Sunday, July 05, 2020

Early employment

I think I had a paper round in my early teens, but that was only a few weeks. They changed the scheme almost every day, and then decided to get rid of the paper boys and girls entirely.

My first proper job was 5 weeks in the summer of 1980. The company was called William Watts, a small engineering firm selling machine tools. At the time they imported machine tools from East Germany - while not quite as good quality, they were massively cheaper than the competition.

(They went out of business, but I found Millbrook Machine Tools who appear to be the follow on company.)

My job was to be general assistant to the showroom manager. Cleaning, tidying, whatever came along. In my first couple of weeks I - essentially unasked - went through their entire stock of leaflets and brochures, tossed the rubbish, sorted and organised it. I think this was the first time they had employed anyone for the summer holidays, so they were probably expecting some idle yob. I ran out of work in the showroom very quickly. They then set me on tidying up the finance store cupboard, which they had just thrown all the old paperwork in for years and now needed to move everything because that room needed to be used for offices. A couple of days later it was in its new home, neatly sorted by date too, which astonished them.

The union rep complained to management that I was showing everyone else up. Of course, the thing was that they had (without thinking about it) given me tasks for which my ordered and methodical mind was perfectly suited. But there was never any problem - I got on really well with all the staff, and the union rep even made sure I got the holiday allowance I was entitled too. For the remainder of the time I was the extra help in the spares and repair office, covering for the regular people who were on holiday. The thing about the East German machine tools was that getting spares was a nightmare, so we held a stock of what we could get and manufactured anything else ourselves. And the stuff kept breaking down, so we had a stream of calls for replacement parts, so it was just a case of finding the right thing in the warehouse, and packing it up to be sent out.

My next summer job, along with a few classmates from school, was with a small company called Midlands Educational Technology. (They were a branch of TecQuipment.) The company made demonstration engineering models - some of them very simple (I helped make a batch of carburetors mounted on a baseboard), and some very upmarket like the cutaway cars you might have seen in showrooms. Another thing they did was to take engines out of scrapped cars (I think it was mostly Ford Escorts), strip them down and clean them, and then assemble them to be sent out to technical colleges where students would repeatedly strip them down and put them together for practice. This was pretty hands on, and a lot of fun.

There was a bit of bother with an industrial dispute. The union here were a bit more militant, and called a strike one day. Of course, the small group of students couldn't go out on strike, as we weren't members of the union and would have been fired on the spot. There was one poor chap who had forgotten to join the union, so he sat with us as we just twiddled our thumbs and drank sweet tea while the union and management had a pointless argument.

Because TecQuipment were an educational company, some bright spark came up with the idea that they could get us students to test out some new electronics kits they were thinking of becoming a reseller for. This was really cool, instead of a breadboard you simply slotted clear plastic cubes into the right layout on a grid to get a working circuit. It was quite neat because the plastic cubes had the electrical symbols printed on the top so you ended up with something that looked like a proper circuit diagram. The instructions were terrible, and half wrong, so I corrected my copy (remember, I'm a physicist). They were sufficiently impressed that they offered me a proper job.

I worked out at TecQuipment's head office, in the R&D lab, for my year off between school and university. (Actually, 9 months, as the Oxbridge entrance exams and interviews were in early December.)

If you look at the TecQuipment heritage history, under the 80's it mentions the Queen's Award - I remember going to that ceremony - and expanding exports. Specifically, Mexico. The company had managed to win a huge order to supply educational materials, covering pretty much its entire range, to Mexico. In the small print it had something about the equipment being supplied with adequate documentation. Enter me, just having left school, suddenly responsible for getting all the documentation ready.

Well, it didn't work out like that. In many ways, I was ideal for the task they thought they had, of simply finding and checking the instruction manuals before sending them off to be translated. The problem was that much of the documentation had either never been created at all, was for an old version of the product, or had been lost entirely (in some case we ended up finding prior customers and getting the manuals back off them to get a copy). It wasn't just documentation, of course, in some cases they had managed to sell models they hadn't made for years and had lost the plans for. The whole Mexico project turned out to have been hopelessly underestimated - in the end they had a whole department of engineers and a bank of secretaries typing away.

I was taken off Mexico and put to work on other interesting projects. We had a range of robotics and did some open days touring schools. We had the usual cheesy robots, and I remember there was a programmable speech synthesizer called ChatterSphere that was a big hit.

I also ended up being effectively in charge of the Chemistry products. This was really odd because I'm a physicist and mathematician, and hated chemistry at school. But we didn't have anybody else in the company who understood any of the chemistry products anyway - they were designed by a University Professor - so I was as good as anybody else, and using me avoided having to take a real engineer off the Mexico project. One day we got one of the odd requests that make life interesting - one of our enterprising salesmen had agreed to sell a product that was made by one of our competitors for half the price. Could we make some real quick?

This was a simple corrosion tester. Ultimately, you had some jars of water (potentially with salt or other chemicals in), and you simply dangled samples in the jars to see what happens. Add some means of heat (a portable electrical cooker ring) to vary temperature, some means of varying the oxygen content in the water (we went down the road to a pet shop and got an aerator for a fish tank), a digital scale to measure the change in mass of the samples, some pretty framework, and it was a great success. About the only guide I had was a page ripped out of the opposition's catalogue - we had to make it close enough to make the customer happy, but different enough not to make it too obvious it was a knockoff.