The career of an Electrical Technician – 1957 to 2000 (2011)

Location : Suffolk, Middlesex, North Walsham, North Sea

I must thank my wife for her diligent work on the computer to transform my scribbled notes into hopefully an interesting and humorous account.

I was born during the Second World War, on the 26th July 1941, at Camps Heath, Oulton, in Suffolk. Later we lived in Lowestoft where I spent my childhood and where my younger sister was born.

Early fascination with all things electrical

My earliest memory of an interest in ‘all things electrical' was of being a member of a gang of four boys who meddled in electrical, electronic and pyrotechnic experiments such as assembling 4-wheeled buggies (large pram wheels, wooden planks and a box for a seat) fitted with lighting and hooters. We tore up and down hilly roads in the area, surprising harmless pedestrians and cyclists!

I also enjoyed building projects such as crystal sets, valve radios, and record players – frightening passers-by with a loud speaker hidden in the hedge, playing explosion noises on a Goon Show record.

Experiments and ‘mods' to fireworks took on a more serious note when my new school satchel, full of fireworks accidentally ignited. Luckily no injuries resulted, but I had to face the wrath of my parents over a wrecked new satchel!

In the early days of radio, receivers were large and contained glass valves -they needed both a mains supply and batteries to work. I remember looking in the back of our working set and being fascinated by the glowing red valves inside. My weekly task was to carry into town the heavy glass accumulator (or battery) for its regular re-charge. There was always a risk of an acid spill – but luckily I don't recall ever being burnt!

Later I joined the Boys Brigade. I played a bugle or drums during marches to regular church services. Camping was enjoyable but having the tallest wellington boots, my friend and I usually were allotted the task of digging out the latrines (lavatories) – hence my nickname of ‘sludge.' I achieved many badges whilst in the Brigade, including first aid, field craft and musical entertainment. I rose to the status of sergeant which involved responsibility for younger members.

At school I always enjoyed the practical subjects more than the arts, so when I left the Grammar School with a modest three ‘O' levels the Headmaster commented that ‘I would never set the Thames on Fire.' He didn't recognise practical skills – just the academic!

Electrical Craft Apprentice and Student Engineer in Lowestoft and Yarmouth

I was very grateful to my father for ‘putting in a good word for me' with the local power utility company where I began my training as an Electrical Craft Apprentice in 1957. During the next three years I spent monthly periods with each tradesman carrying out domestic, commercial and industrial wiring and repairs around the town of Lowestoft. I also attended part-time day and evening studies at technical colleges and passed Ordinary National Certificate in Maths and Electro-technology, with endorsement in Physics and Mechanics.

During this time I particularly remember a few incidents –

Cycling around the coastal town in all weathers – with gusty winds and rain, carrying heavy tool bags or bundles of metal conduit on the handlebars. (What would our modern- day Health & Safety Executive think of this practice?)
Preparing everything for a house immersion heater wiring job before entering a particularly filthy house in town, for a fast in and out!
The case of another apprentice accidentally drilling holes in the top of a new TV cabinet, while preparing a wooden base for a light switch.
Naively threading several feet of metal conduit (called a "runner"- that joined two sections together) instead of just a few inches at each end !
And especially enjoying the daily breakfasts of mugs of tea and crusty cheese rolls in a local cafe before starting work — making it all worthwhile!

I then continued my Apprenticeship training as a Student Engineer, working on every aspect of power distribution at pressures up to 11 Kvolts. This included the planning, surveying, design, metering and training with cable jointers, overhead linesmen, labour gangs and supervisors in the field. Some time was spent at South Denes Power Station and a diesel production factory.

The most enjoyable time was spent with linesmen and jointers working outdoors on overhead networks at pressures up to 11Kvolts – usually good to be out in fresh air! Also engine stripping and fault- finding in the factory, meeting ex Rolls Royce fitters who were trained to work to very fine mechanical tolerances in engineering.

Still being a young and hungry youth, I particularly remember the lovely taste of steak and kidney puddings with chips, in a favourite café in Yarmouth market place.! Also other lunchtimes visiting ‘every pub' in Yarmouth (well almost) where we ate more than we drank.

Hardest was the long time spent travelling by foot, cycle, bus or train between home and various technical colleges. I regularly studied for one day and two or three evenings a week plus homework and revision at weekends – tiring after work and using up my limited leisure time.

An easier time was had at the Power Station where "spare" periods were taken up by learning principles of golf from a fellow trainee!

One regret I had was failing to pass the Higher National Certificate on the ‘first' take – probably due to girlfriend distraction? Pleased to say I passed on the second attempt and later added endorsements in electrical supply and engineering physics.

