UK electronics – a fallen or sleeping giant?

15 April 2008

Anand Sethi
Anand Sethi

Did Britain really do all that? Anand Sethi takes an outsider’s view of the UK’s electronics industry – and asks why it is not living up to its past reputation as a global innovator.

I have for a very long time ruminated about the decline and fall (and now a possible rebirth in a different avatar) of the once quite extraordinary British Electronics industry, but a recent evening spent at a great drinking and eating place near my office in New Delhi with my dear old friend Richard Hart and some of his clients participating in the Delhi Nepcon – Componex Show (not worth writing about!) precipitated off this piece. Our young guests had never heard of some of the great accomplishments of the British Electronics establishment!

The persons accompanying Richard were from Electrolube based in Derbyshire. This jogged some memories of some trips I had made in the 1980’s to Buxton visiting a good company there in the field of Printed Circuit Board Chemicals. But more importantly, I recalled my visits to that extraordinary company called FERRANTI based in the Oldham / Manchester area, which I used as a springboard for the drive up to Buxton.

Now, if memory serves me right, Ferranti was involved in the making (in 1951) of the world’s very first commercially available ‘general purpose’ computer, the ‘Mark – 1’, a vacuum tube based machine. This was followed soon after by the “Pegasus’, but the big break through came after 1956 when Ivan Idelson of Ferranti originated what is now known as ASCII. Ferranti then went on to make solid state component based computers, with the ‘Atlas’ machine being introduced in 1962.

One may ask, so what? Well, the ‘Atlas’ was the first computer to use a virtual memory and so was really the technology forerunner for the highly successful IBM 7090, 360 and 370 series of computers. The point being, Ferranti was there ‘FIRST’. Not totally surprising at that time, as the British Electronics industry was on a high after the World War II successes of Watson Wyatt’s designed Radar systems and then the ‘Enigma’ code breakers!

The Ferranti semiconductor division was the first European company to produce silicon diodes, in 1955 and also had the distinction to produce as early as 1977 the

F-100, a pioneering 16 bit single chip microprocessor, and then in the 1980’s, the very first large uncommitted logic arrays. At the time of my own visits to Ferranti, they were experimenting with solar cells and had actually produced a sun visor with an integrated radio set and earphone running on built in solar cells. I am the proud possessor of one of these and it still works almost three decades later. Sadly, with the declining fortunes at Ferranti the microelectronics business got sold off to Plessey, then to become GEC – Marconi and finally I think, went into oblivion. The discrete semiconductor business, got hived off as Zetex Semiconductors, reinvented themselves and now, one is pleased to note are one of the industry leaders in analog semiconductor solutions for signal processing and power management.

Significantly again in 1951, clearly a landmark year for British and international computing, the Lyons Electronic Office, a division of the Lyons Tea Co. (truly!) introduced LEO, the world’s first stored programme computer and also pioneered the use of mercury delay line techniques. LEO Computers was later to merge with English Electric, to establish International Computers and Tabulators ICT), which finally ended up as International Computing Ltd. (ICL). The general purpose computer division of Ferranti was also merged into ICT.

The Enigma 'code breaker'
The Enigma 'code breaker'

Once again in 1951, another British Company, Elliott Brothers, an instrument manufacturer, established a computer division, later to be called ‘Elliott Automation’, Very soon thereafter the company felt the need to set up its own semiconductor division and in 1966 set up a facility in Glenrothes ( the area later to be called ‘Silicon Glen’), Scotland to manufacture RTL and DTL integrated circuits. And now, hold your breath, in 1967 their Research group set up an MOS facility in Glenrothes and by 1968 had produced 8 bit computer chips based on MOS technology a full three years BEFORE Intel. Incredibly the Glenrothes operation was shut down in 1969 and in a logic defying act, Lord Weinstock completely closed down Elliott’s semiconductor activities just as the IC business worldwide had started to become of great importance.

