A Liberator visits Santa Rosa

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

My photo above shows the last flying Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber, which I’d hoped to be flying in earlier this week. Unfortunately, the flight had to be canceled, due to an engine problem, but nonetheless I had a rare opportunity to examine the aircraft in detail. Alongside several other vintage aircraft, the B-24 was visiting Sonoma County Airport, as part of the annual Wings of Freedom Tour, organized by the Collings Foundation.

My interest in this particular type of aircraft stems from the fact that my father flew in them, as a Wireless Operator (W/O) for the RAF, during World War II. I mentioned in a previous article that he volunteered for the RAF on the outbreak of the war, because somebody had given him a “hot tip” that, by not waiting to be conscripted, he’d be able to choose which service he joined, and where he would serve. Unfortunately, that advice turned out to be only half-right, because he definitely did not want to serve in Aden, which was where he actually spent most of the war.

The Worst Place in the World

As reported in the book Wings of Empire, RAF personnel who served in Aden during the 1920s and 1930s described it as the “most repulsive place in the world”. It was from RAF Khormaksar air base that my father flew offensive missions against Italian forces, and also operated many ferry flights of aircraft being transferred from Britain to the Far East. Most of the ferry missions involved his flying between Aden and Malta.

As the war progressed, Britain took delivery of increasing numbers of American aircraft, under the Lend-Lease program. Thus, having started out flying British types such as the Blenheim and Vincent, he later found himself operating such American types as the Liberator and Hudson. (Incidentally, all the type names of the American aircraft were conferred by the RAF; in the US all the types were officially known only by numbers.)

Inside the B-24

My photo below shows the W/O’s position, behind the flight deck, as seen from the front of the bomb bay. This is where my father would have been sitting on those long flights.

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

The photo below, from a slightly different angle, shows the view through to the flight deck from the W/O station.

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Warbirds Together

The B-24 wasn’t the only vintage aircraft visiting Santa Rosa. As shown below, a North American TF-51 trainer (2-seat version of the P-51 Mustang fighter) was just taxying in while I was inside the B-24.

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

Lined up alongside the B-24 was a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, shown below in front of Sonoma Jet Center, who were hosting the visit.

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

Perhaps the most well-known of the visiting types was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, shown below.

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

Gun Crazy

The US has become notorious for having too many guns, too freely available, but fortunately the realistic-looking machine gun shown below is just a dummy! It’s the waist gunner’s position inside the B-24.

Guns at the Airport!

Guns at the Airport!

As I was leaving, work continued to repair the B-24’s engine, as shown below. The aircraft were scheduled to leave the following day, so they had to get the airplane flying again.

Working on the B-24's Engine

Working on the B-24’s Engine

He Never Went Back

As a postscript to the description of my father’s wartime experience, I should mention that he never went back to Aden again (nor anywhere near it) after his military service, and I don’t think he was sorry about that!

I’ve described in earlier posts how the lives of both my parents were blighted by war, and how fortunate I feel that mine has not (so far). I think it’s important to remind ourselves every so often of the ordeals that our ancestors endured in order to maintain our freedoms.

The Miracle of Literacy

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

The image above is an excerpt from one of my earliest attempts at writing (and illustrating). It’s a page from a book called “Stories of Mr. Wolf” that I wrote at home, at the age of six. I still have the book, which I’ve recently scanned because the paper is gradually disintegrating. I can’t claim that those stories would win any literary prizes, nor even hold the interest of anyone else, but I had to start somewhere!

I was always eager to learn to read and write, and was quite happy to practice at home when I felt so inspired. Perhaps unlike many children, I didn’t have to wait for my schoolteachers to insist that I must do it.

The Magical Skill

I can just remember back to the days before I learned to read and write, and I recall my amazement at the adults around me who seemed able to do it with ease. My grandfather, who was retired and lived with my parents, took a daily newspaper and several magazines (including the Dalesman, which is still in print today).

As it appeared to me, he would open the newspaper or magazine, stare at it for a few minutes, then tell me that he had read it! He didn’t seem to need to sound out the words, or follow the text with his finger, and yet, at the end of the process, he had clearly absorbed and understood the printed words that he’d been staring at. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever learn to do that!