General Assistant Engineer in Norwich

My career started in earnest when I was appointed General Assistant Engineer in Norwich late in 1963. The work involved planning, construction, maintenance and operation of underground and overhead distribution networks with standby / callout duty outside normal working hours.

To carry out my duties I was loaned a specially fitted vehicle – usually a Morris Traveller Estate car. These had wooden window and doorframes (which often grew moss outside!) Luckily the car could also be used for limited private travel – very handy as being newly married, we could not afford our own transport. The car was usually loaded down with tools and test equipment and fitted with radio telephone – a heavy and enormous instrument by today's standards! It was used to communicate with control room staff for outdoor switching, earthing and repairs on the medium and high voltage electrical distribution systems.

This work could be exciting when navigating in rural areas, searching for pole-mounted transformers over ploughed fields, often in pitch darkness, but being ‘on call' restricted movement from home during leisure time.

It was my first experience of being Authorised as a ‘Competent Person' using Permits-to- Work and Sanctions-to-Test for safe operation on high voltage systems.

Growing Responsibilities

In 1966, and for reasons of promotion and experience I applied for and gained a Third Assistant Engineers position in the Northwood District of Middlesex, To enable us to make this move, we accepted a rented company terraced house in the district. We later managed to afford to buy our own house to accommodate our growing family.

In Middlesex I undertook the same type of work as before but with more responsibility. In addition I supervised direct and contract trade and labour gangs. I had responsibility for plant hire, and safe operational procedures. The Competency level was upgraded to Senior Authorised Person for network switching, earthing, and testing up to 33Kvolts. I issued permits and sanctions as before with central control at Pinner or Watford bases. Unfortunately, a subsequent company re-organisation reduced the appointment to a Fourth Assistant Engineer in the new Watford District.

The high density of housing all built in the same style, proved a navigational challenge. My working district also covered the exclusive areas of Moor Park and Chorley Wood with their private gated roads. The daily mood of these residents appeared to depend on the success or otherwise of their investments the day before!

Supervising Irish tradesman or labourers was always entertaining due to their comical, willing and social natures. On one occasion I was called to a Rickmansworth Estate where a cable-jointer had caused a few mini explosions in his trench by using test lamps of the wrong voltage on a high-voltage cable. Whilst being amusing, this was also extremely dangerous!

Another callout came from a member of public walking his dog around an estate at dusk. The outward walk involved the dog relieving itself against a new lamp-post without harm. On its return a while later to the same lamp-post, the dog suddenly leapt in the air! Investigation revealed that the wires from the time-switch had accidentally become trapped in the metal door, making the door ‘live' at 240volts! To my knowledge neither dog nor owner suffered any permanent affects!

There was also the mysterious case of the disappearing cable! During a road junction scheme of modernisation near Watford, several hundred yards of old lead and copper cable laid in deep ducts had been completely removed – presumably stolen-overnight. Large specialised equipment would have been needed for this operation. We were amazed on our return to work in the morning to find the whole of it gone! Nobody reported seeing or hearing a thing!

Professional memberships – IEng, MIET

It was at this point that I was granted professional membership of the Engineering & Technology Institute and registration with the Engineering Council. This Membership recognises academic achievement, ongoing experience and responsibility in the discipline. It's benefits includes news of latest developments, technical events and visits, use of a large specialised international library, discounts on publications, meeting fellow engineers, etc as well as use of the protected "post nominals" after ones name. I am still proud of this membership today!

The film company

Being still concerned with safety aspects of high voltage work, I looked for alternative employment and gained the post of Electrical Workshop Engineer with a large film manufacturing company in the area. This job involved responsibility for all electrical plant on a large factory site, hands-on installation and maintenance of air, water, steam and electrical generation, with supervision of skilled electricians and labourers. I also advised management on safety, efficiency and modernisation projects. It was my first practical experience of a large-scale, self-contained manufacturing plant.

There was initial difficulty in my being accepted as a ‘working' supervisor by the resident electricians but after some pub visits together – things improved!

I enjoyed a change of environment, in particular work on the big Carrier Refrigeration Units, the large boiler plant and updating control logic for a diesel alternator set. I was also impressed by the fast response of a special ‘mercury' team. These folk dealt with the contamination caused by toxic leaks and spills throughout the factory -even as small as a broken pocket thermometer could affect film production. Their museum was a revelation – in particular the Minolta "spy" camera used in World War 2. I took good advantage of staff discount prices on products like one of the first ‘Instamatic' cameras produced.

Whilst maintaining an immersable pump under a generator room, I accidently stepped through a gap in the grating around the pump and my foot and lower leg were scalded by the boiling water below. During my three months sick leave, the company was most attentive and caring.

Back to East Anglia – trailers and containers

As the family were still keen to return to East Anglia I successfully applied for the post of Deputy Plant Engineer with a large trailer and container manufacturing company in Norfolk.

