1920: The Early Days of Radio
The story of Pye’s entry into the radio market begins after the First World War. During the war there had been a large demand for precision instruments and after the war there was a short boom in scientific instruments, but by 1921 the market had virtually collapsed and the Company, which by now had 100 employees, was obliged to diversify into other equipment.
Towards the end of 1920, George Ceadel who was in charge of the Electrical Department at W. G. Pye & Co., made a wireless set and it was this single event that gave Thomas Robinson, a partner in the Company, the inspiration of breaking into an exciting new field. Tom Robinson had served his apprenticeship with W. G. Pye & Co. and then left, but had re-joined in 1911 as Works Manager, and was made a partner in 1919. Shortly after making what could truly be described as the first Pye wireless, George Ceadel became Sales Manager for the instrument side of the Company, his place being taken by E. V. (Ernie) Root, who later played an important part in the production of wireless receivers as this side of the Company began to grow.
W. G. Pye & Co. chose to enter the field by making laboratory equipment for teaching schoolboys and undergraduates the rudiments of wireless. This equipment proved so successful that by 1922, a unit system of valve panels, connected by straight copper rods and using a new design of tuning coil, of exceptionally low self-capacity, was being advertised in the popular radio press. This was widely bought by radio amateurs, as well as by schools and colleges engaged in the study of wireless. Pye’s first series of educational kits attracted the attention of Mr. (later Sir) Edward Appleton who was introduced into the Company as Technical Adviser, after suggesting a meeting with Tom Robinson.
A man who made a great contribution towards the early involvement of W. G. Pye & Co. in wireless was William Pye’s son, Harold John Pye, who was born on 27th November, 1901, at the family home in Chesterton, (by the 1920’s the family were living at Eadson Lodge, 6, Grange Road, Cambridge). After graduating with a B.A. degree from St. John’s College Cambridge, in 1923 (M.A. in 1930), Harold joined his father in the Company, and the following year was made a partner.
At the end of 1922 the beginning of public broadcasting transformed, and greatly increased, the market for wireless receivers. Within months, W. G. Pye & Co was producing the Model 520, 530, 540 & 550 series of receivers. The centre figure of the model number stood for the number of valves, with the exception of the 550, which was still a 4 valve receiver in a different cabinet to allow the housing of a horn type loud speaker. All these equipment were superbly made precision receivers, but because the Company was more compliant than some of its competitors to the Post Office embargo on circuits capable of oscillating, their sensitivity was low, and sales suffered accordingly. Tom Robinson argued that they should continue with this wonderful series of products. Harold retorted by saving "they might be a wonderful series but it was no good if they did not sell".
W. G. Pye & Co. spent very little on advertising, and any form of wireless catalogue was almost limited to a single folded sheet giving details of individual models. Tom Robinson wanted to spend £2,000 on advertising in 1923, but as they were not producing enough, either to pay for the advertising on this scale, or to meet the demand it might be expected to create, it was left to Harold to travel around in his bullnosed Morris Cowley car, distributing leaflets on a more personal basis to cycle shops, electrical retailers and garages, the wireless ‘dealers’ of those early days.
In 1924, Harold designed the first successful W. G. Pye & Co. wireless receivers, these being the 720, 730 & 740 series, again with the centre figure standing for the number of valves. Very high quality transformers were manufactured for this series and were available to the radio enthusiast. The following year saw the range of models increase with the introduction of series 210, 220 & 830.
A notable achievement at the end of 1925 was the mass production of a really portable receiver, the Pye 555. This was a 5 valve single band long wave) receiver limited to reception of Daventry on 1,600 metre wavelength only, with an Amplion ‘Radiolux’ horn type loud speaker inside. Complete with valves and batteries, it sold for £30.12.6d. The 555 was the start of a long line of famous Pye Portable Receivers.
In 1926 Pye introduced a low price set, the 222 with plug in coils and porcelain holders but no integral loudspeaker. It was designed for the Mullard PM1 and PM2 battery triodes and sold for £6.18s.0d including royalties and valves.
In 1927 the 555 was updated with a modified cabinet and speaker grille, as it now contained a cone type loud speaker. Price complete with valves and battery had now been reduced to £25.12.6d.
In 1927 the model 222 was also available at the lower price of £5.13s.0d. and was called the "Popular Two".