Four Generations of our Family

Four Generations of our Family

The photo above was taken when I was about 2 years old, and shows 4 generations of my mother’s family. The group on the right consists of me, my mother, her mother, and my grandmother’s mother. The man at lower left is my grandfather.

My drawing below is from another book that I wrote and illustrated in 1966, but this was one that we were required to write in class at school, and it features one of my earliest “self-portraits”. Unlike most of my other school work, this book has also survived.

Self-Portrait, 1966

Self-Portrait, 1966

Based on the remaining evidence, a notable difference between the books I wrote at home and those I wrote at school is that the subjects I wrote about at home were generally more imaginative and adventurous! It seems that, at school, our teachers must have restricted us to writing about very mundane topics (perhaps because we all had to write about the same things).

The Basis of Civilization

It seems to me that literacy is the one critical skill that allows human society to advance, and in fact is the sole reason why we’re not all still living in trees or caves.

Anthropologists tell us how other species rely more instinct than humans, so newborns of those species already have many critical survival skills. Humans, as they tell us, have to go through a very protracted growth process, and must be taught almost everything by their parents.

The specifically-human ability to read and write, however, allows individuals to record and transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and that ability has been critical to our progress as a species. If each generation of humans had to restart “from square one”, learning everything from scratch, we would never advance. Instead, each generation is able to learn from the one before, and “stand on the shoulders” of its ancestors to make further progress. Most of this knowledge transmission has always occurred, and still occurs, via reading and writing.

It’s true that recent technological developments have provided us with other mechanisms for recording and transmitting information (such as video). While such systems offer a much richer and perhaps more engaging experience, our basic writing systems still offer vastly greater efficiency for disseminating information than any other recording system. I came to a forceful realization of this when writing my first multimedia title, Dave Hodgson’s PC Secrets (mentioned in this article on my professional blog). I was faced with the choice of delivering information via onscreen text, or via audio, or even via video. In very rough terms, audio playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of text display, and video playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of audio playback.

A New Literary Revolution

At the present time, another literary revolution is actually occurring. All genuinely creative writers and artists should be excited about this revolution, but I wonder how many actually realize what is happening!

The invention of printing allowed written information to be disseminated to mass audiences. Previously, all written works had had to be hand-copied, which was such a laborious process that only a few copies of each book were ever produced.

Nonetheless, printed books still had to be produced and distributed physically, and this led to a situation where publishers became the dominant “gatekeepers”, controlling what could actually reach the mass market.

The image below shows the title page of the oldest printed book in my possession, which obviously I acquired secondhand! The book was published by the University of Cambridge in 1828, and is a collection of the surviving works of the Greek playwright Æschylus.

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1830

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1828

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I taught myself some Ancient Greek while studying in Manchester, but my fluency never became sufficient to read Æschylus’ work in the original! Nonetheless, my efforts led me to the purchase of this and a few other works in Greek.

Books Without Paper

During the past few years, eBooks have started to become popular. Instead of being printed on paper, eBooks are distributed electronically and are read on digital devices. In fact, in many cases purchasers cannot print their eBooks on paper.

Although eBooks have several pros and cons relative to printed books, a remarkable situation has developed whereby major booksellers such as Amazon are actively encouraging authors to self-publish their own eBooks, instead of being forced to follow the traditional routes via established publishers.

In view of this development, I think we’re living at a very exciting time, when the potential for writers (and artists) is greater than it has ever been. There’s really now nothing to prevent those with real talent from being able to publish their works to the world.

And yes, just as with the Desktop Publishing Revolution of the 1980s, the democratization of book publishing will inevitably mean that vast amounts of dross will get published along with the masterpieces! Nonetheless, I think that the wheat will eventually be separated from the chaff, and the world will soon see a whole new publishing landscape. For a skill that has been so critical to the development of our species, that has to be a good thing!

Royal Weddings & Royal Wars


The Dordogne River, France, from Chateau de Beynac

The Dordogne River, France, from Chateau de Beynac

I took the photo above, looking down onto the Dordogne River in France, from the ruined battlements of the Château de Beynac.

