Working Lives

The Electronic Systems Designer (1960-2005)

Location: Norfolk

James was always interested in electrical engineering and design. He finished a successful career in the Royal Air Force at RAF Coltishall before beginning his second career designing computers at the start of the ‘computer age’. James worked for clients including United Dairies and the Royal Navy, and designed products for a number of companies based in Norfolk. Areas of expertise included computer-numerically-controlled machines and controlled access security cabinets.

‘You do get some funny things in the world of business!’

School and first job: a practical start in life

I went to a secondary modern school. This was at the end of the war. 1946, I think, something like that. Because the country had been pretty badly knocked about, they were teaching all secondary school students things like bricklaying and carpentry and metalwork 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. 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 another guy. And we got fired!

Fired for firing!

One day the boss went out and forgot to lock the office. Because we were small boys (well, medium-sized boys), we were in there. You know: ‘What’s this? It’s a rifle! Wow! 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. So we shot at them! Paap paap paap! When we’d been doing that for about ten minutes, the law turned up and wanted to know what the neighbours were complaining about!

About ten minutes after that the boss turned up: ‘What are you doing with that? Cor, I didn’t forget to lock the office, did I?’ The bottom line was the boss fired us on the spot. This was when we lived in Dorset, Christchurch, and the firm was actually in Southbourne.

The start of life as a boffin

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 Marlwood Invention Developments.

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.

The boss there was ex-Battle of Britain pilot, you know: ‘Jolly good show, chaps.’. He had 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.

Before I left school I was in the Air Training Corps. 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 the boss 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, and I used to go flying with him, driving with him and all sorts.

‘Don’t even think about it!’

Then 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 and sold in very large quantities.

He came up with this gadget for lighting the gas stove (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. 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 I 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.’

‘What? 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. Anything this guy 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! One of the skilled guys there said, ‘If I were you, I would beat a hasty retreat.’

A successful career in the RAF

At this time I was fifteen or sixteen. I wasn’t at school, but I was still learning. An apprentice, if you like. And because I was still in the ATC and still gliding and flying, somebody said, ‘Why don’t you join the RAF as a boy entrant?’

I had never heard of a boy entrant. This was amazing! I got all the paperwork, looked at this, and I thought, ‘Cor, this is for me!’ I applied for it, and got taken on as a boy entrant. And I was in the RAF to age 40.

I passed out as top of the entry. In fact I got two books as prizes 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.’ In the end I had about four people fighting for where I was to go when I came back from Germany.

The people who won were the flight simulation guys. I 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 RAF Wattisham and then to RAF Coltishall. It was from Coltishall I came out into Norfolk.

Moving the simulator

One thing I did which was very well appreciated was, we actually moved the simulator. This was a Lightning simulator. They wanted it moved from Wattisham up to Coltishall. The manufacturers quoted a price that nowadays would probably be a million and a half. I was in charge of the simulator then. The first thing I knew about it was I got a phone call saying, ‘Is that Chief Tech Dady?’

I said, ‘Yes….’

‘This is Air Marshall Sir Something-or- other, C-in-C Strike Command.’

‘Yes, Sir!’

He said, ‘Could you and your servicing team actually dismantle that simulator, move it up to RAF Coltishall, rebuild it and get it working again? Have a think about it, and I’ll ring you again in a day or so.’

I had five or six people in my servicing team. I discussed it with them and they thought it was a brilliant idea. So we did it! We got it all working and everything. Took us half a year, it was a big job. They were delighted.

Leaving the RAF, and looking for a new job

I came out of the Air Force at RAF Coltishall. 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 of jobs 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.

A first job interview: not quite the expected outcome!

At that time Marconi had an installation in Queen’s Road in Norwich, a big place, multi-storey block. I went along to them and they gave me an interview. There were two people, and as the interview progressed these two started to look at each other. 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. They called me back in and asked me if I could come back the following week.

