The Electronic Systems Designer (2009)

Location : Norfolk

I went to a secondary modern school. This was at the end of the War, 1946 I think, something like that, and because the country had been pretty badly knocked about they were teaching all secondary school students things like bricklaying and carpentry and metal work and so on. What you might call constructional skills. When I left school at 14 I went to work for this company that did motor rewinding and repairing, car generators and starters, car battery replating. You couldn't buy anything in those days. If you wanted a battery for your car – tough! We used to put new plates in them and all those things. And that went on for about a year. Because they were a very small firm there were three or four skilled people and a couple of brats. That was myself and a guy called T.O. As I say, we got fired because the boss went out one day and forgot to lock the office. And because we were small boys – well, medium sized boys – we were in there – you know, "What's this? It's a rifle! With real ammunition!" This was in a residential area. We went out into the backyard and we could see the pigeons coming in landing on the rooftops. Paap paap paap … When we had been doing that for about 10 minutes the Law turned up and wanted to know what the neighbours were complaining about. [Laughs.] About 10 minutes after that the boss turned up … "What are you doing with that!? Gor, I didn't forget to lock the office did I?!" [Laughs.] The boss fired us on the spot.

So you were fired even before you started working! Where was this, in Slough?

No, this was when we lived in Christchurch, and the firm was actually in Southbourne. At the bottom of Pokestone Hill, if you really want to know where it was. Anyway, the situations vacant section of the local paper was about six pages close-typed. So I picked on one of these and it looked interesting. It was called M. I. D. I thought, "Ha! Something to get my teeth into here …" because I have always been something of a boffin. So I went to work for them. They were making Formula 500 racing cars and later they went on to James Bond strap-on helicopters. That went on for close on 12 months or so. And then the boss came in – the boss there was an ex-RAF, you know "jolly good show, chaps", ex-pilot – and ex Battle of Britain pilot. He had lots and lots and lots and lots of money. He had a mansion up in Poole, a twin-screw diesel yacht in the harbour, an outrageous sports car, two aircraft, a Miles Messenger and a Miles Gemini, and a Sikorski helicopter.

I should backtrack here a little bit and say that before I left school I was in the ATC and one of my interests was gliding and I learned to fly a glider. In those days they didn't have two-seaters so you did everything solo. When he heard I could fly an aircraft he said, "Come and have a go in mine." So we got to a much better than employer and brat situation, you know, and I used to go flying with him, driving with him and all sorts. So what happened then was that he decided that the helicopter thing was not going too well. He couldn't sell the damn things because nobody would buy them. He decided that what he needed was something relatively cheap and easy for the consumer that could be made in very large quantities and sold in very large quantities. He came up with this gadget for lighting the gas stove. ‘Cos you always had gas stoves in those days. This was a thing rather like a screwdriver but it had a coil in the handle. When you pressed the button the coil energised a bit of iron which pulled into the coil, that broke a contact, disconnecting the coil. So of course it immediately sprang back and made contact, so it buzzed, and in buzzing it made a spark because it was in contact with the coil. I looked at this, and said, "Yeah, it looks like a good idea." It would sell for some pathetic amount of money – these days it would be in a pound shop. I said, "Where does it get its power from?" "Oh, you plug it into the mains." HOT! I said, "You must be crazy." In the first place a lit gas flame is a conductor of electricity, so you effectively connect the gas stove to the mains! The gas stove is piped to all the other gas stoves in the town so you might immediately make them all live to the mains. I said, "You are going to get sued out of your pants if you do this!" " Well," he said, "I don't know if I'll take your word for it." I said, "OK, find through your business contacts a qualified electrical engineer. Ask him, tell him what you're doing, and ask him how safe it is." Well, he came back two or three days later, and said, "You were right, the bloke went very pale and said, "Don't even think about it!" So that unfortunately did the firm in because he was one of these guys who anything he went for he went for all out, and he went for this in the sense of buying machines to actually stretch and cut the iron wire that made the armature and machines to do the coil winding, and all these things, you know. He spent thousands of pounds on this lot and it was completely useless. [Laughs.] One of the skilled guys there, he said, "If I were you, I would beat a hasty retreat."

So at this time you were still a boy, really?

Yes, I was fifteen or sixteen.

Still at school…

Well, I wasn't at school … you would be these days. I was still learning … an apprentice if you like. Because I was still in the ATC and still gliding and flying if you like, why don't you join the RAF as a boy entrant? I had never heard of a boy entrant. So I can now go through my RAF career if you like or I can hop from there to age 40.

Would you mind hopping!? It would be very interesting, but …

Just a very brief summary then. I passed out as top of the entry. In fact those two books over there are prizes from when I left the boy service. I became an aircraft electrical fitter. I went through that for a couple of years, did overseas service and so on and so forth. Went to Egypt, somewhere along the line I got married, we went to Germany, and from Germany came back to the UK. While I was finishing my time in Germany, this was in the time of the Cold War, somebody somewhere looked at my records and said, "Hey, here's a guy we could use on our ICBM (ballistic missile) programme." And another said, "Here's a guy we could use for this," and another one said, "I could use him for this," and in the end I had about four people fighting for where I was to go when I came back from Germany. In the end the people who won were the flight simulation guys so I then went on a course and did flight simulators and stayed with that until I came out of the Air Force. During the course of which I went to Wattisham and then to Coltishall. From Coltishall I came out into Norfolk.