I was reminded of this view now because of its perhaps-surprising place in English history. As I’ll explain below, my thoughts were prompted by the recent media coverage of the forthcoming British Royal Wedding, which will take place on the 19th May. Given that I was born in Britain, perhaps some would imagine that I’d be enthusiastic about such an event. After all, as Canadian actor Mike Myers said of his own Liverpool-born father a few years ago (and as reported in the Liverpool Echo):

There’s no-one more English than an Englishman not living in England

Well, I’m sorry to have to admit that I don’t fit that stereotype, at least if it applies to a fondness for royalty and certain other British institutions.

I can’t say that I’ve ever taken any great interest in the activities of the Royal Family. When I was starting my engineering apprenticeship at Ferranti, back in 1981, the nation’s attention was focused on another “fairy tale” royal wedding; that of Charles and Diana. There’s probably nobody in the world who doesn’t know how badly that “fairy tale” ended, for all involved. Sadly, from what we know now, the whole business seems to have been a fraudulent façade from the start.

When I came to live in the US about 30 years ago, I was rather surprised by the level of interest shown by the American media in British royalty. Didn’t they fight a war to free themselves from those overlords? Of course, I now realize that most of the interest really stems from the unhealthy practice of celebrity worship, and not from any actual desire to be ruled by the House of Windsor!

In the latest case, things already seem to be going ”off the rails”, according to reports like this one (from the San Jose Mercury), indicating that the bride’s father is causing embarrassment and confusion.

English Royalty or French Royalty?

I’m not sure how many people outside Britain realize that what’s now the Royal Family traces its roots to William I, a prince from Normandy (France), who in 1066 famously invaded England, killed the English king, and claimed the country as his own.

William then embarked on a ruthless campaign to suppress resistance throughout the country, removing many of the former English lords and replacing them with his own supporters. The Harrying of the North was so cruel that many areas were left uninhabitable for decades afterwards.

Given that William also reigned over lands in what’s now France, his conquest of England led to centuries of strife over the rulership of the territories. This culminated in the Hundred Years War, by the end of which the King of England lost most of his French principalities.

At one point during the Hundred Years War, the border between English and French territory was the Dordogne River. In the photo above, the land from which I took the photo was at that time French, while the land that’s visible on the other side of the river was English.

The photo below shows the Château de Beynac from below. The road from which I took the photo runs along the North bank of the river.

Beynac from the River Bank

Beynac from the River Bank

The photo below shows an evening view of the central plaza in the commune of Domme, a few miles from Beynac. Domme is a bastide like Beynac, but, being on the opposite bank of the Dordogne, was in English hands during the Hundred Years War.

The Mairie of Domme

The Mairie of Domme

Off with their Heads!

One notable (if unsurprising) fact about those medieval wars is that nobody ever asked the populations of the disputed territories who they would prefer to be ruled by. The pretenders to the thrones, and their personal armies, simply fought among themselves, and it was taken for granted that the populace would accept the outcome.

Ideas of government have certainly come a long way since then, and (despite some major shortcomings) one of the world’s most successful experiments in democratic government must surely be the USA.

Unfortunately, in contrast to the US case, many attempts to overthrow monarchies and replace them with democratic governments have not been successful. Amid all the current Royal Wedding fuss, it’s easy to forget that such a revolution once happened in England, as the outcome of the English Civil War. In 1649, the English monarchy was bloodily terminated when King Charles I was publicly beheaded. Unfortunately, the dictatorship that replaced him (led by Oliver Cromwell) was so unpleasant that the monarchy was eventually restored by popular demand!

Thus, while I’m no fan of monarchies anywhere, I’m well aware that the alternatives may sometimes be much worse!

Mondrian’s Mistake: the Illusion of Primary Colors

You Can Call Me Piet

You Can Call Me Piet

The image above is my own work, but was inspired by “Composition C” created in 1935 by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. I’ve been learning more about Mondrian’s life recently (mostly from the book Piet Mondrian: Life and Work), in connection with some design work I’m doing.

You’ll notice that the only colors in my artwork, as in Mondrian’s Composition C, are the so-called “primaries”: red, blue and yellow. Mondrian seems to have become quite obsessed with these particular colors, and he asserted that they somehow exist as special entities in the universe.