In 1961, that great genius (?), Sir Clive Sinclair set up Sinclair Radionics to sell electronics products. In 1964 Sinclair Radionics introduced the world’s smallest radio, the match box sized ‘Micro -6’ followed in 1965 by the ‘Micro FM’ the world’s first pocket sized FM tuner receiver. In 1966 Sir Clive created the world’s first pocket television, though surprisingly never marketed. In 1972 he was selling the Sinclair ‘Executive’ the world’s first pocket calculator, but most significantly in 1980, he introduced the ZX 80 arguably the world’s first PC, a year or so ahead of Osborne 1 and IBM PC in 1981. However Sir Clive, always wanting to be the first with everything was already working on the world’s first electric vehicle, the C-5. The oil prices were not then a factor, so the C-5 failed to take off and took Sinclair down with it.

One of Sir Clive’s long term employees, Chris Curry quit because of differences over the technology roadmap and went on to start in 1978 Acorn Ltd., with his Cambridge University friend, Hermann Hauser. Acorn developed a series of single board computers running on the Rockwell 8 bit 6502 chip and using BASIC software. The most famous of these computers was the ‘Proton’ which went on to become the highly successful BBC – B (BEEB) computer ( a true home computer at that time) in 1982. I recall meeting Chris and Hermann at Cambridge in 1982 along with my friend Brendan Hallahan, who along with Rex Ingram were developing the B.T. “Messaging Terminal” a sort of forerunner to the current day PC based e-mailing system. It was evident that Acorn was on a roll having bested Sir Clive Sinclair to win the BBC computer deal.

My involvement in the technology transfer for manufacturing in India of the 6502 chip, the BEEB as well as the B.T. Messaging Terminal will remain as some of my fondest memories. Those were the glory days! Some day I will write my full memoirs. Very surprisingly and interestingly our young guests at the evening mentioned at the beginning of this piece had never heard of the BEEB!

Anyhow, to continue with Acorn, the evolving small computer field desperately cried out for not just 16 bit processors but a highly efficient 32 bit processor that could give vastly improved data bandwidth. Finding nothing readily available on the market including from the leading US chip manufacturers, Acorn was to go on to develop by 1985 their highly acclaimed and once again, pioneering, RISC processor called ARM which basically had the design ethos of the simple 6502 but in a 32 bit RISC environment making it that much simpler to fabricate and test. The Acorn RISC activities were to become hugely successful and given the then highly competitive manufacturing and marketing clout of IBM with its PC, they sensibly opted out of being a home computer company and re-invented themselves as the world’s leading RISC processor company under the new name of ARM Ltd.

What, I am sure, you can see is that in recent history the UK has had many pioneering technological developments in the field of electronics, many times well ahead of the US with all its resources. To the above names one can perhaps even add DEK (screen printers) and Multicore (electronic materials). All not surprising from a country that also gave the world the jet engine (Sir Frank Whittle), the hovercraft (Sir Frank Chichester), the first VTOL fighter aircraft (Harrier), the radar, the ‘Enigma’ code breaker, the wind up radio (Trevor Bayliss), the Dyson vacuum cleaner, Rodime with the 3.5” hard disk drive, and of course Tim Berners Lee with the worldwide web.

World Wide Web - a UK invention
World Wide Web - a UK invention

But why has the UK then failed to capitalise on these significant early starts and become the predominant force that it could well have been? I have heard several different explanations and arguments from my various friends, some reasonable, some totally inane. The interesting ones are:

(i) the loss of the Empire and hence the loss of captive markets

(ii) The technology gurus come from the aristocracy who believe that the open pursuit of wealth is crass and crude

(iii) crippling expenses of World War II

(iv) decline of the leading Universities due to under funding

(v) the hugely competitive funding and marketing clout of the Americans particularly because of their stratospheric spending on defence and space technology etc. etc.

Perhaps there is a combination of reasons such as those cited above. I personally do not have a clear answer. However, what is evident is that where UK companies or entities have been able to anticipate technology changes and trends and those have been able to reinvent themselves into niche players are still around and are forces to reckon with. So we see ARM now doing well and it is good to note their contribution to Apple’s I-Phone. It is also good to note that Glenrothes and the Silicon Glen reinventing to become a significant semiconductor design hub and a major centre for Micro Electric Mechanical Systems after the meltdown of electronics mass manufacturing there. I hear that there is a resurgence of sorts at some of the great Universities such as Cambridge, Manchester and Edinburgh. It would be most interesting to receive opinions from readers on why and what went wrong and what truly is the future of British Electronics?

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