One thing I did which was very well appreciated was, we actually moved the simulator. This is a Lightning – Lightning aircraft. This is a Lightning simulator, they wanted it moved from Wattisham up to Coltishall, and the manufacturers quoted a price that nowadays would probably be a million and a half and the first thing I knew (I was in charge of the simulator then) I got a phone call saying "Is that Chief Tech D?" I said ,"Yerrs ..". "This is Air Marshall Sir Something or other, C-in-C Strike Command." "Yes Sir!" He said, "Have a think about this. I'll ring you again in a day or so when you've had a think about it. Could you and your servicing team … (I had I think about five or six people in my servicing team) … Could you actually dismantle that simulator, move it up to RAF Coltishall, rebuild it and get it working again?"

I discussed it with my servicing team. They thought it was a brilliant idea. So we did it! And we got it all working and everything. So they were delighted. Took us half a year, it was a big job. Don't know if you have seen a flight simulator ..

Only on television …

That doesn't give you much of an idea! So anyway, that got me – I'll show you some of the bits and pieces that came out of that.

So I came out of the RAF at RAF Coltishall and I'd bought a house in Frettenham, and that was it basically as far as the Air Force went. I thought, "What shall I do now? Get a job, I suppose." I looked in the paper, there weren't a large number like there used to be, but there were a few. One of them was for a technical author, I suppose you'd call it. I'd done loads of that stuff, I'd written manuals for this and instructions for that so I considered myself to be a fairly confident author and I was highly technical of course. At that time M. had an installation in Queen's Road, a big place, four stories, multi-storey block. (In Norwich?) Yes, in Norwich, if you're going out of Norwich on Queen's Road it is on the right-hand side – or at least it was in those days. So I went along to them and they gave me an interview. There were two people, and as the interview progressed so these two started to look at each other and they said, "Could you wait in the anteroom for a few minutes?" I said, "Sure." I'd never been on a job interview in my life, I had no idea what the procedures were. So I went and sat in the anteroom and they called me back in and said, "Do you think you could come back next week?" I said, "I suppose I could if it is necessary." I went back the following week and there were five of them there. And they said, "Can you do this? Can you do that? Do you know how this works? What about that? Have you worked on aircraft? Do you know about instruments?" Blimey, this was going back about 25 years. Then, "What do you know about software? Can you write programs? Oh, what language can you write in?" I mentioned several programming languages. I convinced them that I was familiar with aircraft and their systems and that I was familiar with programming.

So they said, "Can you wait in the anteroom?" I was getting used to this. I sat in the anteroom for about 15 minutes. They called me back in. He said, "You are used to supervising and managing technical staff, aren't you?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, do you think you could take charge of this place?" I said, "What, all of it?" Because I had looked them up and I knew what they did there, and what they did there was they wrote the test programs they used on modern fighters and bombers – roll this truck up, plug it in – sort of keyboard and mouse stuff. I said "Yes, I could handle that." There was a sort of sigh of relief. And then they said, "Well, we'd better get down to cases then. The fact is we've only got a vacancy for a grade something or other technical author. That's all we could pay you." I knew what that rate was because I had already checked it out. So I said, "I'll have a think about that. I'll get back to you." Thinking to myself, "Not bloody likely. They want an engineering manager to take over a 200-person high-tech operation and pay him the rate for a junior author." So I thought no more about it basically. I just wrote it off. So I went home, scratched my head for a little while and thought, "I'll have a go at running my own business then, in that case."