Mondrian was part of a group of artists who called themselves neoplasticists, and they published a magazine called De Stijl. As mentioned on page 194 of the book cited above, in 1917, Mondrian claimed in an article in De Stijl that:

All colors are available to our perceptions, but only true colors are susceptible to objective definition. The primary colors, which form the basis for all natural visible colors, fulfill this requirement.

The problem is that the claim is false, because the illusion of primary colors stems entirely from the quirks of the human visual system. Thus, there are no “true colors” in nature that could form the basis of other colors. Colors of light fall into a continuous electromagnetic spectrum, in which no color is more “true” or “primary” than any other.

There are no “primary colors” in nature.

Primary Colors don’t Exist

Those of us who received some type of artistic training at school probably remember being told by our teachers that there are 3 “primary colors”—red, yellow, and blue—from which all other colors may be mixed.

In fact, the illusion that there 3 primary colors stems from the fact that there are 3 types of color receptor cell in our eyes. If instead, due to the vagaries of evolution, our eyes had 2 or 4 such types of cell, our teachers would be telling us that there are 2 or 4 “primary colors” respectively!

An entire book (claimed to be the best-selling art book ever produced) has been written on the misunderstanding of the “artist’s primaries”: Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox. Oddly, though, that very detailed book never makes any attempt to describe the human visual system and its light receptors. Instead, the author explains color mixing effects in paints as the results of impurities in the pigments (which is also true—the pigments are impure).

The Physiology of Human Vision

In a post on my professional blog, I explain in more detail how humans see color, and how additive and subtractive color systems work. These physiological limitations are a key to the basis of many color reproduction technologies, such as television and halftone printing.

Although research continues today on the subject of vision, the fact that human eyes have several different types of light detector has been known since about the 1850s.

For the details, see my professional post, but to summarize here, the human eye has 3 types of receptors for colors (“cones”), plus one further type for monochrome vision (“rods”). Of the 3 types of cones, there is one type that is most sensitive to red light, another that is most sensitive to green light, and a third that is most sensitive to blue light. Each color of light corresponds to a wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum.

In my diagram below, the sensitivity of the blue receptors is shown by the S (for “short”) curve, that of the green receptors by the M (for “Medium”) curve, and that of the red receptors by the L (for “Long”) curve. The R curve shows the sensitivity of the rod cells.

The Sensitivities of the Human Visual System

The Sensitivities of the Human Visual System

Light entering the eye may have any wavelength (i.e., any color) in the visible spectrum. Our brains determine the actual color by combining the intensities received by the three types of rod cell. For example, if yellow light enters our eyes, then the red and green cones see high intensities, while the blue cones see little intensity. The brain converts this information into the perception of yellow.

This means that our eyes can be fooled into seeing colors that are not actually present, by presenting combinations of other colors that trigger the receptors in the same way as the missing color. In fact, many display systems, such as color television, rely on this fact to create the illusion of continuous color from only 3 separate frequencies.

Artists’ so-called primaries are in fact the “subtractive primaries”, which are the complements of the “additive primaries” discerned by our eyes. The subtractive primary colors are more accurately named as magenta, yellow and cyan, respectively.

Primary Colors are in the Eyes of the Beholder

If you think a little about this situation, you can understand how the concept of “primary colors” arises. The fact that we see any color as being the combination of responses from 3 receptors gives the false impression that every color of light is somehow made up of proportions of 3 colors.

It may be disappointing to realize that, in the case of color vision, once again, we find that we don’t experience reality directly, but only a filtered version of it, due to the limitations of our senses.

Is it Art?

I should probably make it clear that I am not criticizing Mondrian’s artwork in this article, nor am I suggesting that he lacked artistic skills. The fact that he was misguided in his claims about primary colors does not detract from the quality of his artwork.

Personally, I was first introduced to Mondrian’s work as a teenager, during my Advanced-level Art studies. Our teacher showed us examples of his abstract work. While I don’t recall her ever explicitly saying so, I got the impression that we were supposed to conclude that it was not “real art”, but I do not agree with that conclusion.