Early the same year four more portable receivers were available from W. G. Pye & Co.: -
- Model 25 "Dual Five" 5 valve 2 band receiver
- Model 333 "Dual Three" 3 valve 2 band receiver
- "Selector-Three" 3 valve 2 band receiver, employing a unique circuit of the Reinartz type
- "Selector-Five" (Superhet) 5 valve 2 band receiver
The "Selector-Five" circuit consisted of an oscillator detector, intermediate frequency amplifier, second detector and 2 low frequency valves. Loud speaker reception was guaranteed for 70 to 100 miles from a local station, and anywhere in Great Britain from Daventry. Price complete with valves and batteries was £30.12.6d.
To Tom Robinson and Ernie Root, must go the credit for introducing the famous Pye ‘Rising Sun’ motif on loudspeaker cabinets, and the second series of Model 25 receivers in October 1927. Initially, the idea had come from George Ceadel, after having seen a similar motif on a colleague’s cigarette case. It was an event of great significance to the Company when no fewer than 997 Model 25 receivers were made and sold in the following 3 months. A distinguishing feature on ‘Rising Sun’ motifs at the beginning was the addition of a gold ‘Rising Sun’ transfer with the word Pye in the middle. This motif was predominant from its introduction, until the early thirties, and made a last appearance in 1948 on Pye Model M78F.
In 1928, the radio side of W. G. Pye & Co. was bought from the Pye family by Mr. Charles Orr Stanley. He had the vision to recognize the growth potential of domestic radio receivers, which led to the formation and registering of Pye Radio Ltd. as a public limited company on 12th February, 1929.
In the beginning, the Pye factory at Haig Road/Montague Road covered a space of 13,000 square feet. This was increased to 20,500 square feet in 1925 and once again to 27,700 square feet in 1927. By 1929 Pye Radio Ltd. had taken over the whole of the original factory site which by then covered an area of 57,000 square feet, and to accommodate an extensive machine shop, this was increased to 80,000 square feet the following year. The negotiations provided for Tom Robinson to join the new company as a Director, and Ernie Root as Chief Development Engineer.
Completely independently, W. G. Pye & Co. continued as instrument makers at new premises on Newmarket Road, Cambridge, with the company now managed by Harold, who remained in partnership with his father. William George Pye retired in 1936, and shortly afterwards, the business was registered as a limited company, but Harold J. Pye continued as Managing Director.
During 1929 Pye Radio Ltd introduced the first British mains radios. The two valve 275 ‘Presentation Two’ and the three valve 350/C ‘All Electric Three’.
At the 1930 Radio Show Pye launched the new Twintriple Portable Receivers. The two traditional aperiodic high frequency (H.F.) stages were replaced by an up-to-date H.F. amplifier with two tuned H.F. stages, which resulted in a station being found by the operation of a single knob. The term ‘twintriple’ refers to two H.F. stages and three tuned circuits. The Twintriple was available as either battery or mains operated models.
New manufacturing techniques, which were to heighten competition and reduce prices, allowed high volume production on three very successful series of receivers that were to follow: Model Q, 1931 and Model MM, together with the six valve superhet Model S in 1932. That year the output of radio receivers reached 40,000. The Pye Transportable Receiver, Model MM in particular, established a great reputation for reliability and consistency of performance from its three valve mains operated circuit, with built-in frame aerials and moving-coil speaker. Model Q was similar in design, but battery operated, and contained an additional valve. Pye continued to use the letter Q to denote portable radio products for several years.
Radio development continued apace and new models were introduced very year, including the Baby Q battery portable in 1937. Other pre-war Pye Radios include the 823 and the 906 ‘International’.
In 1932 Pye recruited Peter Goldmark, a 26 year old Hungarian inventor, to set up a television department. Goldmark demonstrated television to Prince George, later Duke of Kent, when he visited the Pye factory in 1932.
Goldmark left Cambridge after 18 months when Pye told him that television would probably never be useful in the home. Goldmark moved to the USA and later became head of CBS Laboratories and inventor of the LP record.
Within a year Pye had to re-open its television department as a matter of extreme urgency after recognising that television sales would affect sales of radios.
Pye then recruited Baden John Edwards and Donald Jackson, both formerly engineers at STC the British arm of ITT to form a new television team. Baden Edwards was put in charge of the department and the company set about developing 405 line "high definition" television.