I went back the following week and there were five of them there. 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 instrument systems and electrics? What do you know about software? Can you write programs?’

‘Yes, of course I can.’

‘Oh, what language can you write in?’

I mentioned several programming languages that I was used to. I convinced them that I was familiar with aircraft and their systems, and that I was familiar with computers and 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.

One of them said, ‘You’re used to supervising and managing technical staff, aren’t you? 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. 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. They had about 200 people there.

I said, ‘Yes, I could handle that.’ There was a sort of sigh of relief.

Then they said, ‘Well, 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.’ I thought no more about it basically. I just wrote it off.

Setting out in business full time: ‘Let’s give it a go!’

I went home, scratched my head for a little while and thought, ‘I’ll have a go at running my own business.’

I’d already been in business for several years before I came out of the Air Force. I’d got permission to do this. I grabbed the most likely-looking one of my business contacts and said, ‘Hey, 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. In those days the service gratuity would buy you a house, basically. We got our heads together and spoke to bank managers and so on, and we bought two houses in North Walsham. 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.

First stop: stopwatches, and a rapid expansion of the business

The stopwatches we made were not like a round bit of mechanism with a hand on the front. They were actually digital LED displays with all works in solid state electronics. We made a 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?’ So a single display but six channels that you can independently time things out.

We made this six-channel one and he toted it away looking highly pleased with himself.  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. We have this tank that has got six glass tubes in it. Each of them has been stretched when it is hot so you get a very fine drip. They’ve got a calibration number on them, because you obviously can’t stretch it on demand, you stretch it and then try it.

‘So what we do is, we get a scientist to put these in and time them through. 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 don’t need a scientist for that! The lad who sweeps the floor could do that. 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. I’d put the sort of printer they have on tills in shops on the end of it that would print out the viscosity.’

He said, ‘Could you really do that?’ You’ve got to remember, in those days there was no such thing … what’s IBM? What the hell’s a PC? We’d been building computers for about four years by then. He said, ‘Do it.’

So we did it. It worked. This is pretty elementary stuff actually. But it came out to something close to £1000 the whole system. And he came up from London to talk to us.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I’m going to need X dozen of these. 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 what I propose is this. This house is not very professional. Find a factory, and I’ll buy it for you.’

New premises in North Walsham….

Having discussed it a bit we went down to his place which was in Egham in Surrey. It was in Windsor Park. It was about 15 acres, I suppose. Imagine the land value of that lot! It was a superb mansion. You could almost call it a palace, with a ballroom, laundry, you name it, he’d got it. He even had Home Office permission to have a rifle range on it.

This was where he made these physical viscometers, with a tank and heaters and tubes and things. He also made all sorts of other things for the petroleum and paint industries.

He said, ‘Well, I can’t see you really being able to make a business out of these viscometer stopwatches. I’ll let you have the stuff that we currently subcontract from Egham. 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.’

What he did, he bought the winery in North Walsham. Really big premises. And behind it, where the flats are now, there were yet more premises. I got stuck into this, put in photographic facilities, electroplating, all these things. We had a really wonderful business going there. In fact we ended up with 24 people.

….but soon moving on

I had a quality controller who used to work on simulators. He came and knocked on my office door one morning. ‘Jim,’ he said, ‘I’ve had enough of this. We keep getting these sub-contract units back with a label on it saying they’ve been rejected, and they won’t say why.’

I got hold of 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.’ He told me he’d look into it.

He came back a week later and told me there’d been a difficult problem with the factory at Egham. He said, ‘Jim, 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 business partner wasn’t going.

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.

The factory was being largely maintained by work from Egham anyway. So if you shut the factory down and flog it off it won’t bother us in the least, or very little. We did just that. We kept some of the more specialized bits: broma-tinting machines, photographic stuff. He sold the whole lot off and we moved temporarily down to Briggate.