So I got hold of a friend of mine – mind you, this is where it gets a little bit … I'd already been in business for some time for several years – before I came out of the Air Force. I'd got permission to do this. So I had business contacts, as it were. So I grabbed the most likely looking one of those and said … his name was … P. I said, "Hey P., how about doing this?" He said, "Right, we'll give it a go, won't we?" We had both just come out of the Air Force so both had our gratuities and things. And in those days the service gratuity would buy you a house, basically. So we got our heads together and spoke to bank managers and so on, and we bought two houses in North Walsham. You know Kings Arms Street, if you start from the Market Place end and go to the other end, just before you get to that fork in the road where it goes round the back, on the left there is a big white gable to the road. A pair of houses. We bought that. He had one of them as a house to live in. I already had a place to live, so we took the other one for a factory, for want of a better word. And we started making stopwatches, of all things. The stopwatches we made were not like a round piece of mechanism with a hand on the front, they were actually digital LED displays with all works in solid state electronics. And we made few of those and we sold a few. Pushed them out, and sold a few more. And this guy came up from London and said "Could you make a six-channel version of that?" With a single display, of course, not six displays. A single display but six channels that you can independently time things out. Thought about that for a bit. "Yes, no problem." And so we made this six channel one and he toted it away looking highly pleased with himself. And by that time we were on fairly good terms. I said "What are you actually doing with a six-channel stopwatch? Are you running motor racing or something like that?" "Oh no," he said. "This is for testing liquids, paints, fuels, lubricants, that sort of thing, for viscosity." I said, "Well, why six channels?" He said, "We have this tank that has got six glass tubes in it, each of which has been stretched when it is hot so you get a very fine drip as it were, and they've got a calibration number on them, because you obviously can't stretch it on demand as it were, you stretch it and then try it. So," he said, "What we do is, we get a scientist to put these in and time them through and he gets his calculator out and uses the number on the tube and the time it takes to cross the thing and you come up with the viscosity number." I said, "You use a scientist for this!" "Oh yes," he said. "How else would you do it?" I said, "I'll tell you how I would do it, I'd put a detector on the thing that timed it across the gap. Put the number that represented that tube as a constant into the system and I'd put the sort of printer they have on tills in shops … I'd put a printer on the end of it that would print out the viscosity." I said. "You don't need a scientist, the man who sweeps the floor could do that, you know." [Laughs] "Could you really do that?" he said. Because you've got to remember where you were in time in those days. There was no such thing … IBM PC? What the hell's a PC? We'd been building computers for about four years by then. Anyway, "Do it," he said. So we did it. It worked. Of course it worked. This is pretty elementary stuff actually. And he said, "I'm coming up to talk to you." And he came up, and "Listen", he said, "I'm going to need X dozen of these." Because it came out to something close to £1000 the whole system, you know. And, he said, "I want a …" he didn't use the word "captive", but that's what he meant. "I want a committed company to make these that won't make them for anybody else." So he said, "What I propose is this. Find a factory – this house is not very professional – find a factory," he said "and I'll buy it for you."

Having discussed it a bit we went down to his place which was in Egham in Surrey, and he lived in a – you could almost call it a palace. It was in Windsor Park. It was, I don't know, about 15 acres, I suppose, imagine the land value of that lot. It was a superb mansion, you know, with a ballroom, laundry, you name it, he'd got it. He even had a rifle range on it, he had Home Office permission to have a rifle range on it. This was where he made these viscometers. The physical viscometers, you know, with a tank and heaters and tubes and things. He also made all sorts of other things for the petroleum and paint industries. So he said, "Well, I can't see you really being able to make a business out of these viscometer stop watches. What I'll do is … (this is him talking) … I'll let you have the stuff that we currently subcontract from Egham. And you'll get the profit from that and anything else you happen to feel like making. And you can afford to run a decent sized factory." And in fact we ended up with 24 people, I think. What he did, he bought the Winery. Next to the free car park. Really big premises. And behind it, where the flats are now, there were yet more premises. And I got stuck into this, put in photographic facilities, electroplating, all these things. And we had a really wonderful business going there. And I had a quality controller who used to be, ironically enough, on simulators, and he came and knocked on my office door one morning. "J.," he said, "I've had enough of this." I said, "What's up, .F?" He said, "We shouldn't keep getting these sub-contract units back with a label on it saying ‘Rejected'." "What's wrong with them?" "They don't say." "Well, didn't you ring them up and ask them?" "Course I did. They said, that's up to you to find out." I oversaw that for a little while and I realized that this was something extremely fishy. So I got hold of A.R. who was the chairman of the outfit at Egham, and said, "Hey, we can't live with this, you know. We get stuff coming back here and they won't tell us what's wrong with it, we can't find anything wrong with it and yet it's been rejected." "All right, I'll look into it." Came back a week later very depressed and rightly so. He said, "I don't know how to tell you this, but it's my son." It was his son that was running the factory at Egham and he was getting backhanders from the subcontractors. He said, "J., he's my son, I can't fire him … So the only thing I can see that would work is for you guys to come down to Egham and establish yourselves down there." I said, "Right, I'll discuss it with my staff." I knew right there and then, I wasn't going, and I knew my partner wasn't going, so that left it pretty empty to start with. Anyway, the bottom line was, he came back up and we said, "no way". He took us out for a slap-up meal and we still said, "no way". "Well," he said, "I'm going to have to close it down, then." So be it. You know … The factory was being fairly largely maintained by work from Egham anyway. So if you shut the factory down and flog it off as it were it won't bother us in the least, or very little. So we did just that. We kept some of the more specialized bits – bromatinting machines, photographic stuff. He sold the whole lot off and we moved temporarily down to Briggate. Now what had happened in the meantime was we'd sold the bungalow we had in Frettenham and bought this smallholding in Briggate. And of course this was made for the job ‘cos we had outbuildings and things and I towed a caravan in there and rebuilt it as a photographic studio, because a lot of our work was photographic. Printed circuits are a photographic process, and we did silk screen printing and stuff like that. We got it all crashing down in Briggate – we worked there for a little while and it got to the stage where …

Oh, I know what happened. Picked up the EDP one morning and in the small ads it said "oscilloscope for sale, £35" and an address at … the other side of Wroxham, a little village, anyway. So I hossed off over there, and knocked on the door and a big burly guy opened the door , "Yeah, wadda you want?" "You're selling an oscilloscope." "Oh yeah, sure," he said. He was American. So I said, "Let's have a look," and he opened his garage and it was an electronics laboratory, he had everything in there. "You've got a good setup here." "Oh," he said, "it's just a hobby. I work for B. and R. in Edinburgh …", no, further up, big oil place … Aberdeen.