Certainly, debates about the quality of Mondrian’s art did not prevent it from gaining popularity, even long after his death. During the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent designed an entire fashion line using designs inspired by Mondrian’s abstract paintings.

Colors we Can’t See

One implication of the continuity of the electromagnetic spectrum is that there are many “colors” that the human eye cannot see, because they fall outside the range of the receptors in our eyes. One example of this, which caused me some consternation when taking photographs, was the rendition of some flower colors.

In Spring in Britain, woodland areas are often carpeted with beautiful displays of flowers called bluebells. As the name suggests, the appearance of the flowers is bright blue. However, whenever I took photos of such displays (and particularly with a film camera), the color in the photo always came out purplish; not at all the color that my eyes saw in the original scene. The (poor quality) film photo below, from 2001, shows the results.

Bluebells, as captured on Film

Bluebells, as captured on Film

The reason for this apparent change of color is that the bluebells actually reflect ultraviolet light, which our eyes cannot see, but to which photographic film is sensitive.

Apparently, most humans cannot see the ultraviolet in this case; it isn’t just some color-blindness on my part. (I know I’m not color-blind, because I’ve been tested for it several times, such as when I applied for my apprenticeship at Ferranti.) If most people could see the ultraviolet wavelengths, then presumably the flowers would be called “purplebells”!

Modern digital cameras tend to give a more faithful rendition of the color, although it still seems too purple, as shown below in my photo dating from 2007.

Bluebells as captured by a Digital Camera

Bluebells as captured by a Digital Camera

Projecting Our Limitations onto the Universe

Mondrian’s false beliefs in this case are characteristic of much metaphysical theorizing, of a type that also occurs very frequently in religious thinking.

The error is to take some limitation or evolutionary quirk that applies only to the human condition, and then extrapolate that by claiming that it is a “universal truth”.

As the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing!

The Uncle I Never Met

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

The photo above shows my uncle, Elvyn Stephenson Martin, wearing his Army uniform, while on leave, some time in 1944-45.

I never had the chance to meet Uncle Elvyn, because he was killed in action on 14th April, 1945 (about 15 years before I was born, and exactly 73 years ago today). He is buried in Becklingen War Cemetery, in Germany: full details can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site, here.

Like so many millions of others, he was a casualty of World War II, and our family was of course by no means alone in suffering such losses (or even worse). The detail that makes Elvyn’s death seem particularly pointless was that it occurred only 3 weeks before the end of the war in Europe, and thus could not possibly have accomplished anything for anyone.

I know from the CWGC details that, at the time of his death, he was a trooper with the 15th/19th  The King’s Royal Hussars, Royal Armoured Corps. The only other details I have were those that my mother (Elvyn’s younger sister) relayed to me before she died. She told me that Elvyn had spent most of the war in England, in the Military Police, which he disliked because he found himself having to arrest his own countrymen instead of engaging with the real enemy. He was therefore delighted when he was transferred to the Tank Corps, and sent across the Channel.

In early 1945, his regiment was sweeping eastwards through Northern Germany. In April, they were involved in the liberation of a concentration camp (possibly Bergen-Belsen, but I have no confirmation), apparently in support of the 11th Armoured Division. He drove into the camp in a tank, then popped his head out of the top of the turret to look around, and was shot dead by a sniper.

Those Left Behind

Elvyn’s parents, my grandparents, were naturally devastated by his death. I’m proud to say that, during the First World War, my grandfather had been a conscientious objector, for which matter of personal principle he was imprisoned. Nonetheless, he understood that, when the Second War came, there was really something to fight for, so he didn’t object to his son’s actions.

The hand-colored photo below shows my grandmother with Elvyn, shortly after his birth in 1919.

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

I don’t think they ever really recovered from Elvyn’s death (which is understandable).

When my grandmother died in 1979, it fell to my mother to sort through her remaining effects, but she could find no trace of Elvyn at all. There were no documents, no medals, nothing; apparently my grandmother could not bear the memories they brought back, and had disposed of everything. These few photos are all that we now have left.

The Personal Tragedy of War & Unintended Consequences

Whatever grandiose principles any war is supposedly fought for, it always ends up being a tragedy at the personal level, as my grandparents’ experience demonstrates.

Ironically, though, the World Wars led to some improvements in the lives of the general public that were definitely unintended by the promoters of the wars. For example, the First World War led to the granting of the right to vote to women, both in the US and UK. A century later, I think that most of us would agree that a “democracy” that refused voting rights to about half its population perhaps isn’t worth fighting for.

As a result of the First and Second World Wars, in Britain, the National Health Service was founded, bringing great improvements to the standard of living for many people.

Thus, I’m in no doubt that I owe a debt of gratitude to my long-lost uncle, for the consequences of his brave actions, both intended and otherwise.

The Bizarre Demise of Ferranti

Panorama of Middleton, Manchester, 1981

Panorama of Middleton, Manchester, 1981

The photo above shows a panorama of Middleton, a suburb north of Manchester, one summer afternoon in 1981, while I was living there, and working as an apprentice at a famous British electronics company, Ferranti. For a few summers during my engineering training, I did indeed find myself working in some of the “dark satanic mills” of Manchester! I couldn’t have foreseen at the time that, within about 10 years, Ferranti would go out of business in a spectacular collapse, induced at least partially by an international fraud.

I mentioned in a previous post that, having decided during 1980 that I should try to obtain a degree in Electronics, I began searching for an employer who could sponsor me for what was called a “sandwich course”, which interleaved periods of industrial work with the academic study terms. My efforts to find such a position eventually paid off, and I was offered a Student Apprenticeship with Ferranti, commencing in July 1981, whereby I would work for the company each summer while at university. Thus, I lived and worked in Manchester for 3 summers, from 1981 to 1983, but, for reasons that I’ll explain below, I did not return there after graduating in 1984.

Live by the Sword…

In those days, Ferranti was, although not one of the largest electronics companies in Britain, certainly one of the best-regarded (the “Big Three” electronics companies were GEC, Marconi and Plessey). Ferranti had pioneered the development of computers in Britain.

When I received the offer from Ferranti, it caused some discomfort among my family and friends, because the company had a justified reputation for deriving much of its income from military contracts. However, not all of Ferranti’s work was for the military, so I was given the option to work for the company only in civilian product areas.

As things were to turn out, Ferranti did indeed “live by the sword and die by the sword”.

The Boys (& Girl) of Summer

Ferranti’s Student Apprenticeships were arranged so that we were employed by the company directly during each summer break from university. We then attended university for a normal academic year, from October through to the following June.

In July 1981, I presented myself at Ferranti’s Training Centre, at the so-called Avenue Works in Chadderton (sometimes referred to as the Hollinwood plant), to begin my apprenticeship. Most of my fellow apprentices were male, but there was (apparently for the first time ever) one girl in the group.

The first summer consisted of the “EP1” practical training, which was required by the Institution of Electrical Engineers. We learned technical drawing, soldering, welding, metal fabrication, machining, and many other practical skills. This was very intensive training; for example, we spent 4 weeks learning to solder, and were required to pass precision tests.

Our fabrication, welding and machining skills were tested by an assignment to build a toolbox from steel. The diagram below, which I drew in my Ferranti log book, shows how the toolbox was constructed. I still have that toolbox, which is far stronger than similar shop-bought items.

Diagram of the Toolbox I Constructed at Ferranti, 1981

Diagram of the Toolbox I Constructed at Ferranti, 1981

Wafers at Gem Mill

My second summer at Ferranti involved more uncertainty about what my assignment would be. Initially, I was told that there was actually no assignment for me, and that I should return to the Training Centre. After a short time there, several of us were assigned to a photoelastic stress analysis project at the Van Carrier manufacturing division of Ferranti Engineering plc, which was situated in the front offices of what had been the Avenue Works transformer factory.

The project was quite interesting, but obviously it didn’t have anything to do with electronics. I was thus relieved when, about half-way through the summer, an opportunity arose for me to be transferred to the semiconductor manufacturing plant at Gem Mill, Chadderton, to write some software.

Description of Silicon Wafer Test Software, from my Log Book, Gem Mill 1981

Description of Silicon Wafer Test Software, from my Log Book, Gem Mill 1981

Sadly, I took no photos of the Ferranti sites at which I worked, most of which have now been demolished. Therefore, I’ve used a Wikimedia Commons image of Gem Mill below.

