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Chapter Six

1957 to 1959 - Battersea, the postgrad years

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In early 1957, I attended, with my contemporaries, the formal University graduation ceremony. This took place in The Royal Albert Hall over two or three days. Each day 6000 graduates were each presented one by one to the Chancellor of the University, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. She was such a consummate regal person that she was able to make each one of us feel that she was personally pleased that we had graduated.

I worked at Sperry for a year before deciding that it was a waste of time. I was still a student at heart and I took up a position as research assistant at Battersea in the Mechanical Engineering department taking up a research project on water hammer which had been started by someone else. Sadly my research supervisor was a silly old goat and no use at all.

The experimental set up was a long 4 inch water pipe fed from a tank high up in the far end of the lab. The tank was fed by a great pump driven by and ancient electric motor. There was a spring loaded valve at the bottom and the experiment was to establish water flow, trip the valve closed and observed the pressure wave generated by the inertia of the water column. My predecessor had fitted an electronic pressure gauge and a home made valve position sensor. These instruments fed into a twin beam oscilloscope which showed the valve position and the instantaneous water pressure. Unfortunately, the oscilloscope camera rarely caught the events and most of the pictures were wasted. Being an electronic engineer, I designed and built a motor driven slit camera which used a photographic paper roll, When I had put together the necessary photo-processing equipment and taught myself how to develop the pictures, I was able to see everything that was going on. With my new found clarity of view, I discovered that the valve which was supposed to shut off the flow to generate the water hammer was in fact bouncing open thus spoiling the experiment. Once again my electronic background led me to a solution to the problem. I knew from conversations with friends about valve bounce in racing motor cycle engines and knew that someone had invented a hairpin spring to replace the normal coil springs which caused the valve bounce. I fitted new springs and everything came good. At last the experiments were working properly. I was never able to find out what I was supposed to do with these experiments and that was as far as I got. I didn't earn my M Sc but I did learn how to do some real engineering.

I supplemented my meagre research grant by teaching. I did several hours a week. The department was pretty disorganized and at one time, I was teaching final year students hydraulics, a subject which I had never studied at that level. My students did pass so I guess it was OK. I also gave private tuition to students who needed it and could afford to pay.

One of the classes I had to do was the tutorial for first year engineers in Mechanics. They were all straight from school where they had been taught physics in the CGS system of units. The mechanics course was taught in MKS units and they were by and large bewildered because the lecturer had not bothered to explain the difference. I offered several ways for them to look at Newton's Third Law hoping that at least one of these explanations might strike a chord. Apparently this got back to the lecturer, who wasn't much older that me. He dressed me down right royally and "instructed" me to teach the subject his way. Needless to say, I ignored his "instruction". Many years later, when I was studying Systems Analysis, I had a lecturer who didn't understand his subject and a tutor who did so I found myself in the same position as my Mechanics students had been in all those years before.

As I said, the Poly was a really old building and my lab was powered by 200V DC generated in the powerhouse. One day I got a call from the plant engineer saying that the generator had caught fire and would I like to come and put it out. The fire was pretty well contained in the machine and it was largely the accumulated dust of fifty years that was smouldering. I remember I used all the CO2 extinguishers in the building putting the fire out, but I did get another exposure to some real engineering.

The local power supply in Battersea Park Rd where I lived was still 200V DC and I had no way of running the hi-fI so I bought a little rotary converter which I installed in the basement of the building. The landlady's brother inspected this and asked that I pay an extra shilling a week in rent to cover the cost of running the machine. I asked how he had determined that it would cost a shilling a week to run and he explained that is was about the size of a fridge compressor and that fridges cost a shilling a week to run. I managed to convince him that I knew what I was doing and that there was no way that it was going to cost a penny, much less a shilling, a week. He begrudgingly let me off but said "If you're so smart, tell me why my television pictures have gone all fuzzy?" I asked him where he lived and, when he had told me, I advised him to rotate the TV antenna 90 degrees and see if the problem went away. He didn't know that I knew that the BBC had moved the TV transmitter from Alexandra Palace in North London to Crystal Palace in South London and that his antenna was pointing its dead spot at the new transmitter. He came back the following week overjoyed that his problem had gone away and after that I could do no wrong.

Because I had some free time I volunteered to be the Editor of Polygon, the college annual magazine. I had the usual difficulties getting contributions and I decided the reprint an amusing poem I had read in the Poly newsletter several years before. I couldn't find a file copy anywhere but I knew that, like every publication, a copy had been lodged with the British Museum. I fronted up to that august establishment with my request and was directed to a repository in deepest, darkest suburban north London where I was provided with the relevant copy and was able to add the poem to my edition of Polygon. I still remember the opening stanza of the poem.

"I was sitting at my digital computer Calculating electronic spin And I wondered as I wielded my transmuter If atoms and electrons every sin."

This was 1958 or maybe 1959 and digital computers were rare exotic things found only in the most advanced scientific establishments.

The Poly had inherited a digital computer from Birkbeck College. They had no further use for it because they had replaced it with a more reliable piece of equipment. This was the very early days of computing and the thing used thousands of thermionic valves as the active elements in the gates. The failure rate of these valves was quite high and mean time to repair was pretty much equal to the mean time between failures so the thing would usually break down again while it was being repaired so it really couldn't do any useful work The computer became a decoration and a symbol of the supposed hi-tech status of the institution.