‘Howdy, partner!’ – a new American partner comes on board

In the meantime we’d sold the bungalow we had in Frettenham and bought this smallholding, as it were, in Briggate. This was made for the job ‘cos we had outbuildings and things. 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 they employ silk screen printing and stuff like that.

We worked there for a little while. Then I picked up the EDP newspaper one morning. In the small ads it said, ‘Oscilloscope for sale, £35’, and an address at a little village the other side of Wroxham. So I hossed off over there, and knocked on the door.

A big burly guy opened up and said, ‘Yeah, wadda ya want?’

‘You’re selling an oscilloscope.’

‘Oh yeah, sure,’ he said. He was American.

I said, ‘Let’s have a look.’ 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 Brown and Root up in Aberdeen, and I’m not very happy 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 him becoming a partner in the business.

New premises at Worstead

There was a big dairy firm at Worstead, right near the station. They had a poultry laboratory there. Anyway, I was going past it one day about three months later, and there was a sign on the grass. 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 Worstead poultry laboratory for sale for?’

He said, ‘25 grand.’

I said, ‘What! No, I mean the freehold.’

He said, ‘I do mean the freehold.’

Bloody hell! So I uprooted the For Sale sign and threw it in the ditch. I walked round the property. There was much more of it than you would imagine. It was one property that went from that corner where you go under the railway bridge right down to the station. It was just superb. It had mahogany benches. It was a laboratory and it was built like one.

I walked round it, then went into Norwich. We banked at Lloyds in Bank Plain. I marched in the door and said, ‘I want to see the manager.’

‘Have you got an appointment?’

‘No, I’ll just go on up.’

And I did. I walked up to the manager’s office. I banged on the door and went in.

I said, ‘Sir, you have got to come with me and look at this property. It’s about an acre and a half, beautifully made. It’s going for 25 grand.’

‘I’d better have a look at this,’ he said.

We got in the car and tootled up to Worstead. We walked round the property, from one end to the other.

He said, ’25 grand? Are you serious?’


Apparently the story is that the owners had just been taken over by another company, up in Hull or somewhere. It already had a poultry laboratory they had only just paid for. The last thing they wanted was another one.

So the bank manager looked at me and 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. We sold the land off for commercial development. They built about three or four factories along there. Small ones, works rather than factories.

A parting of the ways….

We were there until my partner and I parted company some couple of years later. 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 …’ That’s the way he worked all the time!

The trouble was that the bank was beginning to get a little bit shirty about this. 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, ‘Forget it. I have had it up to here with my home as collateral, being on tenterhooks banking on getting more business. You want to do it that way, you’re on your own.’

So we drew up a share sales thing and I 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.

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 he’d put it in, 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. The attic went from one end to the other, full standing height. He put his electronics workshop in there. But (this makes me sound big-headed) he didn’t actually have the start-from-scratch attitude to actually do things like that. 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.

IBM gets there first!

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

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. 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. We did some quite remarkable things with that.

Leading the way in CNC – perfection achieved….

We did work for Wickman-Scrivener in Coventry, which was a computer-numerically-controlled grinding machine. Now you’ve got to remember, we take CNC for granted now, but in those days it was unheard of. We just manufactured these things: the computer, the drives, the detectors and all that stuff, and it worked.

And much to our dismay Wickman-Scrivener called the Ford Motor Company to come up and have a look at it working. We’d only just built the bloody thing! They decided that what they were going to grind that day was the face of a commercial fly-wheel. The faces where the clutch operates on.

They said, ‘OK, off you go then.’ The thing went kerchunck boom and the plate was spinning it up, there was a hydraulic thing, grinding machine, grinding wheels, wheeee!

The bloke from Ford had his nose pressed to the glass screen. 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 hidey-hole. Then they put this piece of metal into a thing called a Talyrond, and that is a very very very precise optical measuring system. 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 it! Unheard of!

The people at Wickman-Scrivener said, ‘You can’t do that! You can’t machine five things and they all come out absolutely identical!’

