A wonderful trip down memory lane this week, care of my old mate Ewan Livingstone at e2v/EEV. EEV—English Electric Valve Company—started life in 1947 making magnetrons and other tubes—we called them ‘valves’ in those days—mostly for military applications. I joined the company in 1980, and managed to avoid getting fired, leaving with many regrets but of my own choosing in 2008.
The products were world-beating in 1980, and still are. Star performers are CCDs for use in space imaging—I project-managed several. CCDs are light-sensitive computer chips. One of my favourite projects is on board The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite, still sending back spectacular colour images of the Martian surface.
If you are fortunate/unfortunate (which one you choose depends on your perspective) enough to need radiotherapy, there is a very high probability that the machine that provides it will contain a magnetron and thyratron manufactured by EEV in Waterhouse Lane, Chelmsford. (Actually, the company was purchased by Teledyne a few years ago, and a previous MD—operating on the basis that if it ain’t broke, fix it, because it wasn’t his idea—changed the name to e2v; the ‘proper’ name is now “Teledyne e2v”. But it’s still EEV really...)
Two things always struck me about the company, and nothing has really changed; firstly, many of the products are at the same time, state-of-the-art while looking like 1940s technology. The thyratron used in the radiotherapy machine (linear accelerator, or linac), is a large bottle with a hot bit inside; it looks exactly like the myriads of valves/tubes that used to inhabit the insides of radio and television sets, albeit much larger. Tubes in radios and televisions are a thing of the past, but the thyratron in a medical linear accelerator continues to do the job efficiently, effectively, and economically.
The second thing is/are the people. There was, and continues to be, a wonderful feeling of comradeship, togetherness, generosity, being part of a team, pulling together (generally in the same direction) at the company. I came across very few exceptions to that rule at EEV, and the exceptions were nearly always senior people, parachuted in from outside of the company following the departure of the traditional directors who had, as it were, come up through the ranks. When I joined the company, with two notable exceptions, all of the directors were engineers who had joined the company from university. The exceptions were the finance director, and the managing director. The MD had been appointed by Arnold Weinstock, the boss of the parent company, GEC, because the ‘numbers’ were, in his opinion, in need of improving. Actually the new MD, Martin Jay, was one of the good guys and very quickly went native.
My main regret on retirement, was that I would miss—and did miss—my work colleagues. Fortunately, many of them are generous enough to invite me to come and drink with them on a regular basis.
EEV is that rare animal, a world-leading British manufacturer in a UK economy where, I am truly horrified to learn, manufacturing industry currently contributes less than 9% of GDP. I feel genuinely privileged to have worked there.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs