Our special guest at this year’s reunion was 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 since then has concentrated on his writing and occasional lecturing.
His latest book Marconi’s New Street Works 1912 – 2012 was published in 2012
His address to the 2012 Veterans Reunion can be heard by clicking below and a transcript of the speech is included for those who prefer to read it.
Tim Wander Address (in MP3 format)
Tim Wander – 14-04-2011
Good Afternoon. Many thanks to everybody here. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. As Peter said I never quite made twenty something years with the company but I have spent the last thirty plus years living with the story from day to day.
When Peter invited me I realised that this was 100 years since a very famous liner of the White Star Line which, exactly 100 years ago was heading full speed to a date in destiny. The name of the ship escapes me at the moment but we have been force fed it for the last three months so I decided about an hour ago not to tell you the story of the Titanic because, in the end, it doesn’t end well.
But what I wanted to bring today was the fact that the Titanic sinking changed the world in which we live; and it changed it for a whole series of important reasons. The first reason was, and many of you may not realise, but only 20 people missed the Titanic sailing and five of those people were called Marconi. Guglielmo Marconi, his wife Beatrice and his three children had been invited by Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of the White Star Line and held tickets to leave Southampton and should have been on board the Titanic. In fact, it was only a last minute legal problem with Anglo-American in New York to sail earlier on the Lusitania. Indeed, as the Titanic steamed out of Southampton his wife Beatrice only cancelled her ticket by telegram four hours before the ship sailed. Now, they were sad to see it go and, indeed Marconi still had in his pocket his return ticket for a ship that never docked.
So what I thought I’d offer to you is the fact that the world hinges on coincidences, on half chances. Thank what would have happened if Marconi had been on board that ship. Would he have survived, would he have been able to get into a life raft? But if he hadn’t and he’d been lost at sea. Bear in mind in 1912 The Marconi Company sat at the very crux of a political and economic near disaster. 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, in which he was completely innocent but it had been a very big smear on the history and name of the company. But if he’d been lost at sea we would have had no beam system we’d have had no short wave radio, we’d have no international communications, maybe even no radar. Now maybe that would have changed the world as we know it now. So that mere coincidence the fact that he had to sail earlier, the fact that he missed the Titanic was world changing. But other things changed, as I said in 1912, April 1912, the Marconi New Street factory was nearing completion a hundred years ago form now, but was not open until June, and the company was investing money hand over fist but it was investing money into a market place that did not yet exist. Marconi since his earliest days in 1896 was passionate and, and our new Marconi Veteran President mentioned, that radio was vital for safety at sea, yet in 1912 very few ships still carry Marconi wireless equipment and if they did it was solely for commercial reasons. The Marconi operators, the forebears of the people in this room were only there to take money for sending wireless messages for the crew and, more importantly, for the paying passengers. The very notion of calling for distress was almost alien, the Marconi operators on board when the clients went to bed they went to bed as well, there were no 24 hour watches. Now Marconi was absolutely passionate this was wrong, and it was the Titanic, when she went down with 1513 people but 711 people were saved, that changed that world. Now I won’t go into details about the new regulations, about SOS signals and all the rest of it but again in that half chance, that coincidence, the sinking, the legacy of that Titanic disaster was that the world changed again and suddenly the New Street works that had opened in June became one of the most successful companies that year in the world, they were inundated. The brand new factory designed by Dunn & Co and Cubitts who built it was no longer big enough even though it was the world’s first purpose built wireless factory; they had to put temporary wireless huts, army huts in to handle the load of equipment and for any Marconi shareholders out there, and I think the gentleman on our right had something to do with it, 1913, the year after the Titanic disaster, was the first year that the Marconi Company presented a share dividend to its investors. From 1897, when the company was formed, until 1913 it had solely been one way and the investors had all but had enough because of this thing called wireless and, yes, the transatlantic service had come on line but was not making a profit. And yet at this turning point this crux in history that the Titanic sank suddenly the world needed wireless sets. But there’s one more important thread in the story because two years later the world was plunged into a world war; the First World War the war to end all wars, and let’s be honest, in 1912 1913 wireless in the armed forces was little changed from the Boer War experience that Marconi had fought through as a fledgling engineer when he only had a staff of six people. But, when the demands of warfare, the new wireless stations, the need for telephony in the air, troop’s movements came on board, which company was already in place with factories ready to go into overload, overproduction to meet the demand; it was Marconis.
Now, going back to my theme of coincidences. If the Titanic had not sunk and those people had not lost their lives the New Street factory would not have been ready to equip the British allied forces with radio sets on land, sea and then air and maybe that would have changed the world as well because radio, by the end of 1918, was one of the most important technologies around and many brave radio operators in all the services gave their lives and it changed the world right back to the Battle of Jutland which started off convincing The Admiralty that wireless worked at sea.
But we stand here – OK it was a hundred years since Titanic but it’s a hundred years since New Street, now looking very sad, a factory that has been lost to the ravages of time but what a history. I touched on a few words there but to run through it, the things that were invented there – some people will know I have a bit of a history of the birth of broadcasting – well let’s face it broadcasting started at New Street although I once wrote a book or two called ‘2MT Writtle’ in the end it did start with Dame Nellie Melba at New Street and anything the Writtle boys designed was built at New Street. And, let’s face it; I would argue that New Street built the modern age, it built the wireless age. But if you run through the decades as I have in the new tome, which I can’t take credit for because many of the faces out there and many other people have half written it for me, in some ways I was just the glue that put it on the paper what is fascinating is the passion and the spirit of the memories of the people that come through to the factory and the sad thing is that I had to write the first forty years because nobody now remembers, nobody now remembers the fact that television broadcasting was born there. And actually something that came to me earlier in the year and is in the book, we talked about coincidences and half chances. I’ve never been able to understand why Marconis poured fortunes into the embryonic television industry in 1936 and 1937 and Isaac Schuenberg led the EMI – Marconi team that developed radio and even at its height probably had less than 400 people, but I was reminded and developed an idea that – what’s interesting is that those three years of television development a lot of it at New Street when the second World War broke out, when television broadcasting was closed down halfway through a Mickey Mouse cartoon all the engineers, some 400 people were experts, they were experts in cathode ray tubes, vacuums, new display technology, clever things called klystrons high powered and that was the birth of radar. And I’m led to believe that someone back in 1936 and 1937 within the company or within the government knew that war was coming and really thought we would need a radar system. And the major thing is that’s just part of the story that New Street gave to us. But if you go through I would argue that civil communications, radio, marine was all born there. Baddow Research was born there before it moved out as was the radar division. So it really has been the catalyst for our modern age.
Of course, and I’ve been talking with my colleagues on the top table, there’s also been opportunities lost. Peter’s mentioned one that was my own pet project for many years. Marconis could have been running London’s road congestion pricing, which was, which would have made me very unpopular, but there we go!
But we should have dominated the computer age. I was at Bletchley Park just a weekend ago, an amazing museum and the home of the code breakers and Enigma and also the home of the National Computing Centre. What is quite frightening is that computers I worked with are now in the museum. PDP8s, PDP11s, VAXs, they’re now consigned and my 20 year old son cannot believe that a RAM060 disc drive only had 60 megabytes, of which I’m reliably informed only 48 megabytes were useable. And now my son currently has a 7 terabyte disc drive which he carries around in his case, and that’s quite small. The only saving grace is that I met his Mother over the RAM060 many many years ago.
The world has changed, the computer industry has changed but I think the thing to remember about New Street is we lost the opportunity. They have a thing in Bletchley they call the TAK computer, the T-A-C, the Marconi computer. In 1963 that was the best computer in the world. It led Marconis, in fact that machine they had there ran till 2004 as did many of the SWB transmitters into the sixties and seventies, which shows just how good Marconi engineering was. Now that transmitter, sorry that TAK transistor computer should have made Marconis IBM. But somewhere in the great upstairs someone believed there only ever be three computers in the world. Of course, I don’t know if anybody here but 10 years later some gentlemen up in Scotland who were part of the Marconi empire believed that you could have a computer chip on a piece of melted sand and were a long way down the line in developing what we now know as the microprocessor before the powers that be also said “It will never work”. It didn’t seem to do Intel any harm.