Chadderton,Oldham - geograph.org.uk - 1547

Thanks, But I Won’t Be Back

As I discussed previously, my goal in obtaining an electronics degree had always been to get a job with the BBC. It may seem surprising that the terms of Ferranti’s apprenticeship did not impose on us any obligation to work for Ferranti after graduation. Similarly, Ferranti were under no obligation to offer me a job. Both parties were free to terminate the arrangement at any time.

During the Spring 1984 “milk round” (when employers visited universities searching for promising new graduates), I applied to the BBC and, after several interviews, I was hired.

As a result, I had to write to the Training Officer at Ferranti, to tell him that I would be accepting the BBC’s offer and thus would not be returning to Manchester. I expressed my gratitude for the “leg up” that Ferranti had given me when starting my new career. I wasn’t really expecting a reply, but, to my surprise, he did write back, indicating that he was very happy that Ferranti had been able to help me along.

I did feel a little guilty about walking away from Ferranti at that time. I was all too aware that this was the one company that had given me a second chance, at a time when no other engineering employer was interested in me. I had also gained some valuable experience in the electronics industry, which did indeed open the door to other employment opportunities later on. It turned out to have been a “wise” decision on my part, but few could have foreseen that at the time.

Like a Bad Spy Thriller

When I worked there, Ferranti always had the “big company feel”. Everyone was expected to slot obediently into predefined roles, and there was little room for individuality or special skills. (As an engineering student with artistic skills, I was always regarded as a very odd creature!) When I made the decision not to return, however, I certainly had no forewarning that Ferranti might not even exist much longer!

I heard the astonishing news of Ferranti’s demise only after I had moved far away to California, and, in my busy new life, I had almost forgotten that I’d ever worked there.

What I heard sounded so much like the plot of a bad spy thriller novel that I had to double-check the details to be sure that it was true. This story has been told in great detail elsewhere (particularly in the book Ferranti A history: Volume 3, by John F Wilson), so I will just summarize the main points here.

Cover of John Wilson's Book about the Demise of Ferranti

Cover of John Wilson’s Book about the Demise of Ferranti

It seems that, amid the Thatcherite business hubris of the 1980s, Ferranti’s management had become convinced that they needed to expand the company in the United States, and that the best way to do that would be to merge with a US defense electronics company. Unfortunately, when selecting a company, they made an appallingly bad choice. They selected a Pennsylvania-based company called International Signal & Control (ISC).

There were warning signs that ISC was a suspect operation, which Ferranti’s management and their auditors managed to miss. (For example, although nominally a US operation, ISC had chosen to register in Britain, simply to take advantage of relatively lax regulation of businesses in Britain.)

Soon after Ferranti merged with ISC, it began to become apparent that some of ISC’s major contracts actually didn’t exist at all, and that ISC’s management had engaged in elaborate deceptions to maintain their fraud. The CEO of ISC, James Guerin, was actually circulating money through front companies to give the impression that progress payments were being made on the fictitious contracts, but he couldn’t keep that up forever, so when he was no longer able to borrow more money, the whole fraud was exposed.

To be fair, though, the ISC fraud wasn’t the sole cause of Ferranti’s demise. This was the time of the end of the Cold War, when defense budgets were being slashed and contracts canceled. As Wilson mentions in his book, Ferranti had for some time been too dependent for its income on military projects, so these cutbacks exacerbated the company’s already-serious predicament, and led to its bankruptcy.

Look Back in Astonishment

It seems astonishing, and quite sad, to reflect that, that, only 35 years ago, I was working for a British company that was not only designing integrated circuits and computers, but also manufacturing them in Britain. Additionally, at that time Ferranti was designing and manufacturing many other kinds of engineering products, including some that I worked on briefly, such as telephones and van carriers. I’ll probably write more about those other products in future posts.

Whatever bad managerial decisions led to Ferranti’s demise, it still seems tragic that so much world-class innovation and effort came to so ignominious an end, and of course it was particularly disastrous for the all the highly-skilled and hard-working staff who lost their jobs when the company folded.

