Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Starting my own business

In the post The World of Work I described my first job at Contactor Switchgear (Electronics) Limited. After a few years there, I'd learnt quite a lot about electronics.

The nameplate of the parent company Contactor Switchgear Limited (Photo: Wolverhampton History and Heritage Website).

With the arrogance of youth, I thought I could do a better job on my own. I decided to set up my own business, with encouragement from my wonderful mother who believed it better to try and fail than spend a lifetime regretting that I'd not made the attempt.

Well, there were some distinctly rocky times ahead but I've had some wonderful experiences and definitely made the right choice.

I started trading as 'J. C. Ford Consultant Electronics Engineer' during 1966. My mother had agreed to my using part of the family home (a modest terrace house) comprising the front room downstairs as an office, plus the cellar as a stores and workshop. For some years, the cellar had been virtually a 'no go' area and it was a major task cleaning it out, painting it and laying on better lighting. The worst part was the small adjunct forming a coal cellar. Although we no longer used coal, removing the evidence of a century's deliveries of solid fuel was rather daunting.

Things were very slow at first - nobody wanted to know. Everybody had told me to 'line up' work from contacts before I left employment but that didn't seem right to me, so I didn't. At first, the situation was rather bleak but, because I'd left my employer on good terms, after a while I was offered some sub-contract design and build work by them which helped a lot.

One of the most remarkable projects was the design and build for my former employers of a Ships Movement Indicator to be supplied to Dover Harbour Board. Because of the sheer size of the panels involved, for a few weeks we ended up taking over most of the living room as well as the office and cellar. Mealtimes became a very cramped affair.

Apart from sub-contract work for my previous employer, I managed to obtain some small industrial automation jobs in the local area. They were interesting, but not very profitable (come to think about it, an awful lot of contracts since have been like that).

An introduction to Gerry Gardner, a successful businessman and marvellous British eccentric, led to a change of pace. His company near Canterbury was bidding on a large contract for a Private Mobile Radio system for Lancashire Constabulary and he wanted us to design special digital selective call equipment for use with Philips VHF mobile radio equipment. Although Philips had their own selective call system, it didn't meet the requirements for the Police Network. In supporting the bid, I had my first ever flight, as described in the post here. Subsequently, I made a number of trips to Lancashire (travelling by land) for meetings or tests. It was a fascinating time, not least because the popular television show 'Z Cars' (which ran from 1962 to 1978) although set in the fictional town of 'Newtown' was actually based on Kirkby and Lancashire police. The comparison of fact and fiction was enthralling.

'Z Cars' Opening Title Logo
(Fair use claimed).

I was treated with great kindness by Gerry Gardner and often visited his headquarters which were in a large thatched barn next to his rambling, medieval home. Because of the success of the system for Lancashire Constabulary, we produced other systems for Fire Authorities and the Port of London Authority.

A few people I'd known at Contactor Switchgear (Electronics) Limited who had also moved on came to work with me and it was clear that I'd have to find alternative premises.

I'm afraid I made a rather odd choice, renting most of the former British Waterways canal depot in Broad Street, near the centre of Wolverhampton. This had originally been built for the canal carrying company of Fellows Morton and Clayton Ltd. There was a substantial two-storey brick warehouse building with offices, ground floor warehouse (including an internal canal basin!) and an upper floor warehouse reached via a wonderful spiral staircase. One wing of this building was retained by British Waterways Board as their local Estates Office. In the yard there was a toilet block and a small two-storey building which was already let to an elderly man who made canvas shop blinds. The business had originally made and repaired the large canvas sheets used by freight-carrying narrow boats. The accommodation was completed by a fairly modern 3,000 square foot steel-framed warehouse clad in corrugated cement asbestos sheeting. Finally, there was an outside canal basin.

Needless to say, charming as the property was, it was not particularly suitable for manufacturing electronics equipment. The site was huge compared with our immediate needs but I'd taken the precaution of ensuring that we could sub-let space we didn't need. I suppose the steel-framed building would have been easiest to adapt for our use, but we'd already had interest from a steel fabricating firm in renting that building and soon concluded a letting agreement with them. Rather later, a small mechanical engineering firm rented part of the upper floor of the main warehouse.

For our own needs, partitions and ceilings were erected in part of the ground floor warehouse to provide stores and production areas. At about this time, my former employers had decided to 'slim-down' their electronics operation, resulting in their maintenance manager disposing of a quantity of second-hand workbenches, chairs, shelving units and partitions. Unexpectedly, he offered to sell them to me at very reasonable prices and they proved invaluable in moving into our new home.

The upper part of the main building at Broad Street Depot, as seen from the adjacent railway station in 2013.

In 1970, British Rail approached us about the possible supply of selective call telephone equipment for the electrification between Crewe and Carlisle. Having produced successful systems for use over radio, in my ignorance I imagined that a similar system for use on telephone circuits would present little challenge. A steep learning curve followed as we grappled with the special problems of line communications.

The railways had previously used a system from Plessey which used mechanically resonant reeds to detect a specific calling frequency. Disadvantages were that each telephone installation needed a different resonant reed and its own battery power supply. In addition, when used outside, a large weatherproof housing was required to mount the batteries, the control unit and the telephone instrument.

The Post Office (which wasn't privatised as British Telecommunications until 1981) had approved a weatherproof wall telephone made by Plessey generally referred to as the '745' (there's information on this telephone here).

Our design aim was to cram everything inside this telephone instrument, provided that we could reduce power consumption sufficiently to allow the telephone to be line powered using a variation on established Central Battery techniques. A small number of voice frequencies transmitted as a sequence of tones would allow a single type of selective call decoder to be configured (on site, if necessary) to respond to any desired code. The proposed technique offered the possibility of significant economies. Just when we'd solved the technical problems, we were hit from another direction - component supply problems. I've written about this in the post If it were easy, everyone would do it.

We won the contract with our innovative approach and were kept busy over the next three years building the required equipment in connection with the Power Signal Boxes being installed at Warrington, Preston and Carlisle covering 400 route-kilometres of railway. We supplied our 'C.B. Selective' telephone equipment complete with repeaters, terminal racks, spares, maintenance equipment and training services.

Warrington Power Signal Box, pictured in 2012.