He said (I won't use his exact language.) "I am pretty p'd off about it, I'm thinking about going it on my own. You don't want a partner, do you?" I said, "Well, I might do, but he'd have to be pretty technical." He said, "Well, look at this lot …" So this resulted in B.D. becoming a partner in the business and a little while later – not long, three months or something like that – I used to take my daughter from Briggate down to the station at Worstead and on the way you go past the … what's the name of the firm, the big dairy people at Worstead, right near the station, there. They had a laboratory there … something poultry laboratory, I can't think of it. Anyway, there was a sign on the grass – or poked up in the air, and it said "For Sale". I thought, chance would be a fine thing, they probably want half a million for it. Anyway, nothing ventured, nothing gained, I phoned up the estate agent and said, how much is W. poultry laboratory for sale for? He said, 25 grand. I said, "What! No, I mean the freehold." He said, "I mean the freehold." Bloody hell. So I uprooted the For Sale sign and threw it in the ditch, walked round the property and there was much more of it than you would imagine because it went from that corner where you go under the railway bridge right down to the station. That was one property. I walked round it, went into Norwich, to [the Bank].. Walked in the door and said, "I want to see the Manager." "Have you got an appointment?" "No," I said, "I'll just go on up." And I did – before they could say, "Wait a minute." So I walked up – I knew where his office was – banged on the door and went in, and said … (can't think of his name now, call him Sir). I said, "Sir, you have got to come with me and look at this property," I said. "It's about an acre and a half, beautifully made." It had mahogany benches. It was a modern factory and it was built like one. And I said, "It's going for 25 grand." "I'd better have a look at this," he said. So we got in the car, tootled up to Worstead; we walked round it, up to the other end of the property. He said, "25 grand!!" I said, "Yeah". Apparently the story is that they had just been taken over by another company, I believe in Hull or somewhere that already had a poultry laboratory they had only just paid for, and the last thing they wanted was another. So he looked at me, he said, "You serious?" I said "Yeah." He said "It's yours. Whatever money you want, it's yours." So we suddenly became the proud owners of a laboratory and a big plot of land. And we sold the land off for commercial development. They built about three or four factories along there. Small ones, works rather than factories. And so we took it over. And we were there until B.D. and I parted company some couple of years later. And that was really because he was a typical American, you know. "Ho, goodness me, we've got 50 grand in the bank! Well, if we put a new flat roof on here and do the front of this and do this and do that it's only going to cost us 100 grand. We can get 50 grand on a loan …" You know. And that's the way he worked all the time. And the trouble was that the bank was beginning to get a little bit shirty about this and they started to say things like "Well, ok, if you put your home up … or some collateral." And the third time he did that, I said, "B., forget it. I have had it up to here with … my home … being on tenterhooks banking on getting more business. I said, "You want to do it that way, you're on your own." So we drew up a share sales thing and sold my share of the company to him. Gave him time to pay (because obviously he hadn't got any bloody money …). And we parted company.

At that point … I didn't get on too badly with him, he was a jolly sort of chap, you know, and he was honest, that's one thing you could say about him. If he said, "I'll give you 500 quid at the end of the week you could stand there at the end of the week and hold out your hand and get it, you know. So he was honest but he was not a business man as such. When we packed that up his wife and the wife of his newly acquired partner turned it into a nursery, and that's what it is now.

He'd had a house built in North Walsham, you might even know it, Highlands. You know where the crossroads is with the school in the corner, if you go down the hill and round the corner it's up on the bank. He built it for that purpose. The attic went from one end to the other full standing height and he put his electronics workshop in there. But – this makes me sound big-headed – but he didn't actually have the … intuity … the start from scratch attitude to actually do things like that. And before he'd been at it for six months he sort of said, forget it, you know. He then moved to Salisbury where he became a financial advisor. That was the last I heard of him.

In the meantime I had come back to North Walsham and I rented a factory in Gaymers Way, that's behind the dairy there. From there I was then at a stage where we were actually making computers and if it hadn't been for IBM we'd be billionaires by now! Because we were making what amounted to an IBM PC.

So again, what year are we talking about. The 80s? Computing at Gaymers Way.

We were making computers for business use. We didn't sell many for the unfortunate reason that another guy came along and said "Oh, I'll do all the marketing for you under another company name." Which he did, but he was totally useless and as a result we didn't actually sell more than half a dozen of them. But we had another line of business with the same computer for use in engineering and we did some quite remarkable things with that.