Ally Pally


Alexandra Palace, London, 1982

I took the photo above, of the remains of Alexandra Palace (colloquially known as “Ally Pally”), while I was a student in London in 1982. I’d seen the Palace from a distance many times before I actually visited it, but eventually I was prompted to go there, partly by a connection to my intended future career.

This immense building in North London is hardly a major tourist attraction, having had a rather unfortunate history and a wide variety of uses since it was built in 1873 (ostensibly as a counterpoint to South London’s Crystal Palace). Nonetheless, the structure remains usable to some extent, and there are currently plans for a major renovation.

The reason that I’d seen Ally Pally so many times before is because it stands prominently on a hilltop, where it can be seen from the East Coast Main (Railway) Line. When traveling between York and London by train, I frequently caught a glimpse of the structure through the carriage window.

I mentioned that the Palace has had a rather chequered past, having burned down on at least two occasions. In fact, there had been a major fire in 1980, just before the visits during which I took these photos. Despite the partial dereliction of the building itself, the grounds are still worth visiting, because of the spectacular views they offer over much of Central London.

The World’s First HDTV Transmitter

Thanks (presumably) to the building’s prominent position, it was chosen in 1935 by the BBC as the site of their first television transmitter. Studios were inserted into the building immediately below the transmitter tower. When the television service first began in 1936, there were alternate transmissions of Logie Baird’s 240-line system and the Marconi-EMI 405-line “High Definition” system.

At the time of my photograph above, the rooms below the transmitter mast were still in use for the broadcasting of Open University programs. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I was studying Electronic Engineering in London because I wanted to get a job with the BBC (which I eventually did), hence my interest in the history of Ally Pally.

Public Events at the Palace

On another occasion when I visited the Palace in 1982, a public festival was underway, and several historic buses from the London Transport collection were ferrying visitors between the Palace and the nearest railway station.

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

One notable vehicle that was operating that day was RT 1 (shown above), which was the prototype of the highly-successful AEC RT class of London buses that preceded the famous Routemaster. RT 1 was built in 1939, and was the forerunner of what eventually were 4674 buses of that class, some of which continued in service until 1979.

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 is seen again here, hemmed in by cars, and earning its keep by shuttling visitors to the nearest railway station. The TV transmitter and studios are visible in the background.

Rails to the Palace

In earlier days, there had been a much closer railway station. To coincide with the opening of the Palace, a railway branch was built from Highgate to the site, which terminated in a station just north of the palace building. The station building still exists today as a community centre, but should not be confused with the modern Alexandra Palace station on the main line.

The line was built by the Muswell Hill Railway, which was eventually taken over by the Great Northern Railway and finally became part of the London & North Eastern Railway group.

Tubes to the Northern Heights

During the late 1930s, London Transport developed major plans to extend its tube railway services in North London, as the so-called “Northern Heights” extensions  of the Northern Line.

Some portions of these lines were to be entirely new, while others were to be electrified sections of existing steam-operated lines. The Alexandra Palace branch became part of the plan, and work to electrify the line began in 1939.

This excerpt from the published 1937 London Underground diagram shows the planned Northern Line extensions, including the branch from Highgate to Alexandra Palace. The line from Edgware to Elstree was to be entirely new, and I mentioned my visit to the “Arches Field” that formed part of the works for that line in an earlier post.

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Unfortunately, the start of World War II intervened, bringing to a halt all work on the extensions.

After the war, development priorities in Greater London had changed, and it was eventually decided not to complete some of the extensions. British Railways, which had taken over the LNER’s lines, continued to operate passenger trains from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace until 1954, when the service ceased.

Ghost Trains of Highgate

The London Transport station at Highgate has its own unusual history. As shown below, due to the cancellation of the Northern Heights extensions, part of Highgate Station ended up as a “ghost” which is still standing unused today.

Things to Come... But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

Things to Come… But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

The surface-level station was rebuilt in Art Deco style at the same time as the new tube station was constructed beneath it. The tube station remains in use today, which accounts for the bizarre survival of the disused platforms above it.

At the time of my visit to the “ghost” station, it was little known, and was extremely overgrown as shown in my picture, but it has now become quite famous as a “Hidden London” site.