So, the Marconi story that I’ve charted is a story of great successes, great personal efforts, all the people in this room and tens of thousands of others, also the story of opportunities lost and, hopefully, some of the latter all the way through.
I think what we’ve got to remember now about New Street is as a hundred years, New Street is the birthplace of the modern world. I would argue that the site is one of the most important sites of industrial archaeology in this country. It doesn’t seem that that is shared by most people but if you just list, as I have tried to do in a few pages, what went on there, what was developed there, what was built there, TV broadcasting, cameras, I know they were distributed to other sites, but New Street was always the core and the home of where this happened.
I very much fear that it’s made a hundred years, now looking very tired but I really do think that like many other sites, the Writtle site where I started my career, a couple of gentlemen on the top table there, I was down in the Strand last week and Marconi House in The Strand where 2L0 broadcast from is now just a concrete plaque in front of a modern apartment block, and you all looking around can remember all the Marconi sites that have gone now. Site after site including perhaps the building we’re standing in now, all swept away, all lost. And I think at the end of the book I made the point that in a hundred years’ time when nobody in this room is around someone will look back and say “I wonder where it all happened, and what happened there?”
So what I tried to do as maybe the, we’ve worked out as possibly the second youngest person in this room is put together everybody’s memories, thank you everybody who contributed, apologies if I’ve left anybody out, I have thousands, well, literally hundreds of applications, people write about Great Baddow and Marconi Marine and, no, I’m not going to write those stories, maybe someone around these tables should write those stories. I say the book is out, it’s a collection of reminiscences, it is the Marconi New Street story for better or for worse, good and bad, old friends remembered and bits and pieces. If anybody out there, and I’ve put in the front, would still like to send anything in, would write something, my e-mail is in the book, we will be updating it one day, maybe not next year or the year after, but what I’ve decided to do with the Writtle book and the New Street book and the new book coming out this year, which on Marconi’s first six years, six years which changed the world again, is to keep them rolling. Modern print-on-demand means you can keep editing them so in a hundred years’ time whatever I leave behind will be the fullest and most detailed story I can make it And again if I have made any mistakes, all the mistakes in the book are all my own work please tell me, please e‑mail me, please correct them and it will be sorted out with the rest of it.
So I can see Peter starting to fret, so normally it takes ma an hour to get warmed up, normally I start calling CQ about now and start talking about Peter Eckersley and earth goats and one year microbots but what I will do is put a plug in for next Saturday, if you can stand to hear me more I’m going to be at Sandford Mill helping out the Chelmsford Industrial Museum Society all next Saturday. In the morning I’m trotting out 2MT Writtle the birth of British Broadcasting, it’s a great story I thoroughly recommend it, lunchtime I’m going to be doing Marconi and the Titanic but a slightly different spin and then the afternoon I’m going to be doing Marconi New Street and taking questions so free lectures all day. Please come up and support the museum and wander round the original Writtle hut it’s an amazing piece of history and one of the very few sites that has survived from the birth of British Broadcasting.
So in conclusion, and the green lights are still going up and down, I would argue that Britain the country, we lived and we prospered through two revolutions, the revolution of steam and the revolution of steel. Marconi’s New Street works from 1912 to 2012 has made its centenary – congratulations – was, and still is today, the birthplace of Britain’s last industrial revolution. I’ve called it the age of wireless and I believe that all that happened there, everything that went on for the last hundred years was a direct legacy of the Titanic disaster. Sad as it may be I would offer to you that the loss of that ship changed the world and secured the world as we know it today.
Thank you very much, thank you for listening and I’ll pass the baton back to our MC.