Memories of Marconi Instruments
This is an introductory post to some reminiscences of my time at Marconi Instruments in St Albans, Stevenage and Luton. I will probably follow up with other posts as I recall incidents over the total of 24 years I worked for Marconi Instruments, from October 1978 to April 2002.
Although this won’t be interesting to a large number of people, I want to document what I can still remember before I inevitable forget it and also the act of writing down what I can remember will help me remember other events.
First visit to Marconi Instruments
The first time I visited Marconi Instruments at Longacres, St Albans, was when I was invited down for an interview by Dave Britten who was the product Assembly/Test manager at the time. I don’t know the actual date, but it must have been sometime in the late summer of 1978.
Although I don’t remember much about the interview itself, which was with Robbie Davidson one of the HR staff (although that department was called Personnel in 1978) and Dave Britten himself, I do remember being shown round the Assembly Test department where I would later work. I must have visited all the individual product lines, but the one I remember clearly was a new product called SLMS (Selective Level Measuring System) which was being tested by a Senior Technician I later found out was Martin Danby.
How different interviews were in 1978 compared to today; Although as I said above I don’t remember too many details, I do recall that when I walked out of the factory at the end of the Interview I had a verbal job offer which was followed up a couple of days later with a formal offer through the post. I would be starting as a Test Technician at the St Albans Longacres plant on October 2nd, 1978 at a salary of £4100 pa.
Something which surprises me as I write this post is that I can’t find any pictures of the Longacres plant in google image search; I know it has now been demolished and replaced with a housing estate, but I’m surprised I can’t find any photos at all.
Since I lived in Fakenham with my Mum & Dad at the time, I had to find accommodation in the St Albans area, and Marconi Instruments helped with that by giving me the name and address of a couple who had provided accommodation to other staff in the past. After I contacted them, they offered me a room in their house for £20 a week; although I wasn’t happy to be spending nearly half my money on rent, looking back on it I have to say it was a fantastic deal. I got the use of the room, all my meals and my washing and ironing done for that sum.
The couple were called Mr and Mrs Hamilton, and they lived in Harpenden which is only a few miles from St Albans. I don’t remember a great deal about them except Mr Hamilton smoked a pipe most of the time, had an orange Mini which he used to drive me to the train station in, and he basically did as he was told. I also remember he used to wash the Mini quite regularly, but in order to save water he would only use one bucket. Since his technique would be to wet a cloth in the bucket and wipe the dirt off, all the shine had been removed so the car was an orange matt finish!
First Day at Marconi Instruments
On Monday 2nd October I was driven to the railway station by Mr Hamilton early in the morning and caught a train to St Albans. I think the St Albans station was probably the next stop down or possibly a couple of stops. The Marconi factory was situated on the outskirts of St Albans, in the direction of Hatfield, and I had to walk along Hatfield road for about a mile and a half until I came to Longacres and reported to the security guard on the gate.
At the time, the Marconi Instruments factory consisted of several long workshops where all the component parts of all the products were made. As far as I’m aware, every part of all the products was made on-site, so there was a machine shop making all the chassis and case metal parts, a winding shop which made coils and inductors, a wiring shop where small sub assemblies were put together, a huge main store where large stocks of components and raw materials were kept, and the main assembly plant where I worked.
There was also a design block where the engineers who designed the products worked and at the end of the design block were the offices of the senior managers and directors. I think that building was probably the oldest part of the site and probably formed the main company premises until the company expanded and the other units were built.
In the main assembly plant, the factory was divided into sections based on the products being assembled and tested. There was a long corridor or walkway running the length of the building down the middle, with rows of benches either side and short partitions in the centre of the building where the local line managers had offices.
As I recall, the main product lines being built were PCM (Pulse code modulation), Spectrum Analysers, TV test Equipment (for TV transmission and studio use – not for domestic TV repair), Frequency Counters and ATE (Automatic Test Equipment – basically bed of nails PCM test gear). Other product lines, like Signal Generators, were being built in the other St Albans site in Fleetville.
