I (Bill Metcalf) find the story of Cathodeon Crystals Ltd (CCL) immeasurably sad as it reflects the rise and fall (demise) of not just the company, but of the whole of the British electronic components industry.
I gave 17 years of my life to Cathodeon Crystals (as Chief Engineer, Technical Director, Chief Executive and then Managing Director) and collectively, we did our very best to develop and promote the company.
Pride of place must go to Norman Rolfe (MD from 1953 to 1971) who had the drive and foresight to take the company forward from the very beginning.
The production of quartz crystals and related products requires a very wide spectrum of technologies.
Quartz crystal manufacture has two critical aspects: -
- A requirement to align the quartz plates (quartz vibrators) to the crystalline axes. This requires a precision of approximately one minute of arc using X-Ray technology to detect the relevant angles in three dimensions. This really is very demanding as, apart from cutting the crystal at the correct angle, lapping and polishing have to be closely controlled because of the differential wear along the crystalline axes.
- The deposit of a very precise weight of electrode material onto the quartz surface. Gold, silver and aluminium were evaporated onto the surface under high vacuum to a fraction of a molecular layer (a partial layer). This had to be controlled individually for every crystal to fine-tune it to the required frequency.
Much of the research and development effort - also the work of the Industrial Engineers - was devoted to devising and improving processes which would otherwise have been carried out in university research laboratories by people in white coats. Techniques employed included: -
- Precision glass (quartz) cutting
- Fine lapping (planetary lapping)
- X-Ray crystallography
- Lenticular (lens) grinding
- Optical polishing
- Surface cleaning (semiconductor grade)
- Electron beam deposition
- Turbo and cryo-pumped vacuum systems
- Thin film control to sub-molecular level (partial films)
- Sophisticated electronic control
(we used the very first computer control systems in the industry developed with Cambridge University Engineering Department)
- Clever mathematics for filter design
- Electronic control systems for oscillator manufacture
- And let’s not forget Anthony Jones’s soap-dish suckers for 2UM production
With hindsight, the one investment we did not have was clean-room technology. Japanese manufacturers (also from Singapore) leap-frogged the technology and installed clean rooms from the outset and some American companies also moved to clean-room production facilities based on DARPA (American Defense) investments driven initially by the launch of Sputnik.
Cathodeon Crystals really was at the vanguard of quartz crystal technology and, sadly, was the first UK manufacturer to fall, followed closely by the others (Marconi, then STC and finally Salford Electrical Instruments) all within a period of five years. Hi-Q (a small offshoot of a Singapore investment which, itself, was a spin out from Australia - based on Cathodeon technology!) was a rather disruptive interloper set up in Whittlesford to supply Pye Telecommunications: this too closed shop in 1996 and transferred its TETRA related operations to Simoco.
I well recall the lemonade saga:
We had installed a water re-circulating system to cool the various items of electronic equipment: apart from the flooding incident (an overnight leak that flooded the entire factory) it became progressively clogged-up with lime scale.
Enquiries resulted in us purchasing half a ton of citric acid from Baldry’s (who used it to make lemonade). Duly, one Saturday morning, Keith McCullum and others hauled this up onto the roof and tipped it into the cooling system.
When I drove in to check on how everything was going I was met by a wave of exceptionally sticky, foaming ‘lemonade’ flowing down the Linton High Street with the local fire brigade in attendance! Oh dear.
The manufacture of quartz crystals has many parallels with the production of high precision optical lenses and also with the final stages of semiconductor manufacture. The production organisation also reflected this with work being divided between the Optical Shop and the Electrical Shop.
At its peak, CCL was producing over 20,000 crystal units per week - approximately half for direct sale to the telecommunications industry and half for internal use for the manufacture of crystal filters and high stability oscillators (frequency references).
A critical aspect of the 10,000 units for direct sale was that the typical batch size was somewhere between two and three crystal units. So, we were processing approximately 4,000 individual orders per week all of which were at different frequencies and had a typical value of less than £10. This was both a production and logistic nightmare!