We did work for W. S. in Coventry, which was a computer-numerically-controlled grinding machine. Now you've got to remember, we take CNC for granted these days, yes, everybody's got CNC, but it was unheard of in those days. We just manufactured these things – the computer, and the drives, the detectors and all that stuff and it worked. And much to our dismay W. S. called the Ford motor company to come up and have a look at it working. We'd only just built the bloody thing. What happened then was they decided that what they were going to grind that day was the face of a commercial fly-wheel which was about this diameter and about that thick … and the face is where the clutch operates on. So, they said , "Ok off you go then," and the thing went kerchunck boom and the plate spinning, … hydrolic thing through there, grinding machine, grinding wheels, wheeee .. . And the bloke from Ford had his nose pressed against the glass screen. And my friend and I were hiding behind a substantial pillar thinking, hope it's going to work all right. Believe it or not, it worked perfectly. We said, "OK, now we'll demonstrate internal grinding." That was a lump of metal with a hole in it and basically you ground the inside of this hole to a perfect fit to some other bit of kit. I did a grind on that, came back, put another one in – this was all automatic, nobody actually touched anything – boom boom boom, shee, shoo, boom bang, another one in … They did five of these on the trot, by which time my friend and I were reluctantly coming out from our hideyhole and they put this piece of metal into a thing called a talyrond and that is a very very very precise optical measuring system and all five were identical – they weren't plus or minus a tenth of a thousand of an inch, they were absolutely perfect. I couldn't believe this … I couldn't believe it! I've heard the people at W. S. said, "You can't do that! You can't machine five things and they all come out absolutely identical." So we sort of went, "Yeah, of course you can …" And the bloke from Fords was highly impressed and he went off and that was it basically. We came to an exhibition at that place in Birmingham (the NEC) and the same thing happened – basically, everything worked perfectly. The only problem was that nobody had told the operators how to use it and this caused a bit of a problem, but anyway that's a secondary issue. Basically the thing worked fine.

So back we went to Norfolk and got on with some other jobs, we had plenty to work on. After about five or six weeks we thought it was about time we heard something so I rang them up. I said "Is this W. S.?" "No, it used to be. It is now called W. A. L.. S. has sold his bit of it." And then I said, "What is happening with the CNC grinding machine?" "Oh that thing," he said. "We couldn't figure out how to use it. We sold the whole lot to a firm down in Hampshire." I said, "You'd better let me have their name." Which he did. I got on to them and said, "Did you buy the automatic grinding machine from W. S.?" "Oh yes … What did you do with it?" " We dumped it. … " We'd been paid for what we did but that fantastic commercial opportunity, and it would have led us into other CNC machines, just gone like that … because some twit somewhere said, "No I don't understand that, throw it away." [Hollow laughter]. Anyway, that was that job.

Then we did an automated dairy system down in Bournemouth – C. Lane, U. Dairies. They started off with virtually nothing, just a great big site with lots of storage and things, and a bottling machine. And they said, what we want is a complete automated system which will take the tankers in, measure the stuff, pasteurize it, mix it, measure it, put it into the bottling machine, fill the bottles – they were not bottles then, it was plastic stuff like we get now, what they call pergos They used to fill these pergos, automatically load them onto crates, shift the crates onto the trolleys which would take them round Bournemouth. Got that all working, one or two hiccups. One of which was, I was using a very expensive American calculator by Hewlett Packard, and that had American gallons; the silos were filled through a flow meter and that was in litres/second, or something like that – it was in litres. And all the calculations in the computer were done using the calculator and so on, and everything worked except that the silo kept overflowing. This was because we were using American gallons and not British. That was something that didn't take long to sort out and that was all working perfectly and we didn't get any callbacks on it at all. Then about a year later I was talking to somebody who happened to know about the job and said, "How's U. Dairies stuff going? Haven't heard anything." "Oh," he said, "It's gone." "What do you mean, it's gone?" "It's gone, it's not there any more." "What, the whole factory!?" "Yes, they bulldozed the lot and built houses on it." So it's now a housing estate. Why? Money. They decided that if they put houses all on this site and scrapped the rake-off, the cost, of putting the factory there in the first place, they'd actually end up with more money than they started with. So they did. That was another one. It didn't bother us, we got paid for the job, and that was it.

Another one we did, we automated the power station on the Isle of Grain and that worked pretty well and we got one callback to change one parameter. And then, about 12 months later there was some question that came up and I said, "I'd better pop down there and have a look at it." So I zoomed down there, and I should mention this is a huge installation, and it is approached via a roundabout in the middle of which is their security department, which is like a military guardroom sort of thing – you know, you had to book in and show your IDs and all these things. So I drove up to it and there was one bloke there and I said, "Do you want my particulars?" "No," he said, "I'm not interested in them." I said, "I'm now going over to the boiler system." It was an oil-powered power station with boilers. Zoomed off over there. Went in the front door, reception, nobody there. Just a big sign that said "Reception" and a desk. No paperwork, no pens and pencils, or anything, just completely empty. A bit odd, "Anybody about …?" No. Well, I knew where everything was so I trotted off down to the technical office. Normally about six people work in the technical office and it is busy as hell. I went in, one bloke reading the paper. "Where is everybody?" He said, "What do you mean, everybody?" "Where's the engineers? Where's reception? Where's the office staff? Where is everybody?" "Oh," he said. "That was when they were running it as a power station." "What are you running it as now?" "We're not running it!" He said, "The price of oil went up. They said, ‘turn it all off, put it in mothballs'." That's where it is now. And as if that wasn't bad enough, we got a phone call a month or two later from a firm up in Liverpool saying, "Were you the guys who did the wireless system automation for Isle of Grain?" "Yeah." "Can you do one for us?" "Certainly will. We'll give you a quote anyway. If you like the price we'll do it for you." "Send us a quote." Sent them a quote. About three weeks later: "Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news, your quote was accepted. The bad news, we're not going to build the power station after all, because the price of oil has gone up." [Laughter]. It is amazing the sort of things you find out when you start doing that sort of business.