We went, ‘Yeah, of course you can!’

The bloke from Fords was highly impressed. He went off and that was it basically.

….but a wasted opportunity after all

We came to an exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham and the same thing happened. Everything worked perfectly. The only problem was that nobody had told the operators how to use it. This caused a bit of a problem, but 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 we rang them up.

I said, ‘Is this Wickman-Scrivener?’

‘No, it used to be. It is now called Wickman Automatic Lathes. Scrivener has sold his bit of it.’

‘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.’ He gave me the firm’s name, and I got on to them.

I said, ‘What did you do with the automatic grinding machine you bought from Wickman-Scrivener?’

‘We dumped it!’

We’d been paid for what we did, but that fantastic commercial opportunity, which would have led us into other CNC machines, was gone, because some twit somewhere said, ‘No I don’t understand that, throw it away.’

Automated dairy system in Bournemouth

Then we did an automated dairy system for United Dairies down in Bournemouth. They started off with virtually nothing, just a great big site with lots of storage and things, and a bottling machine.

What they wanted was a complete automated system which would take the tankers in, measure the stuff, pasteurize it, mix it, measure it, put it into the bottling machine, fill the containers, or pergals, automatically load the pergals onto crates, then shift the crates down and onto the trolleys which would take them round Bournemouth.

We got that all working, one or two hiccups. One hiccup 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 measured in litres. All the calculations in the computer were done using the calculator. Everything worked except that the silo kept overflowing. This was because we were using American bloody gallons and not British! That didn’t take long to sort out.

That was all working perfectly and we didn’t get any call-backs 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 United Dairies stuff going? Haven’t heard anything.’

‘It’s gone,’ he said. ‘The whole factory. They bulldozed the lot and built houses on it.’

They decided that if they put houses on this site and wrote off the cost of putting the factory there in the first place, they’d actually end up with more money than they started with. Fair enough. It didn’t bother us, we got paid for the job, and that was it.

Power stations in Kent and Liverpool – it all depends on the price of oil

We automated the power station on the Isle of Grain, down in Kent. That worked pretty well. We got one call-back to change some parameter.

Then, about 12 months later, there was some question that came up. 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. You had to book in and show your IDs and all these things.

I drove up to it and there was one bloke there. 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. I went in the front door, reception. Nobody there. Just a big sign that said ‘Reception’, and a desk. No paperwork, no pens or pencils, or anything, just completely empty. A bit odd.

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 sitting there reading the paper.

‘Where is everybody?’

‘What do you mean, everybody?’

‘The engineers? Reception? Office staff? Where is everybody?’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we’re not running it any more. The price of oil went up. They just 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? Can you do one for us?’

‘Certainly will. We’ll give you a quote. If you like the price, we’ll do it.’

About three weeks later: ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is, your quote was accepted. The bad news is, we’re not going to build the power station after all, because the price of oil has gone up!’

It is amazing the sort of things you find out when you start doing that sort of business.

A sweet tooth doesn’t always help!

When we were at Gaymers Way we did a system for British Sugar at Corby. One day we got a phone call: ‘Can you do anything with a candied computer?’

I said, ‘Do you mean candid?’

‘No, I mean “candy’’-ed. We had an explosion in the laboratory and everything in the laboratory is candied to a depth of about an inch and a half.’

‘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.’

So they sent this computer down to us and it was candied! It was beautifully done. You could have put little sequins on it and sold it for Christmas cakes.

I suggested 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 couldn’t taste any sweetness in the water. Then fill it with a mixture of water and alcohol, dry that off and take a very close examination of anything that’s in it. If it looked OK we’d put the power on and see what happened.

Well, believe it or not, the computer worked fine after all that treatment. Then we had the problem. It was all driven by eight-inch floppy disks. 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’ll 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). ‘We’ll clean that up very carefully. We’ll buy in new floppy disks, split the casing, take out the magnetic disk and put in the original one.’

