Newsletter 2013

The 76th Veterans’ Reunion

The 76th annual Veterans’ Reunion took place last year on Saturday 14th April. Our President for 2012 was Ron Stringer, a Marconi trained Marine Wireless Officer who had many years at sea as part of the crew on various commercial ships before joining The Marconi International Marine Company in a shore-based capacity in Chelmsford.

The toast to the President was proposed by our Chairman, Veteran Peter Turrall. In his response Ron Stringer first spoke of the early days of wireless at sea. With installation of the first seagoing wireless telegraphy equipments by Marconi in 1899 came radio officers employed by the company. Take up was initially slow, ship owners considering radio equipment an expensive frill, but after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 came a legal requirement for all ships to carry a wireless telegraphy station and a trained operator. The business expanded over 50-60 years: more R/Os were required for expanding merchant shipping fleets to take on responsibility for an increasing variety of different equipments.

The tide had started to turn at the time that Ron joined the company as a trainee R/O in Liverpool in 1960. The global economic climate saw shipping companies looking to reduce costs in a variety of ways – foreign registration of vessels, employment of low wage third world crews etc. Modern advances in marine electronic technology reduced and eventually wiped out the demand for specialist operators.

After training he started as a Third Radio Officer on a passenger liner working between UK and the West Indies, a very nice life which he enjoyed for about nine months before spending five years with the merchant fleet as a Radio Officer. Then a move ashore to the Marconi Marine service depot in South Shields, a complete change to his way of life, and, within another year, a move to technical department of MIMCO in Chelmsford. He was part of a small team involved in the roll-out of new products into service, dealing with the non run of the mill products and their problems, installations of equipments in non-marine applications – oil rigs, ports and harbours etc and installations on a number of yachts, for example, Gypsy Moth IV. After a stint as technical manager he finally retired when Operations Manager in 2002.

A lesson learned over his many years of experience – avoid over-complication, don’t look for problems – there may be none.

Peter Turrall then introduced Guest of Honour, Tim Wander. Tim worked at Writtle and New Street on various development projects, one of his last being a road monitoring and pricing system. While with Marconi he wrote, in his spare time, the book 2MT Writtle – The Birth of British Broadcasting. He left Marconi Communications before becoming a veteran and has concentrated on writing and occasional lecturing. His latest book Marconi’s New Street Works 1912 – 2012 was published in 2012.

Tim opened by proposing that the world events hinge on coincidences and chance. The sinking of the Titanic was an event which significantly changed the world in which we live for a number of reasons. Amongst the 20 people who missed that sailing were Marconi, his wife and his three children. What if he had been on the ship and had been lost at sea? In 1912 the Marconi Company was nearly broke; they’d invested a huge amount of money into the New Street factory that was not yet complete. He’d just weathered what became known as the Marconi scandal which had been a very big smear on the name of the company. But if he’d been lost at sea, would we have had no beam system, short wave radio, international communications, even no radar. That could have changed the world as we know it: that he missed the Titanic was world changing.

Marconi believed that wireless telegraphy equipment was vital to the future of shipping for safety and operational reasons. Until the Titanic disaster, ships that carried wireless used it solely for taking money for sending paying passenger and crew messages. When the clients went to bed the Marconi operators did likewise – no thought of maintaining a 24 hour watch. The Titanic was the catalyst for change. As a result of the S-O-S messages sent by the Marconi operators, 711 of the 1513 people on board were saved. Suddenly the world needed wireless sets and by 1913 the Marconi factory was handling large orders for its equipment, in profit and paying its first dividend to shareholders and its parlous financial situation of early 1912 turned round.

The factory expanded to meet this demand and was thus prepared to meet, in some ways another chance event, the needs of our military for wireless equipment for the 1914-18 war.
He reflected on the things invented and made at New Street, now in a rather sad state. Broadcasting started at New Street with Dame Nellie Melba’s broadcast, only later transferring to Writtle. Television in 1936/37, because of the investment made by the company, gave an edge with engineers experienced in the technologies surrounding CRTs, displays, klystrons etc – invaluable in WWII for the production of radar equipment. Communications, radio, marine radio were all born there. Research teams initially formed there later moved out to Baddow but it all started at New Street, the catalyst for our modern age.

There were lost opportunities, computers a prime example. On a recent visit to Bletchley Park, he saw a T-A-C computer, in 1963 the best in the world (still working in 2004), but ‘them upstairs’ took against it, there would only ever be three in the world. Ten years later, part of the Marconi empire believed you could have a computer chip on a piece of melted sand and were well on the way to developing a microprocessor, but again the powers that be decided ‘it will never work’. No-one told Intel!

The Marconi story then, great successes, great personal efforts, New Street, the birthplace of the modern world and home of where it all happened, now, 100 years later, one of the most important industrial archaeological sites in the country.