My “Career” Part 1:
Peter J. Unwin.
|I always thought that things careered downwards to an
unhappy ending. The term bothers me. Many so called careers, after a
first few years are, in reality, incredibly boring unless you are either
lucky or are at the top. I have been fortunate. For the most part my
career has been my vocation: I have done what I wanted to do, my work
has been my hobby and as such, not work at all. I can remember the
precise moment that I knew what I wanted: I was at KES Junior school,
thinking as I descended the stairs. Reaching the bottom I knew… I
wanted my own company in radio or electronics.
This was my first radio. It
required a two volt accumulator to heat the filament of the valve and an
HT (high tension battery) of at least 60 volts.
The valve functioned as a combined crystal set and
amplifier, modulating the current from the HT battery through the
headphones to reproduce the sound impressed on the radio signal
The next clever improvement was to add what was
called a reaction control. This fed a little of the radio signal
back through the valve so that it was amplified more than
once. This made the set more sensitive, sufficient to receive
amateur radio signals. Adjusting the reaction control was tricky,
too much and the set howled… and so did anyone else’s set who lived
nearby and was tuned to the same station ! This could, and often
did, make me rather unpopular.
My career had begun. I was soon reading every
radio magazine and book that I could find. One of my father’s
friends gave me an old “mains” radio and what, in its day, was the
bible of radio communications, The Admiralty Handbook of Wireless
Telegraphy Vols. 1 and 2. I dismembered the radio and read the
book again and again until I gradually began to understand it. I
wasn’t ( officially) allowed to use mains electricity so added other
valves to my battery set and experimented to the point where I knew
basic circuits and could devise my own according to the parts
available. I experimented with my toy morse set. The buzzer
worked like an electric bell and sparked, so could it transmit like
the spark transmitters in the Admiralty handbook ? Yes! , I could
send morse code from the garden to the household radio.
Unfortunately, the neighbours also received my signals so, … in
trouble again. Eventually I was allowed to use mains
electricity. I stripped other old radios and learned how to use more
advanced valves to make amplifiers, radio transmitters and
This was my first girl-friend called Billie,
the youngest daughter of the farm bailiff at Wadsley Hospital. I had
known Billie from the age of 4. During the war, Wadsley Hospital,
known in Sheffield as t’looney bin, accepted wounded soldiers.
My father and Joe Gillott (whose firm made
pearl knives and had a nephew in my year at KES) undertook to give
weekly film shows to the troops. Father took Ward10. This meant
transporting the projector, an amplifier, loudspeaker and wind-up
turntable to the ward every Monday evening by taxi. An electric
turntable would not work because the hospital ran on DC. We had to
start a rotary converter to obtain AC for the gear. This was not
stable enough to operate an electric turntable, its speed varied all
the time. Billie, her big sister, my mother and I all went along to
help carry the equipment and run the wiring They were all silent
films. Father worked the projector. I was sometimes allowed to
work the lights, play the records or even thread the film if I was
lucky. The films were hired. Usually a feature like “Covered
Wagon” and comedy such as Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy.
|So this was how I came to learn about cine
projectors. Later, father tried a sound projector which provided the
basis for one of my first “inventions”. The sound track of a film
modulates a light beam. These modulations are converted to electrical
modulations which amplified, are converted to sound by a loudspeaker.
If I could modulate light, I could send sound along a light beam, but
how could I do this ? Using all the lenses I could find, I focussed
light to a small spot and then into a beam. Using an old magnetic
gramophone pickup, I worked it in reverse so that sound jiggled the
needle. Placing the needle at the focus the job was done. Unofficially
borrowing the projector, I directed the beam at the photo-sensitive cell
and eureka, I could send sound down a beam of light. Easy enough with
modern gear but not then; you needed a Kerr cell… way out of my
| I experimented with chemistry and
electroplating. All chemical experiments were thrown out of the house.
I was to do them in the tool shed. I was coming up to the eleven plus
exam and working on a further invention. Most radios used wire aerials.
Electric appliances were not suppressed. When a near neighbour used a
vacuum cleaner, it obliterated what was then the Light Programme which
transmitted on the long-waveband. I had been experimenting with two
very large coils to transmit sound by magnetism and found that one of
these not only worked as a aerial, it filtered out the interference.
Most radios now use a modern version of exactly this, but much smaller …
as a coil round a ferrite rod.
This is Micky Thorpe. He was in
my year at KES. His father, a doctor, was the medical
superintendent at Wadsley Hospital. We were good boyhood
friends. Micky furthered my education by “borrowing” .22
cartridges from his father. We extracted the bullets andcarefully!
sealed the cartridge using a vice. We then lit a fire, threw in the
cartridge and retired to a safe distance. The bang was quite
The picture came about because my father was
setting up a photo-studio. Lots of wives and sweethearts wanted to
send pictures to the troops. Father did the processing and
enlarging at home for a while, so I learned the essentials of
photography which were later to prove very valuable in my career.
We lost touch. I believe Micky qualified in medicine.
I was about 12 when I took the amateur radio
examination. I had the “practical” but lacked enough theory and
failed. Not that this stopped me. I built a small transmitter,
wound up a gramophone, ran to my grandmother’s about 300 yards
away and tuned-in to my transmission. I now knew how to avoid
interfering with commercial stations. With this transmitter I
learned the hard way what getting hold of 500 volts feels like. I
also discovered that a high voltage radio circuit can produce ozone.
|I was by now building super-heterodyne
receivers. These are very different from vintage radios and much harder
to construct. In essence they are a finely adjusted radio that only
works somewhere between the medium and long wave bands used for public
broadcasting. This receiver is fed from a frequency-changing circuit
which converts the frequency and wavelength of a wanted signal to that
of the single-frequency receiver.
My budget started to improve when neighbours
discovered that I could repair their radios. These failed quite
often. Valves and electrolytic capacitors were particularly prone to
failure before the Japanese taught us how to make reliable
At about 13 I went for lessons in metalwork to
a Mr Beal who had a home workshop equipped with a lathe, shaping
machine, drill and almost any hand tool you can think of. I
started making pokers, then lens-hoods for cameras. We tapped holes
for screws and threaded with dies. We made this enlarger from a
kit of castings. We made a bench grinder using a bicycle wheel hub
for a bearing. I was taught how to sharpen lathe tools. He showed me
French-polishing and how to make and wind transformers using the
lathe. My last project was a small petrol engine from a kit of
castings. These had to be machined, the cylinder had to be honed and
sleeved into the main casting.
Making transformers got me into trouble. I
made one and wanted wax to impregnate the windings. Foolishly I
used candle wax, overheating it in the chip pan. The windings
fried, candle wax vapour condensed on every cold surface in the
kitchen and the chip pan was a pig to clean.
Mr. Beal was getting a new lathe. My parents
kindly bought Mr. Beal’s old lathe. I could now attempt something I
had wanted to do for some time – record sound.
Tape recorders were unheard of at this time. I
was friendly with Benny Brooks who was a year or so above me at King
Edwards. Benny had an 1155 ex RAF radio receiver.
Like myself, he tuned in to the radio
amateurs. We turned up a historic method of recording on steel
wire. This was hi-tech and used a little by BBC during the war. I
managed to obtain some of this wire. Our next problems were to make
the recording-head, amplifier and some means of steadily drawing the
wire past the head. The recorded signal was too weak for our home
made gear. We were saved when Baird produced a rather crude tape
recorder for home movie enthusiasts. Durex ( now Scotch ) made and
sold quarter-inch wide tape. We obtained this. I finally managed
to record sound by using a hand-cranked 8mm. re-winder used for cine
film and a recording head made by cutting up a small transformer.
Voices changed pitch if you cranked faster. Recordings could be
played backwards or a toy gun made to sound like a cannon in a
Benny & I both made tape decks. My lathe was
essential for this. The resulting reel-to-reel tape recorder was
not exactly hi-fi but it worked. We had never heard our voices
recorded before. We recorded our Band, initially Pete Braithwaite,
John Stubbs, “Bod” Jefferson, John Hunt, myself and “Mac” Davies.
Mac’s trumpet was so loud that we had to make him play outside the
door. Hunt later muted the trumpet by obstructing it with solder.
My deck was later used for what must have been one of the first
rather unreliable telephone answering machines
My engineering skills were called upon when
Hunt and Jefferson built a treck-cart. Flanges were required to fit
bicycle. wheels. We had just received our O level results when the
cart was trundled to the station, loaded into the guards van and
transported to Skipton to tour the Yorkshire Dales.
|Here endeth my time at KES with five O
levels and not a clue how to survive in the wide world. I was tired of
school, much preferring to learn what I wanted or needed to learn from
books or experience, rather than suffer any more time in any academic
|My dictionary says of career : “ a
racecourse, rush, progress through life or advancement in profession”
As a verb intransitive: to gallop, move or run rapidly. Apart from
progressing through life, which we all do anyway, I don’t seem to
qualify in any other way at all.
To be continued . . . . . .