. The company diversified into making glass bottles and jars as well as plate glass. They also specialized in making safety laminated windshields for cars at this new factory and it was Saint Gobain that was the first company to add heating elements to a windscreen in the 1980’s. In 2008, they introduced panoramic windscreens and the first helicopter style windscreens were fitted to Citroen Picasso cars later that year.

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Saint Gobain is now a multi-national corporation and one of the Top 100 largest companies in the world. Since World War 2 ended, the company has diversified in supplying building materials. In the 50’s it pioneered the production of fibreglass and in 1970 merged with a rival French company which manufactured pipes. In 2005, it spent almost €6 billion acquiring British Plasterboard and now derives most of it’s revenues from building materials.

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Plaque commemorating the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Saint Gobain company. Just 28 years after the unveiling of this plaque in 1965, glass production at the original glass and mirror factory in Saint Gobain stopped completely in 1993. The factory buildings are now mostly abandoned though some are being used by the local fire brigade. Had I visited 200 years ago, there would have been thousands of people coming and going. There would have been hundreds of loads of timber going in to keep the furnaces burning 24/7 and hundreds of horses and carts going out and them full of plate glass and mirrors. But when I visited in 2015, the factory was totally deserted and there was very little trace that this complex was once a giga-factory.

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Tesla Gigafactory 1 currently being built in Nevada. It was Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, who coined the phrase “gigafactory” in 2014 after announcing plans to build what he called the world’s first gigafactory in Nevada to produce lithium-ion batteries for his Model 3 electric car. At the time, he said a gigafactory was a factory which doubled worldwide production of any particular product. His proposed factory was expected to produce 50 GWh of lithium ion batteries which in 2014 was the equivalent of worldwide production. Since 2014, the definition of what is a gigafactory has changed slightly into a factory that produces a giga or millions of items in one year. Tesla has recently announced the construction of Gigafactory 2 near Buffalo in New York state which is expected to produce 1 GWh of solar panels a year from 2020. Tesla has also announced plans to build 3 more Gigafactories to produce batteries, one of which will be in Europe within the next 5 years. But there are lots of factories that produce millions of items in a year and there is nothing truly unique about Gigafactories 2,3,4 or 5. But Gigafactory 1 in Nevada is truly unique as it doubles worldwide production of a single product just like the Royal Manufactory in Saint Gobain did when it opened in the 1690’s. There have only been a few factories in the history of mankind that have revolutionized manufacturing to such an extent that they doubled production of a particular product.

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Tesla Model X. In 2015, Tesla started producing a 7-seater vehicle called the Model X which featured what the company calls “falcon doors”. These doors make access to the rear seats much easier than conventional doors. The glass windows in the falcon doors and the front doors are supplied by Saint Gobain Sekurit from a factory in Mexico to Fremont in California where the Model X is built. It is possible that Saint Gobain will win contracts to supply glass as well for the Model 3 whose production is due to start in July 2017 also at Fremont. If that is the case, then the batteries for the Model 3 will be coming from the worlds largest gigafactory and the glass for the doors will come from the company that arguably built the first gigafactory over 300 years ago.

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Royal Manufactory in Saint Gobain. You can see from this satellite image just how big the glass and mirror factory complex was. It occupies an area of about 20 hectares (50 acres) and there are dozens of warehouses and buildings still standing to this day. This satellite image also shows the huge forests surrounding Saint Gobain, which were the main reason the factory was set up here in the first place. It was timber from these forests that kept the glass furnaces burning 24/7. These forests would have been a bustle of activity during the glass factory’s heyday but are mostly quiet now. But no doubt these forests are full of wildlife including some wild boar.

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A wild boar and 4 piglets foraging in a field near Blanzy-les-Fismes. On the way to Saint Gobain, I came across this wild boar with 4 piglets out foraging in a field of stubble. This was one of my favorite photos from the whole of the 2015 Tour de Travoy. You would often see signs for wild boar but never once did I think I would spot any.

Family of wild boar in a stubble field.  The boar looked a bit thin and must have been incredibly hungry to risk foraging for food 50 yards from a busy road. This part of France is known to be teeming with wild boar but they are incredibly hard to spot as they normally live deep in the forest. I was incredibly lucky to get these shots as boar sightings are very rare. No doubt there are wild boar in the forests around Saint Gobain too and maybe even occasionally in the grounds of the glass factory. Wild boar may indeed now roam through the world’s first gigafactory but the company that started here in this small village in northern France is now a multi-national corporation with factories worldwide. 320 years after they built the world’s first gigafactory, Saint Gobain is now a supplier to Tesla, which is also building a gigafactory on the other side of the world in Nevada, USA. Indeed, it is inevitable that every factory will end up obsolete at some stage but hopefully, Tesla’s gigafactory won’t end up with wild boar roaming through it anytime soon.

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