We did that, and I think out of 20-odd floppy disks, only one of them we couldn’t recover. They were absolutely delighted because of course it had got all their lab results and stuff on them. You do get some funny things.

‘A tiny little box does all the work!’

One of the things we were doing in earlier days was grain store conditioning: temperature and humidity.

There was a big farm just off the Stalham Road, and this guy wanted a system to protect his grain because it was getting damp and going rotten. Here was an opportunity to really use some leading-edge technology, because usually you have a thing about the size of a television to do this job.

In those days things were advancing at a terrific pace, new integrated circuits were coming out, you know.

I said, ‘OK,’ and we built this system. It had something like 30 channels of monitoring control. We built it in a box with digital displays on the front.

I said to the farmer, ‘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 on channel 6. Tried another channel: same thing happened. We went through this and finally had to write up the acceptance schedules and get them approved before we started.

‘Well,’ the farmer said, ‘it meets the acceptance schedules and seems to work perfectly, but it doesn’t seem very much to pay 300 quid for!’

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 actual work.

A computer engineer always needs a mackintosh!

We did a lot of them actually. We did one right here at Gimingham and we did another one of these up in King’s Lynn, on that great big estate as you go out into the ‘uncivilized areas’ of Lincolnshire.

That was a bit scary actually. Most of these guys have got fairly small stores, the size of a barn and about ten feet deep. These guys in Kings Lynn had silos which were 60 feet high. Now 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.

I wore my mackintosh. I figured that if I did fall in I’d only got to flap my arms and I wouldn’t go down any further! It didn’t happen, fortunately!

It was run by an ex-squadron leader. He got us into trouble with the guy at Gimingham. He invited about 15 or 20 people onto this guy’s farm to see the initial testing of this system. I didn’t think anything about it. Some people were looking at this and asking how it all worked and so on. But he hadn’t asked permission, he’d brought all these people onto this guy’s farm. So he got wrong, and we got wrong by reflection, as it were.

And he did another one! He said, ‘Got this job for you. It’s right up your line.’ It was all grain monitoring and ventilation and all these things, you know. He said, ‘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, it’s in 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 Norwich Instrument Company and that was before any of this other stuff came up. It was, sort of, our first try, as it were.

Billingsgate Fish Market: an early laptop, but no money!

Then we got involved with a company in London. When I say involved, we didn’t split shares or anything like that. What they wanted was a point-of-sales terminal for the Billingsgate Fish Market. In those days there was no such thing, the whole idea was a nonsense.

We designed on paper, but didn’t build, what nowadays you would call a laptop. It had an LCD screen and a keyboard and that 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. Tap the picture, doink, and you instantly got a menu of all the different varieties and their prices and so on.

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.’ (He never actually did do it.)

So I said, ‘Well, thanks very much, we wish him luck, and we’ll shove off back to do things that pay us money!’

Battery charging for the Armed Services

In all of the armed services, you know, Army, Navy, Air Force, they use batteries, and some of them are quite substantial. But the charging systems for them are set up manually. 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 level. All done manually. All that was happening was that people were blowing up batteries right, left and centre.

Each class of battery has its own part number. They call it the NATO stock number, or NSN. If you have a battery with an NSN of 1245673 or something like that, if you get another one with the same number it will be identical in its requirements.

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, the various things you can do with a battery, and automate the whole thing.’

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 the department.’ And sure enough you could.

We started off with a battery charger that had computer control parameters (voltage, current, time). You just put blocks of data in for each of these NATO stock numbers and a cross-reference from the stock number. It worked!

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 when we were designing it they didn’t.

On board ship – a lucky escape!

They fitted this device into a very well-known vessel called HMS Ocean, which was involved in the second Gulf War. 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 having no fear there was anything on wheels around and beeeeeeeep…!  Whoops!

It was because it was equipped for helicopters and things and has got huge flat deck panels, just big rooms basically, but you are talking about something about 100 feet by 80, that sort of thing.