When we were at Gaymers Way we did a system for B. Sugar at Corby and we got a phone call, "Can you do anything with a candied computer?" I said, "Do you mean candid?" "No, I mean candied." He said, "We had an explosion in the laboratory and everything in the laboratory is candied to a depth of about an inch and a half." I said, "Well, chances are that being a computer, sugar and water and so on, it will probably be a write-off. Send it to us anyway and we'll see what we can do. We won't spend more than (I forget the figure now) we won't spend more than £1000." So they sent this down to us and it was candied! It was beautifully done. You know, you could have put little sequins on it and sold it for Christmas cakes. "Anyway," I said to B.- we had B.D. with us then – I said, "What I suggest is we chuck it in a big tank of water, leave it for a few days, pull it out, refill the tank with fresh water and keep doing that for a few days until we can't taste any sweetness in the water. And when we've done that we'll fill it with a mixture of water and alcohol and then we'll dry that off and then we'll take a very close examination of anything that's in it. Then we'll decide if it looks as if it will need any further attention. If it looks OK we'll put the power on and see what happens." Well, believe it or not, the computers worked fine after all that treatment. Then we had the problem – it was all driven by floppy disks, big ones, 5 and a quarter inch – no, 8 inch – floppy disks. And they were quite impossible, you couldn't do anything with them. I said, "Well, what we'll do is, we'll soak them and that would loosen them up a bit, and then we'll carefully peel off the outer casing and just leave the magnetic disk (which was, you know, just like a polythene bag). Just leave the disk." I said, "We'll clean that up very carefully and we'll buy in new floppy disks, split the casing, take out the thing and bin it, and put in the original one." And we did that, and I think out of 20-odd floppy disks only one of them we couldn't recover. And they were absolutely delighted because of course it had got all their lab results and stuff on them. You do get some funny things.

The other funny thing we had was quite local to here. You know, if you go through Bacton and out on the Stalham Road, you come to a crossroads which comes down to Happisburgh, just past that, there's a big farm on the left. One of the things we were doing in earlier days was grain store conditioning, you know, temperature and humidity. And this guy wanted a system to protect his grain because it was getting damp and going rotten and stuff like this. I though, here's an opportunity to really get some leading-edge technology in here, because usually you have a thing about the size of that television to do this job. So in those days things were advancing at a terrific pace, new IC's were coming out, you know. I said, "OK" and we built this system. Don't know how many channels it had – something like 30 channels of monitoring control. And we built it in a box that high and that deep, with digital displays on the front, and the farmer came out in the end, and was all ready to accept it. I went out and said, "What do you want?" "That barn over there." "That's channel 6." Press button 6. Monitoring 6, temperature, humidity, fans on/off. Just a status report of channel 6. "Right, that's pretty good isn't it. Let's try another one." Channel 2. Same thing. We went through this and finally had to write up the acceptance schedules and get them approved before we started. "Well," he said, "it meets the acceptance schedules and seems to work perfectly, but it doesn't seem very much to pay 300 quid for." [Laughter] I mentioned this to a guy who is in the same business as us and he said, "If you opened some of these great big boxes you'll find a little tiny box inside." It was doing the work actually.

We did another one, oh, we did a lot of them actually. We did one right here at Gimingham and another one up in Kings Lynn up on that great big estate on the left-hand side if you are going to go over the bridge and out into the uncivilized areas of Lincolnshire and things. That was a bit scary actually. These guys have all got fairly small stores, the size of a barn and ten feet deep. These guys in Kings Lynn had silos which were 60 feet high – and I don't know if you know about grain, but if you fall in it you go straight down to the bottom. That's your lot. And of course we had to put these sensors on the beams up in the roof – that was a bit scary. I wore my mackintosh because I figured that if I did fall in I'd only got to go like this (flapping his arms) and I wouldn't go down any further. It didn't happen, fortunately!

… run by an ex squadron leader R.P. and he had a place – you know where you go under the bridge on the Cromer Road before you get to Focus, just as you come up the other side of the bridge on the left is where he lived. Anyway, he got us into all sorts of trouble. He got us into trouble with the guy in Gimingham, I can't remember his name off the top of my head, but anyway – it is 30 years ago. He invited 15 or 20 people to see this system tested, basically the initial testing. I didn't think anything about it actually, some people they were looking at this and asking how it all worked and so on. This rough looking guy turned up. "What rrr all these people here forrr?" "Don't ask me, ask Mr.P." "Oh, well, we didn't think you'd mind." He hadn't asked permission, he'd brought all these people onto this guy's farm – same bloke as has got it now, or the same name, but I can't think what it is. So, R.P. got wrong and we got wrong by reflection as it were. And he did another one! He said, "Got this job for you." I said, "Oh yes." "It's right up your line. It is all grain monitoring and ventilation and all these things, you know. Get me some sketches and stuff done so that we know what we are working with." When we'd done all this, he said, "Yeah, we'll send them out to Botswana." "Botswana!" "Yeah," he said, "It will be all right, we'll just charge them for the price of the carriage and people and so on and so forth." In the end it never happened. We spent all that time designing this lot and it never happened. But that was just one of those things.