The site contained two 11kvolt sub-stations supplying 433/240 volt distribution networks. I had responsibility for all electrical aspects of plant production and maintenance and supervision of both direct and contract electricians working shifts. Another task was to update plant records and create preventative maintenance programme. I designed and costed several improvement schemes and implemented power reinforcement on site.

The trickiest part of the job was acting as a buffer between Unions and Management. Difficult "demarcation" issues regularly arose! On one occasion following a heavy rain storm overnight, dozens of live welding sockets spouted fountains of water from wiring trunking overhead that was flooded. My aim was to quickly make production lines safe and operating once more, but information had to be passed through a line of several people in turn from Unions to Management before things returned to normal.

A more amusing incident occurred when a fork-truck stopped working due to dry batteries. The correct fluid could not be located, so the driver was told to use clean rain water from a nearby puddle, as a temporary remedy!

Disappointing issues during this employment included the amount of my own time I felt I had to spend tracing and recording electrical circuits and, following notice of a production line upgrade, being told that only half the original amount of capital was now available, so much begging, borrowing and scrounging of material was necessary to complete the work.

It was known that big redundancies were imminent, and I found myself unemployed for the first and only time in my working life in 1981. Luckily this lasted only a few days and I accepted a position of Electrical Technician with a small local fabrication company.

New opportunities in the North Sea Gas Industries – offshore!

Many of these companies grew up to service the North Sea Gas Industries in the early 1980's both in the southern North Sea and off Scotland. I accepted training for off shore gas-rig working which involved survival at sea, helicopter- escape, fire-fighting and advanced first aid – all rather scary, but so necessary!

My work entailed wiring new accommodation modules which were then shipped offshore for ‘hook up' and certification. Fire and Gas protection systems were also commissioned and I flew offshore to complete the work. Flying by helicopter was initially exciting but soon became mundane – even tedious when fog caused days delay coming home and shortening time off.

Whilst offshore I also helped with routine electrical maintenance, working mainly one week on and one week off shore on a variety of platforms. This was my first experience of equipment application in ‘hazardous area' environments – so-called "Ex" technology. The likelihood of fire or explosion on a platform was carefully controlled by specially built and certified equipment working in different areas of risk.

After a couple of years I was offered a permanent post as an Electrical Technician – grade 2 with a major Petrochem company. I undertook project planning and control as part of a multi-disciplinary team of specialists under their own supervisor. We worked closely with Lloyds Register Surveyors who annually certified both new and existing installations for permission to operate.

Life offshore during downtime was relatively boring. Of course space was restricted and activities limited. Television reception was erratic, but the food was good and continually available in the form of enormous meals, interspersed with hefty snacks of hot bacon and sausage rolls! We all overate, although of course alcohol was forbidden on board. Fishing over the side was permitted at first and enormous catches of cods were easily made. This was later stopped as the hooks were a danger to divers. Fish was filleted and stored in freezers then flown back ashore on groaning helicopters.

Following internal reorganisation, I was promoted to Specialist Technician – grade 1 in 1988. The work continued in the main to be the same as before but additionally I became a member of the production crew. This new system was not entirely successful and the idea was later abandoned. The work pattern changed to 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off, but for me this only lasted a short time as health problems took over.

Early retirement in 1993 provided me with an opportunity to try self employment within my physical limits. I undertook business training, along with computer courses, and obtained a grant for set up costs. I offered services of portable appliance testing, electrical design, advisory and surveying work. This I found both interesting and demanding until my final retirement in 2000.

I have always had an interest in things practical and repair many items around our house and for friends. My workshop holds many items which will be useful ‘one day' and this often proves to be the case! I have helped three amateur dramatic groups with stage lighting and sound – even acting a bit. Voluntary help with a Scout water centre supply and wiring, helping to build a school swimming pool and church design for a new lighting and wiring system, all helped to keep me busy.

In my early twenties and until late forties I enjoyed combat Judo as a sport both active and in a teaching role, reaching senior grade blue – two under a "dan" Grade.

I have crewed for friends sailing boats both inland and at sea and also enjoyed several narrowboat holidays with the family.

Always being interested in music, I have also sung bass or tenor in various choirs. I have owned an old Melodeon for many years and have just replaced it with a new Hohner model. I am keen to improve this skill and continue to accompany Morris Dancers on their jaunts around Norfolk. I have just attended my fourth weekend learning course.

I became a member of Norwich Engineering Society in 2009 and attend local lecture meetings and technical visits whenever possible.

I am pleased to have had quite a varied career and still keep a keen interest in all technical matters. The future of electrical and electronic technology promises to develop faster and in a more intriguing way than in the past!

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