The early days of the computer revolution were very different from the modern experience. Machines had very limited capability. Memory was measures in hundreds or thousands of bits and processor speed was not measured at all. Input used punched cards or punched paper tape adapted from earlier calculating machines or teletype devices. Output was to a line printer. All this was mediated by acolytes who were blessed with some arcane right to interact directly with the machine and the user would offer up a stack of cards which had been punched by hand on a keyboard equipped machine and some time later, at the convenience of the acolytes, the job would be run and the printout put in a pigeonhole outside the computer room for the user to collect. If there had been any errors in the input cards, the printout would carry some terse and esoteric words indicating that the user was at fault and that the job would have to be re-submitted when the errors had been found and corrected by the user.

I recall that one of my friends at college earned a Ph.D. for writing a program in machine code to calculate the stresses in doubly curved plates. The work took him three years. By the 1980's you could buy program cards for a Hewlett Packard HP41 calculator which would do the same job in seconds.

Some years after this, I visited the factory where the Lyons company, a very large chain of tea shops, was designing and manufacturing computers. The origin of this enterprise was the need to manage the distribution of supplies to the thousands of shops all over the country. Digital computers were being used almost exclusively for scientific calculations but somebody in the Lyons organisation realised that the distribution problem was also amenable to solution by digital means. As no-one was selling computers to commercial enterprises, he decided to set up his own factory, which he did with great success. Not only was the distribution problem brought under control but other companies were eager to buy his computers. I was amused during my visit to the factory to note that the programmers had taken the trouble to make the sound which came from the audible monitor of computer activity play a recognisable tune. Indeed, they had programmed a computer for the Shell company to play the Esso television jingle.

Somewhere along the line the Poly had become a College of Advanced Technology and was on the way to becoming Surrey University. This presumably did good things for the staff but I have since discovered that the old building has reverted to its original role as an institution for the technical education of the children of the mechanic class. I was later offered a University of Surrey degree if I paid some money. Even if it had been free I would not have accepted. I am, and will always be, a graduate of London University, the greatest red brick university in the world.

I had continued to participate in the Students Union and was nominated in the election for the position of President. Somebody decided that it would be a "bad thing" for me to be elected unopposed and drummed up another candidate. After the nominations closed, my employer, the Secretary of the College, informed me that I would have to resign from my job unless I removed myself from the election. Paying the rent and buying food are more necessary than a students union election so I withdrew leaving the other guy to be elected unopposed. However bad I would have been, he was much, much worse.

The immediate past president, Johnny Brooks, and I had decided that the roneo-ed newsletter that had served the Union as its news medium for many years had to be brought up to date with proper printing, real reporting, photographs, and hard hitting stories so "Catkin" was born. The enterprise was a success with plenty of student interest. We allowed the President to read a proof copy and, on one occasion, he took offence at something we had written, confiscated the printing plates, and suppressed that issue. We, and our readership, believed this to be a gross insult and a breach of the concept of "freedom of the press".

The dissatisfaction with his stewardship of the Union came to a head after an abysmal performance as the chairman of the annual conference of Students Unions of Colleges of Advanced Technology. He was forced to resign following the success of a motion of no confidence at a general meeting of the Union.

The Principal of the College decided that we had no right to remove our President from office because he, the Principal, paid him a scholarship. We thought that wasn't right, we had elected him so we could throw him out. In an attempt to suppress what he saw as rebellious elements, the Principal banned all Union activity within the College. Despite our almost universal lack of political experience, the student body was energized in an amazing way by this affront to their beliefs in rightness and democracy. We were able to run a Union-in-exile from the top room of the Grove and we ran general meetings in Battersea Park. The English might be a conservative lot but they have for centuries mandated places throughout the realm where citizens have a right to speak publicly about anything they wish. Sedition, blasphemy, and obscenity are the only subjects not allowed. Hyde Park Corner is the most well known "public speaking ground" but a call to the Home Office is all that is needed to identify the local one. Ours was not far from the College and the Principal couldn't interfere with our citizens rights there.

On the day that the Principal had chosen to call a meeting of the whole student body in the afternoon to explain why he was right and why we were wrong, we held a lunchtime meeting and "prepared" the assembled student body for the afternoon. I spoke energetically and enthusiastically about the evil that the Principal was trying to do to us but Johhny Brooks, who was the final speaker, quietly identified a number of arguments the Principal would raise and the reason each of these arguments was wrong.

A few minutes into his speech, the Principal produced the first of these arguments and a few of us chuckled because Johnny had told us what was wrong with the argument. The Principal pressed on and soon raise the next point Johnny had listed. This time the laughter was more widespread and a little louder. Each succeeding point was greeted with increased mirth. By the fifth or sixth point, the whole assembly was roaring with laughter at him. Only a man of the most extreme self-possession can stand up to such ridicule. He stopped speaking, broke down in tears, left the meeting, and was never seen again in the College. It is said that he was to have been knighted for his services to education but that never happened. I wouldn't have thought that a group of techie students could finish the career of a professional educator but we did. I learned that day, and hold the view to this day, that the power is with the people and anybody who challenges that does so at their peril.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised 6/2/07
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