That was when we were called the N. I. C. and that was before any of this other stuff came up. It was sort of our first try, as it were.

Then we got involved with a company in London, when I say involved, we didn't get shares or anything like that but they wanted something – I can't remember now what it was, but whatever it was didn't happen. What they decided they wanted was a point-of-sales terminal – in those days there was no such thing, the whole idea was a nonsense, you know – for the Billingsgate Fish Market. We designed, we didn't build, we only designed it on paper, what nowadays you would call a laptop. It had an LCD screen and a keyboard and it used our own version of computer graphics, on the screen it had pictures of cod, and crab and eels and things and you just picked the one you wanted. "Doink" and you instantly got a menu of all the different varieties and their prices and so on. And we took this back to the guy and said, "This is the sort of thing you're looking for, isn't it?" "Well, yes", he said, "but my son decided that he can do that anyway." So I said, "Well, thanks very much, we wish him luck (he never did actually do it) and we'll shove off back to do things that do actually pay us money!"

Then we get to our next stuff, which is battery charging. Now, in the armed services – and that's all of the armed services, you know, Army, Navy, Air Force – they all use batteries and some of them are quite substantial batteries. But they do not have – the charging systems for them are manually operated. In other words you, say, set it to 12 volts, set it to 3 amps, set it to constant, set it to stop at this. You set it all up manually. And all that was happening was that people were blowing up batteries right left and centre. So each class of battery has its own part number. They call it the NATO Stock Number, or NSNs. If you get a battery with an NSN of 1345873 or something like that, then if you get another one with the same number it will be identical in its requirements. So I was advised, I must say that, somebody said to me, "Why don't you design a battery charger with a keypad on it. Just put in the NATO stock number and another set of keys with charge, test, whatever … (various things you could do with a battery) and automate the whole thing". So I said, "It could certainly be done, but I would need to know exactly what the specification of each of those NATO stock numbers is. Does it need charging at 3 amps for 40 hours or 3 amps until it reaches 12.6 volts, or what?" They said, "You can get that from …" whatever the name of the department was. And sure enough you could, so we did. So we started off with a battery charger that had computer control parameters – voltage, current, time, and you just put a block of data in for each of the NATO stock numbers and a cross-reference from the stock number. Funnily enough we did it on the instigation of British Aerospace for aircraft but the people who actually bought it were the Navy and that was just the way it came out. I think the Air Force are probably buying some now, but at the time we were designing it they didn't. They fitted it into a very well known vessel called HMS Ocean. If you watched the news about the Gulf War a little while ago you would have seen it quite a lot. The only ship or boat I've been on where I nearly got run over by a three-ton truck! I came out of the battery charging room with no fear of anything on wheels around and eeeeeeee…! Whoops! [Laughs.] It was because it was equipped for helicopters and things and has got huge deck panels, just big rooms basically, but you are talking about something about 100 feet by 80, sort of thing. So the Navy picked up on that and as a result of the Navy picking up on that we got a requirement from the Trident nuclear submarine people who wanted, it was a fairly basic bit of equipment really, basically a barrier between the power supplies for the control computers for missiles and the missiles themselves. So that was basically just a firewall for want of a better word. So we made a few of those.

From there we went to C…. These were like … you have seen a drawing office chest of drawers. The drawers are about that wide, and that deep and you have about ten of those in a chest of drawers. Well, the problem with military stuff, and indeed stuff that is intended for the military is that different people have different security clearances and what we had to design was a chest of drawers that somebody could come up to and open the drawer, but if he wasn't cleared to open that drawer it wouldn't open. So, what this was in practice was that each guy was given the names of the drawer he could open and they were programmed into the cabinet and he carried a little transponder that told the cabinet his reference number. So the guy could walk up to the cabinet and it would say, "Oh, here comes Joe, he's allowed to get into the drawers 1, 3 and 7 … that's it." We made several of those for British Aerospace actually, that was one customer. That company C… still exists, it's out at Ridlington – no, it's not out at Ridlington at all, it started at Ridlington – it's out at (where are they building this eco-town, or talking about it?). It's out at Rackheath. That's still going well by all accounts and it is actually called C… Systems Ltd now, they've changed the name slightly. It does seem to be all they are doing – I don't like to be big-headed but I design something, and I get it into production and then I leave the company and nothing ever gets designed again. [Laughs] So they are making those cabinets and also battery chargers and as far as I know, that's all. I retired from the company, I retired altogether about four or five years ago now.

My partner in a lot of this, J.L., who you'll find on one of these bits of paper (shows newspaper article). That's one of the battery chargers, incidentally. (1993 – not such a long time ago, really, is it?) She retired at the same time I did. She is about 10 or 11 years younger than me so she couldn't retire completely. She went to a private school down the Yarmouth Road in North Walsham as a cook. Oh yes – she's an excellent cook and a superb cake maker.

