In the early 20th century, electric lighting fiercely compete with gas lighting, while electric motors gradually replace the steam engine, the gas engine and the waterwheel. A genuine public enthusiasm for electricity and its new industrial and domestic uses takes hold. As the Palace of Electricity opens at the 1900 Paris Exposition, French author Paul Morand writes: “Electricity is the religion of the 1900s.”
Baron-General Édouard Empain, a visionary industrialist from Belgium, is awarded a contract to build the electrical infrastructure for the Paris Metro. This company is renamed the Société Parisienne pour l'Industrie Électrique, or SPIE, in 1946.
While expanding in the area of rail network power supply, SPIE also diversifies into the power generation and distribution industries. It builds numerous thermal and hydroelectric power stations, as well as a significant portion of the overhead lines providing electricity to industry, towns and the countryside.
Having shown its worth in World War II, SPIE is nationalised on 8 April 1946 and loses the support of its concessionary companies. However, it is able to recover by focusing on three areas of activity: electricity, tracks and electric traction, and pipelines.
As the nuclear programme begins in France, SPIE forms part of the first consortium of companies to carry out a reactor project at the Marcoule site. It specialises in electrical equipment for thermal and nuclear power stations, through its subsidiary Thermatome and alongside Framatome.
In the post-war period, SPIE will achieve exponential growth, with revenue rising from FRF 17 million in 1947 to FRF 485 million in 1967. Oil and gas activities in France and North Africa constitute a key driver for growth.