Although it didn’t particularly strike me at the time (probably because it was the norm), virtually all the assembly staff were women, and all the test staff and management staff were men. The only exceptions were one female test technician who had been an apprentice, and about 5 men who worked in assembly as inspectors.
I was collected from the front security gate by someone from the Personnel dept, and shown around the plant. I remember thinking that it was huge and I’d almost certainly get lost, but of course after a few days I’d got the layout worked out and it didn’t seem so big.
I think when I started on that first day, Dave Britten was on holiday, and nobody else seemed to know which product I was supposed to work on, so they fitted me into the PCM dept. where my first job was working on the TF-2304 modulation meter. (Unfortunately, although I was really interested in photography at the time, I never took any pictures of any of the products I worked on, but I’ve linked this picture from the Internet of the TF-2304).
The job I had to do was use a small jig and work through a bag of LED’s to sort them into pairs matched for brightness which were used in the front panel display. I did wonder for the first day if I’d made the right decision to join Marconi!
After the first day
I don’t recall much of the rest of the first week, but on the second week, when Dave Britten returned from holiday I was moved onto the Spectrum Analyser test line and worked on the TF-2370.
The 2370 spectrum analyser was the premier product made at Longacres at the time, although by the time I joined in 1978 it was past its peak production and the design was a little dated.
The Spectrum Analyser line was run by a Test Supervisor called John Banks who had been an apprentice at Marconi, and was generally considered to be the best Test Engineer we had. His deputy was Derek Matthews and there were about 8 other test engineers ranging from test technicians (my grade) through senior test technicians, test engineers and senior test engineers.
Since my knowledge and experience were with RF electronics rather than digital, I worked on the RF section (the bottom unit in the picture above).
The setup procedure for the 2370 was quite complex as I recall. There were initial setup stations (RF1 & RF2) which took the newly assembled unit and got it basically working. Then the RF unit was joined with it’s display / storage unit and was placed in a ‘hot room’ (a room with a heater which was set to about 35°C) and run for 4 days to try to induce faults. After that the unit was wheeled on a trolley to the ‘Environmental lab’ where it was strapped onto a large table and, whilst running, was vibrated for 10 minutes to make sure it carried on working under those conditions.
After this process, the whole unit was checked and given a final setup before being sent back to the assembly dept. for final casing. Once cased the unit was returned to the test dept. for final test, where a whole series of measurements were taken and recorded.
Over the course of my first year at Marconi, I worked on all the initial setup stages which each took about a day to carry out and involved using a variety of test equipment to set up the individual sections of the unit. The process was documented in a Test Schedule and each instrument had a Test Record which followed the unit throughout its life in production. The idea was to follow the procedures set out in the test schedule and record how the instrument performed in the test record, although I soon found out that there were short-cuts which saved time. (I also discovered that not all the shortcuts were a good idea – basically over time, with experience, I worked out which really were shortcuts and which procedures were best followed to the letter).
At that time it was normal to have units inspected for quality after any work had been done to it and I remember my first encounter with an inspector did not go as well as I expected. Somebody in the dept asked me if I could solder, and because my hobby had been electronics for several years I said I could. I remember my horror when the first unit I worked on was returned from inspection with a note that several joints I’d made had to be re-done because I’d not done them properly. What I’d done was caught the insulation on the wire as I’d soldered the joint. In hobby electronics that’s not so important, but I have to admit it looked pretty bad so I had to quickly learn the standards that MI needed!
Although the setup stages of the 2370 were fun, and after a while could be done by memory without needing to read the schedule, the really fun part was when the unit didn’t work properly and had to be diagnosed and repaired. I really enjoyed diagnosing problems and after a few months became quite good at finding the area of the circuitry which had the problem. Individual technicians had different techniques when I came to repairs – some swapped the PCB and did all their fixing after they had completed their output, others fixed the fault at the time it was found. I always found it best to fix the fault at the time I found it.
After about 9 months I had gained enough experience in the setup stages to be entrusted with the final test process where the unit was checked against the specification to make sure it was ok to pass to finish goods store and be sold.