In 1930, Pye had commenced the development of cathode ray tubes (CRT), and by 1935, a vacuum laboratory had been established to manufacture both valves and cathode ray tubes. Subsequently, this laboratory was formed into a subsidiary company known as Cathodeon Ltd.
Pye was ready with its television receivers when the B.B.C. commenced the first public high definition television service in 1936. With the advent of television, Pye Radio Ltd. dropped the word "Radio" from its name and from 15th June, 1937, was known as Pye Ltd.
1939 Pye 12C television (915 chassis)
On the introduction of television in 1936, most receivers were using a 12 inch (or occasionally 9 inch) cathode ray tube and the following year, this still applied. However, by 1938, to reduce prices most firms had extended their range with new models having 7 inch, 6 inch and 5inch tubes. Pye Model 815 had a 9 inch tube and had 18 valves. It had a 1 channel tuned radio frequency (TRF) type receiver. Model 817 gave a picture measuring only 4 x 3.375 inches, on a 5 inch tube. It was similar to Model 815, but the sound receiver consisted only of radio frequency (RF) and detector stages, its output being connected to the pick-up terminals of any available radio set.
Considerable research and development went into a new high sensitivity Model 915 for fringe area reception, first seen at the 1939 Radio Show. Interestingly, the Model 915 TV receiver was also a TRF or ‘straight’ receiver design, centred on the BBC TV carrier frequency of 45MHz, and used what at the time was a revolutionary new radio valve of exceptionally high performance. This valve was the famous EF50, developed by Philips at Eindhoven, later to be manufactured by its subsidiary company, Mullard, in the UK.
In May 1939 the Radar development team at Bawdsey were searching for a suitable 45 MHz receiver to replace their prototypes based on an EMI design and the team leader E.G. Bowen was made aware of the Pye TV receiver and CRTs in Cambridge by Professor Edward Appleton. This circuit configuration became the core of all British VHF airborne radar receivers.
When World War II began on 3rd September 1939, UK TV broadcasting came to an end, as did the production of the 45 MHz Pye Model 915 TV receiver, and Pye was switched over to the design and production of first radar and later, wireless equipment, for the British Military.
After the war Pye quickly resumed manufacturing radio and television sets again. In 1945 they released the model 15A, which was a 3 valve plus rectifier, three waveband (LW, MW/SW) supersonic heterodyne (Superhet) AC mains receiver with provision to connect a Gramophone crystal pick up. It retailed for £15.0s.0d plus purchase tax. The ‘quick release’ chassis was held on by just two small screws - the result of wartime improvements in receiver design.
With the start of the B.B.C. television service after the war, on 7th June, 1946, Pye entered the field with Model B16T table set. This set was very superior to pre-war models, having a brighter, clearer picture and a considerably smaller cabinet. It was a 17 valve, 1 channel TRF receiver still using the EF50 valve. The retail price was £42.0.0 + Purchase Tax. The D16T console version used the same chassis.
In 1948 Pye launched the B18T and D18T sets which no longer had a mains transformer which reduced costs and simplified manufacture. The previous B16T and D16T had a large transformer which supplied the extra high tension (EHT) voltage needed for the CRT from a special winding on the transformer which also provided the high tension (HT) and low tension (LT) voltages for the valves (see left hand side of the picture above). The transformer’s strong magnetic field made its location relative to the picture tube critical and its bulk and weight made carrying even a table model a two man job. In addition deriving the EHT from a mains transformer made the set extremely dangerous to service.
With the B18T Pye had a transformer-less TV weighing 30lb and capable of being carried under one arm. The key to this dramatic advance was a technique for generating the CRT’s EHT that had first been used by German manufacturers in 1939. A Pye engineer, Dr Ladislav Lax, had been with Telefunken before the war, and although he had not himself worked on the technique he remembered its principle and proceeded to develop it into a practical circuit. Instead of the EHT being developed by a winding on the mains transformer it was on the line output transformer (which drove the CRT horizontal scanning coils) and made use of the high voltage pulse that was produced by the rapid fly-back at the end of each scanning line.
This technique alone would not have removed the need for a mains transformer; to do that the designers connected the valves heaters in series. This brought another set of problems in that valves such as the EF50 were not designed for this configuration. Later virtually all TV valves were designed for series operation. However the combination of line fly-back EHT and series connected valve heaters became virtually standard for all TV manufacturers after Pye had pioneered the technique.
The next Pye TV ‘first’ was ‘Black Screen’ television, which enabled the picture to be viewed in daylight.
In 1948 B J Edwards sent engineers Ted Cope and Leslie Germany to consult with Pye’s old alumnus Peter Goldmark who was then working on Colour Television Development at CBS Laboratories. The system was called field-sequential colour technology and used a rapidly rotating colour wheel that alternated transmission in red, green and blue. C O Stanley allowed Edwards £25,000 (almost 10% of Pye’s 1948/49 profits) to develop colour television on the ‘Goldmark principle’ and demonstrate it at the 1949 Radiolympia.
In the early 1950s Pye commissioned a young industrial designer, Robin Day, to design its products and he soon established a ‘house style’ appearance. He continued to design for Pye for the rest of its autonomous existence, winning several design awards.
In 1953 Pye introduced Automatic Picture Control on the Pye V4 television. This was a great improvement in television reception, because it counteracted variations in the signal received from the transmitter, which reduced picture fading and aeroplane ‘flutter’ (caused by signal reflections from aircraft passing overhead) to a minimum, entirely automatically. The characteristic industrial design of the V4 was by Robin Day.
A steady stream of radio products were continuing to be released each year during this time, for example the Pye International 9 valve (including tuning indicator) 11 band table superhet AC mains receiver.
In 1953 Colour TV was demonstrated at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II when it was relayed live to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children and certain other venues.
Also in 1953 Pye launched the ‘Blackbox’ record player made under licence from CBS where Peter Goldmark was now working. CO Stanley was apparently so taken with its handsome lines and quality of sound reproduction that he demonstrated it to dealers himself.
1953 also saw the introduction of the innovative ‘Record Maker’. This was a record player which not only played conventional records but also recorded on blank magnetic discs.
1954 saw Pye introduce the first TV with 13-channel switched tuning ready for the introduction of Independent Television in 1955. This looked similar to the V4.
Up to 1955 Pye television sets were considered to be better than or at least as good as those of its competitors. However in 1955 Pye released the VT14 which unfortunately had a tendency to drift and had several unreliable components. C.O. Stanley himself described the VT14 as "a really shocking, bad television set".
The VT14 damaged Pye’s reputation and its position as the biggest seller in the market for several years and it never regained its technological leadership in television.
In 1955 Pye produced the P114BQ 4 valve all dry battery 2-band Jewel Case portable Radio. Also, in 1955 the BBC launched FM radio broadcasting on VHF and Pye were ready with the Fenman AM/FM radio.
Pye realized that the development of the transistor would revolutionise electronics and in 1955 became the first UK licensee from Bell Labs to manufacture the transistor. Subsequently in 1956 they were also the first in the UK to introduce a transistorised portable radio, through a subsidiary company, Pam (Radio & Television) Ltd.
The Pam Model 710 not only contained transistors but also a Printed Circuit Board. The PAM 710 was launched under the PAM label because Pye was unwilling to risk its reputation on such a new and unproven innovation. However it proved to be very successful and Pye launched their first radio with the Pye logo, the P123BQ, a few months later in January 1957.
In 1956 Pye launched a ‘High Fidelity’ (Hi-Fi) system consisting of a record player, 5W amplifier, FM/AM tuner and loudspeaker. This was available for two years and then in 1958 Pye launched the ‘Mozart’ HFS10 mono HiFi amplifier using a single ended EL34 valve output stage producing 9W at 0.3% distortion. This was followed by the HFS20 stereo amplifier and the matching HFT108 FM tuner.
C. O. Stanley had long had a friendly relastionship with Eric Kirkham Cole, founder of E.K. Cole Ltd (EKCO). Stanley persuaded Cole to merge his group with Pye and in 1960 formed British Electronic Industries Ltd.: this name was subsequentley changed to Pye of Cambridge Ltd. in 1963.
In 1964 Pye launched the 1005 ‘Achoic’ solid-state stereo projection record-player. The unit was designed to be placed in the corner of a room so that the sound from the speakers reflected off the room walls. This was marketed in the USA and is described there as a Columbia Stereo 360, designed by CBS laboratories USA and made in England by Pye Ltd.
Also in 1964 Pye launched a transistorised version of the Pye Blackbox record player. This used 7 transistors manufactured by the Pye subsidiary, Newmarket Transistors.