A firewall for Trident

As a result of the Navy picking up on that we got a requirement from the Trident nuclear submarine people. What they wanted 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. It was just a firewall, for want of a better word. So we made a few of those.

Controlled Access Security Cabinets

From there we went to Controlled Access Security Cabinets, or CASCs. These were like a drawing office chest of drawers, with about eight or ten drawers in a chest.

The problem with stuff that is intended for the military is that different people have different security clearances. What we had to design was a chest of drawers that somebody could come up to and just open the drawer, but if he wasn’t cleared to open that drawer it wouldn’t open.

What this was in practice was that each guy was given the names of the drawer he could open. They were programmed into the cabinet. He carried a little transponder that just told the cabinet his reference number. The guy could walk up to the cabinet and it would say, ‘Oh, here comes Joe, he’s allowed to get into drawers 1, 3 and 7, and that’s it.’

We made several of those for British Aerospace actually, that was one customer. That company, CASC, still exists. It’s called CASC Systems Ltd now. It’s out at Rackheath. That’s still going well by all accounts. But that 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! So they are making those cabinets and also battery chargers and as far as I know, that’s all.

Retirement, and a valued partner

I retired from the company, I retired altogether about four or five years ago now.

My partner in a lot of this retired at the same time as I did. She is about 10 or 11 years younger than me so she couldn’t retire completely. She took a job at a private school as a cook. Oh yes, she’s an excellent cook and a superb cake maker.

Working all over the place

Factory premises, let’s have a quick think. King’s Arms Street, Winery, Gaymers Way, Douglas Bader Close (they were all in North Walsham).

Then we went out to Catfield, where we were put into liquidation, although the small claims court accepted that what had happened wasn’t our fault. 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 (which is an auction on the premises) and buy back the bits and pieces we needed.

We went from there to Ridlington, and from there we moved to Rackheath.

Never work with animals (especially chickens….)

I do have a good story about chickens. I had a friend in North Walsham. I had done some work with him already on pill-making machines and so we were fairly well associated.

He said, ‘I got a query come in from a factory down near Brumstead. They want to be able to automatically count and package live chicks. But I don’t want them handled at all.’

We got our heads together and I scratched my head and came up with this: a conveyor with walls on each side so that the chicks can’t get out of it, and at the end there’s things that split the chicks into four or six streams. Chicks coming that way are going to go down one stream, and on the other side of that is another one. So you’ve got in effect a funnel.

That guides them into a specific spot, and on that spot you have a flip-up shutter. Ahead of you you’ve got the continuation of this funnel which then drops into a box. This box is a segment of a much bigger box with, say, 16 holes in it. This bigger box is on a conveyor that is going at right angles. All you have to do is to be able to move it to get to each of the holes. After that it’s just control engineering.

‘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 on this conveyor 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.’ 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!

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 we put a bridge over with pillars down. On the pillars we had wheels off toy cars so they could hit on this wheel and roll around without jamming it. That was where they decided they could jump up and stand on this.

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 and just sat there looking at you.

Never give up….

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. But when we got to the hatchery we kept the bit that moved the 16-slot box in two axes. That went under the bench, which had a hole in it and a detector that would show whether a chick had gone past. 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.

From Chinese dishes to petrol pumps….

Another one we did was an automated system for growing those things they make Chinese dishes out of. I can’t remember what it is now. It’s like spaghetti but it’s a growing stem.

This consisted of a couple of breeding tanks where they grew these things with a moving bridge which 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.

And petrol pumps, the sort they have on garage forecourts for dispensing petrol into your car and telling you how much it costs and communicating the same information to the kiosk. We designed the whole system for one firm, and they are still in business.

A philosophy of life

I have a life philosophy, if you like: do what you like to do, and if somebody will pay you for it, that’s a bonus!

James Dady (b. 1932) talking to WISEArchive in Mundesley on 10th October 2009

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