The net result of these small batch sizes was that the final stages of manufacture were extremely labour intensive but also required quite a high investment in technology (vacuum deposition systems and precision electronics for every workstation).
So, with the advent of frequency synthesis (see above), productivity per person could increase from around 250 crystals per day to at least 2,000 per day with a commensurate decrease in the number of staff required.
CCL was located in Linton which is now a very desirable, prosperous village some 12 miles to the south-east of Cambridge. However, back in the 1950s and 1960s it was a rather depressed area with minimal opportunities for employment.
Cathodeon Crystals Ltd (or ‘Crystals’ as it was known locally) brought much-needed jobs to the area (see the Linton Gazette of July 2006). In addition to the local ladies and stalwarts like Ian Lines, Barry Reader, Roy Butters, John Missen and others, we laid on two buses to bring people in from the surrounding villages and also from Haverhill (scene of the notorious Haverhill treacle parties!).
Over the years, and as production increased, we built up a cadre of former employees who worked from home - mainly assembling filters. So, there was a weekly delivery of parts and collection of finished filters from Linton and the surrounding villages. This was excellent for ‘load smoothing’.
And let’s not forget the ladies in Wisbeach - most of whom weighed 15 stone, wore flowered pinnies, were called Elsie and worked incredibly hard; had it not been for us, they probably would have been picking potatoes in the fens.
There are other staff who will recall individual stories but I have a few over-riding memories: -
The 3-Day week
The 3-day week lasted from January to March 1974. It seems incredible now, but inflation was running at 20% (it peaked at just over 25% in 1975) and the social contract with the unions had broken down. As a result, electricity supplies were restricted to three days per week.
As a Director of the Company, I had to go and queue together with other similar people from large and small companies to beg to be allowed to use electricity even in that three day period. We were successful and also managed to buy an ex-MoD generator to keep some basic production going during the no-electricity days.
I recall that the staff were magnificent - doing their very best in freezing conditions to keep our customers satisfied.
That is my over-riding memory of our staff: loyalty, willingness, and with a can-do attitude which included people walking very long distances through the snow when the local transport failed.
My memory of our 25th birthday party in 1978 is that, as a relatively new Chief Executive, I became very reflective, somewhat maudlin and almost depressed in the midst of all the jollifications. I felt that the writing was already on the wall: we were having to work harder and harder (actually, smarter and smarter), day-by-day just to keep alive.
It is a huge tribute to the staff, the engineers and others that we were able to soldier on for 10 years from that time, being more and more ingenious in terms of taking out costs which meant, in turn gradually reducing the staff numbers. One person stands out: Peggy Chapman who loyally stayed on and worked every hour possible to get urgent orders out of the door [this memory is unfair to many others that also worked well beyond the call of duty].
And we mustn’t forget the Pye Sports Day of 1972 when we won the Pye Cup, much to the dismay and vocal objections of the larger companies. We may have been the poor relations from Linton, but we underpinned the business success of larger companies such as Pye Telecommunications.
However, eventually the fun went out of it. The fun also went out of the British electronics industry as a whole . . . but over a slightly longer period.
As the company progressively died, many of the staff migrated to STC in Harlow and Hi-Q in Whittlesford until they also progressively faded away. John Dowsett moved on from STC to GEC in Lincoln (he originally joined CCL from Marconi in Chelmsford) where he even had a building named after him; but that activity has now been transferred to India.
For my part, after 17 years in the crystal business, I set up a mapping company (like a mini-Ordnance Survey) in Romania and ended up making maps for over 30 countries world-wide before selling them all (the IPR) to Nokia - now Microsoft.
There are some who will remember: -
- The saga of Fred Collins, the Jaguar, the cap and a chauffeur’s uniform . . . !
- Another saga involving a senior person, the same car and two gliders . . . !!
- Yet another car - a company car no-less - and a pair of panties . . . !!!
- I also recall Des Grimwood calling me one Sunday morning to ask if I’d seen the News of the World. Delicacy dictates that I should not reveal more about the Haverhill bus and (sticky) party planning . . . !!!!
The truth is that we had a very close-knit community and village life spilled over to the work environment with its warts and all.