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Chapter Five

1956 to 1957 - Sperry Gyroscope Ltd

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When I graduated I accepted a job as a Graduate Apprentice with the Sperry Gyroscope Co in Brentford which was just a short train ride from Battersea.

My first posting was in the Aircraft Instrument Assembly Shop. My time at the brewery stood me in good stead because I quickly became one of the crew as opposed to a poncy university graduate in a suit and tie which was the general impression workers had of graduate apprentices.

I got a pretty good grounding in the essential disciplines needed in the manufacture of high reliability products. This wasn't explicit but I sort of picked it up by mental osmosis from the crew, the supervisor and the QC guy. I was to use this knowledge later when I was a senior engineer and manager in Australia.

During the winter, I travelled to work in the dark and it was dark again before I got to travel home. This experience is quite normal for those who live in high latitude places but it was something of a shock to an Aussie.

The Manager of the Aircraft Instrument Assembly Shop was a long time employee of Sperry and very traditional guy called Fred Sweet. He delighted in the nickname of "The Bastard of Brentford" believing that fear was the most important tool in man management. He and I got on quite well which was surprising because I was quite the lefty pinko student. I recall he was always on at me to get my hair cut. He went to the barber every Saturday morning and thought I should do the same if I wanted to get on in the company. He didn't realise that I had no great desire to "get on in the company".

One of the duties of Graduate Apprentices was to act as guide to visitors on their tours of the factory. These visitors were of two kinds. We often had parties of Air Force instrument technicians. These groups would be ten or twenty strong and we used to simply guide them from shop to shop and let the supervisors do the spiel in each shop while we chatted to the staff who were mostly young ladies. The other kind of tour was for VIPs. These were mostly senior military personnel and the nice thing was that we got to go out to the pub for lunch with them and the Personnel Manager. Not only was this a good lurk but we also got some insight into what the real customers thought.

We got a new Personnel Manager and I was the first to do a VIP tour after he joined us. When I delivered the VIP to his office at lunch time, I was dismissed and told to return after lunch. I reported this to my fellow graduate apprentices and we decided that this was an unjustified withdrawal of privileges and that we would always be too busy to do VIP tours in future. The Personnel Manager didn't know what had happened and we didn't tell him; he was after all, a Cambridge graduate and should have been able to work it out for himself. We did tell our Training Manager who eventually put the guy straight and our privileges were restored.

Somehow I got involved in the company drama group as the stage electrician. The Secretary in the Publications Department was an actress with the group and I found a friendly place to hide and while away some time when I needed a break from work.

The Manager of the Publications Department was a mad yachtie. He had owned a motor yacht sometime in the past and had bought an aged sailing yacht called Calliope which was berthed at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club. I was recruited to the crew. We were four total novices and one very experienced sailor who had lived in yachts all his life and who had sailed a Thames barge two handed from the north of Scotland to the South Coast. We spent most weekends throughout the winter helping with the repainting of Calliope. Rubbing down many, many square meters of hull with wet and dry in the biting cold of an east coast winter isn't my idea of fun but the rewards were in the future so we kept at it till it was all done.

We set off on our first voyage late one afternoon in the early spring. I recall getting up early the next morning, going on deck and noticing that we were heading due north. Our plan was to sail to Ostend and here we were heading straight for Spitzbergen. I politely asked the skipper when he had turned left and he brushed me off, thinking that I, a mere novice, couldn't know anything about navigation. The truth was that sometime during the night he had mistaken the indication of the compass, and old bomber compass with a T bar cursor, and was sailing at right angles to his intended track. I went below to consult the chart and established a position line which showed all the positions we might be in depending on the unknown time of our inadvertent left turn. He didn't want to know so we sailed around a bit hoping to find a street sign or something in the middle of the North Sea. I spotted a channel marker buoy and confirmed where we were and indeed that my position line was good. I even calculated the time that the left turn had occurred. He still didn't want to know so we sailed around a bit more until we came upon a Belgian fishing boat. As the guy he blamed for our dilemma and as the only one with any French whatsoever, I had to enquire of the fisherman, "Ou est Ostende?" [Where is Ostend?]. The reply, in English, was that we were in the Zeerbrugge channel, as I had determined, but that they were going back to Ostend and that we could follow them in. The waters off the coast thereabouts are pretty shallow with deeper channels running east into each port from the main channel of the North Sea. We had to travel a considerable distance across the shallows with the water depth not quite enough for our draught when we were at the bottom of each swell so we bumped gently along for several hours. The skippers wife had thoughtfully done some salmon sandwiches in lieu of breakfast. Because the wind had dropped, we were motoring along and had to top up the fuel tank from a jerry can. The fuel filler pipe was very small and we didn't have a suitable funnel so most of the fuel went onto the deck and into the scuppers. The combination of heavy rolling motion, bumping on the bottom, petrol fumes and salmon was more than my stomach could take and I was sea-sick.

The rest of the trip was even more eventful with gear failure, someone being knocked overboard, and finally, at one in the morning, one of the crew being ordered to clean up the galley, though he was not responsible for the mess. Knowing that the skipper was unhinged, drunk and armed, three of us jumped ship and spent the night in the ferry terminal waiting for the morning sailing to England. We had enough money between us to pay for the ferry tickets but not enough to get back to London from Folkestone. In addition, I had an out of date passport. We somehow negotiated these difficulties and returned home having finished our sailing careers somewhat ignominiously.

Sperry were trying to diversify their product range and had started a digital machine tools project which they staffed with three graduate apprentices with no effective supervision. We had some fun but the work was pretty aimless and undirected so it came to nothing.

During this period, I needed to make some device I had designed. I borrowed a lathe in the Prototype Machine Shop and proceeded to make parts. When a sizeable piece of metal flew from the machine and rattled round the rafters before landing on the floor, happily without hitting anybody, I was instantly offered a complete manufacturing service for anything I needed as long as I promised not to go near a machine again - ever.

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