Although Pye first demonstrated colour television using a ‘field sequential’ system at the 1949 Radiolympia, the choice of a colour standard was debated throughout the early 1960s, but Britain was not finally committed to 625-lines as its colour standard until early in 1967. December of that year was initially announced as the opening date for a BBC-2 colour service, but in the event, a colour service was launched on 1st July with the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships. Thus manufacturers had less than six months in which to produce colour receivers, but Pye was ready - if only just.
Three receivers, handmade at the Company’s Lowestoft factory, were ready just in time and taken to London where some 100 Press and other V.I.P.s were invited to the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane to witness this tremendous step forward in UK television history. A number of American visitors staying at the Hilton, gate-crashed the party - and even on that first showing declared that they had seen ¬hing half so good at home", despite the fact that the United States had been first to enjoy colour transmissions using a 525-line system.
In the early 1960s the UK market for black and white televisions was becoming saturated and competition was fierce, plus, Japanese companies were entering the market with smaller, cheaper sets. Pye, like other UK manufacturers had large manufacturing capacity, falling demand and falling profits. The Pye manufacturing capacity had been further increased by the merger with EKCO.
By 1965, in order to obtain economies of scale and reduce losses, Pye had moved all domestic radio and TV production out of Cambridge into the larger Lowestoft factory. Pye Telecom took over the Haig Road factory for mobile radio products.
During 1964 and 1965, due to lax financial control, the radio and TV side of the company made significant losses (£2.8M) because of the method of financing and subsidising retail and rental chains who sold Pye televisions.
Pye had always had a close working relationship with Philips Electronic Industries UK and Mullard (owned by Philips), and during 1966 the Pye Board explored the possibility of Philips UK purchasing the radio and TV division of Pye, however these discussions ceased in November 1966 after the Pye Annual General Meeting when the financial situation of the Pye Group became public. When the 1965/1966 results were announced the Pye share price fell and competitors, including Thorn and Philips, became interested in acquiring the whole group.
In December 1966 Philips, followed by Thorn, made an offer to buy the entire Pye Group. The Directors of Pye recommended shareholders not accept these offers. Increased offers followed and the Pye Board signalled it was inclined to recommend acceptance of a revised offer from Thorn if the informally discussed amount was formally proposed.
However, at the same time the Philips parent company N.V. Philips of The Netherlands let it be known in the financial community that they could be interested in parcels of Pye shares. Speculators in the Netherlands and Switzerland began buying large blocks of Pye shares via overseas stock markets. These holdings were then ‘offered’ to N.V. Philips. By this route, at the end of December 1966, N.V. Philips had acquired over 9.5 million Ordinary Shares in Pye which amounted to over 19% of the issued Pye stock. As Philips Electronic Industries UK already owned 5% of the Ordinary Shares in Pye, this gave the Philips Group 24% ownership of the Pye Group. As a result the Pye share price rose and Thorn retired from the bidding.
In February 1967 Pye Holdings Ltd was created by Philips Electronic Industries UK to hold the shares of Pye of Cambridge Ltd already owned by Philips. An increased offer was made and the Pye Board recommended acceptance. However this offer was declined by a number of shareholders and whilst Philips steadily increased their holdings over time, it was not until 1973 that they gained complete ownership of Pye.
Philips then began the process of rationalising and merging the audio, radio and television activities of the combined Pye and EKCO groups. The Pye Lowestoft factory was subsequently sold to Sanyo for the manufacture of television sets after Philips moved the manufacture of Pye televisions to Singapore.
The former EKCO Southend factory was sold to The Joint Credit Card Company Limited and became the centre for operations for their "Access" credit card business.
The Pye brand name and ‘brake-shoe’ logo was retained by N.V.Philips and used as a secondary brand in various world markets to this day.
Sources: 1. The Setmakers - Keith Geddes & Gordon Bussey, ISBN 0 9517042 0 6, 2. Radio Man, Mark Frankland, ISBN 0 85296 203 7, 3. The Story of Pye Wireless, Gordon Bussey for Pye Ltd 1979, 4. Private communications with Mike Kemp, John Hodgson, Terry Baker, Geoffrey Griffiths & Richard Howes, 5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Carl_Goldmark, 6. http://new.tvhistory.tv, 7. http://www.pamphonic.co.uk, 8. Pye of Cambridge Annual Report 1965/66, 9. Various Pye shareholder communications documents 1966-1967, 10. Letter from N.V. Philips to The London Stock Exchange, Feb 1967, 11. Pye History Trust archives