Factory premises, let's have a quick think. King's Arms Street, Winery, Gaymers Way, Douglas Bader Close (they were in North Walsham). Then we went out to Catfield. That was a disaster because the bloke who moved us out there, for want of a better word, he took over the financial director's job and he was part of a company in Great Yarmouth who had that big mill on the south side of the river. He basically busted us. J. would sign cheques – one of us had to countersign the cheques – and give it back to him to send off to our creditors. And he didn't do it, just put them away in a folder at the back of the filing cabinet. The next thing we knew, we were in the small claims court and things. We didn't have much money then, and we couldn't meet all these bills and he just walked away from it – basically – "that's your problem". We proved to the satisfaction of the court that we'd signed all these cheques and handed them over and our financial director had not passed them on to the creditors. And they accepted that, but they still put us into liquidation, but they didn't ban us as directors, we could still take another company and be directors for that. That was a real pain, though, because we still had to go to the liquidation sale – that is an auction on the premises – and buy back the bits and pieces we needed … You still managed to carry on? Yes, it's still running now.

We went from there to (the place that's now got the posh houses on it). Ridlington!! We then moved to Ridlington. And from there we moved to Rackheath.

One of my questions is, do you have any good stories? Are you going to tell me about the chickens?

The chickens! That was a good story. This may take a little while. I had a friend in North Walsham, T.U. Does that ring a bell, U. E.? You know where the place is on the road to Stalham. I had done some work with him already on a pill-making machine and so we were fairly well associated. He said, "I've got a query come in from a factory down near Brumstead. They want to be able to automatically count and package live chicks." I said, "Oh yes." He said, "I don't want them handled at all." So we put our heads together and I scratched my head and said, "Here we go." A conveyor belt from here to that window wide and about the length of this room long. That moves along like that – its got walls on each side so that the chicks can't get out of it, and at the end there are things like this that split the chicks into streams. I think there is something like six streams or four streams or something like that anyway. You can imagine it, chicks coming that way are going to go down there, and on the other side of that is another one. So you've got in effect a funnel. So that guides them into a specific spot and on that spot you have a shutter, the conveyor belt then goes round the back underneath and ahead of you you've got the continuation of this funnel which then drops to a box. This box is a segment of a much bigger box. Let's say it had 16 holes in it. This bigger box is on a conveyor that is going at right angles and all you have to do is to be able to move it to get to each of the 16 or however many holes. After that it's just control engineering. So, "OK," he said, "Let's make one." So we built one. Right, time to test it! Down he came with a box with about 30 or 40 chicks in it, tipped them up, they all fell over themselves and they looked around and they stood up, looked around again and started walking the other way … So the conveyor was going that way and the chicks were going the other way, or standing still… I said, "OK, we'll speed this up a bit so they are going to have to run like hell to keep up with the conveyor." So we speeded it up and sure enough, away they went. But when they realized they couldn't beat the conveyor they all got into a big clump and when they got to this thing that was supposed to split them up they just jammed round it. Oh, all right. So we changed the parameters a bit so we could get them under control as it were. But then they decided that since they couldn't actually keep hold of each other and jam up the system they had better jump up onto this thing and stand on it and look around. So… OK – I know what we did to stop them jamming round the splitter, we put a bridge over the thing with pillars down and on the pillars we had wheels off toy cars so they could hit on this thing and roll around without jamming it. That was very well but that was where they decided they could jump up and stand on this, so then we put a cone on the top of each wheel so they couldn't stand on it and they couldn't jam it up, and eventually we got them all going down the thing. BUT, when they got to the chute at the end, they put their feet on it like that and just sat there looking at you. This went on and on and I must admit, it is the only job I've actually failed to get a design that worked. We wrote it off, and what we did was we kept the bit that moved the 16-slot box in two axes and that went under the bench (this is at the hatchery now) and there is a hole in the bench and a detector that would show whether a chick had gone past and the women just picked him out of the box and dropped him down the hole. It was going cheep cheep cheep cheep. So in that sense it wasn't a failure but not what we'd hoped for.

Another one we did was an automated system for growing those things they make Chinese dishes out of, never did know it – it's so long ago I can't remember it now. I keep wanting to say water chestnuts, but I don't mean that. It's like spaghetti but it's a growing stem … Anyway, this consisted of a couple of breeding tanks where they grew these things with a thing that went over the top – a moving bridge that had sprays and heaters and lamps and stuff in it that were all controlled by computer. That worked quite well. It was made for a local firm just up the road. We did that.

You've done so many things. Well, that's absolutely fascinating, we've got so much down.

Somewhere out in the computer there I've got a file called "things that J did."

Petrol pumps. We are talking about the things they have on garage forecourts for dispensing petrol into your car and telling you how much it costs and conveying the same information to the kiosk. A firm who are on the industrial estate still and we designed the whole thing for him. But he was a bit sneaky – he pinched it basically. Pinched the design. He didn't have any money and he ended up in thrall to some middle eastern potentate and still is as far as I know. They are still in business – they seem to have expanded a little bit but I haven't stuck my nose in the door for at least five years, maybe longer.

OK. Well, that's wonderful, you've done so much. You certainly can't sum your life up, can you? What would you say – you have had a very fascinating life.

I have a life philosophy, sort of. Do what you like to do and if someone will pay you for it, that's a bonus.

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