Malmesbury and Telecommunications

kingpins

Brian Manley (MD) with Tony Golics, Adrian Lawes, Maurice Cleaver and a tall man.

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John Rhodes, Jim Greenfield, Dom MacKay, and Brian Manley impressing a politician.

This is a short history of telecommunications in Malmesbury, an ancient Wiltshire town, with close connections with King Athelstan, England’s first king. A company called TMC came here for a brief period after Pye of Cambridge bought The Telephone Manufacturing Company Ltd. TMC had previously had a long and successful history in the telecommunications industry in the UK, by being a niche player but with some innovative products, mostly related to Strowger electromechanical (relay) technology and telephones, as well as being a supplier to Telephone Rentals.

Pye of Cambridge was already in telecommunications, principally through its Pye Telecom radio communications business. When Philips, the Dutch group, purchased Pye of Cambridge in the 1960s, it acquired what had become known as Pye TMC. (Many in Pye TMC thought Philips didn’t realise at the time, but came to their senses later). So Pye TMC changed its name to Philips TMC, and became part of Philips Business Systems, some time later. To avoid confusion the company will be called simply TMC from now on.

What made TMC important was its use of electronics technology to modernise the UK telecommunications infrastructure at a critical point in its development.

Malmesbury-Here we Come

TMC moved its headquarters to Malmesbury in the early 1970s from Dulwich in London. The Dulwich manufacturing activity, mainly producing Strowger electromechanical equipment for the General Post Office (GPO), later to become British Telecommunications (BT), was closed. The company retained two centres for manufacturing, one near Glasgow in Airdrie, which manufactured telephones and, later, telephone switching equipment, and one in Livingston, near Edinburgh. The Livingston site manufactured transmission equipment, which was phased out over several years, and the site sold off. The Airdrie factory, along with another in nearby Bellshill, became the main centre for manufacturing the product designs from TMC in Malmesbury, which grew rapidly in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Early Product Design

Initially, when TMC came to Malmesbury, it transferred its engineering design group from Dulwich, then called The Advanced Development Division. This, under its enigmatic chief engineer J.G.L Rhodes (OBE), specialised in what was then known as Large Scale Integration, using four-phase MOS (metal-oxide-silicon) technology. Basically the engineers designed integrated circuits (manufactured by specialist companies, but mainly by Plessey) to be used in telecom products, to reduce size, power consumption and cost. The ‘four-phase’ aspect of the design enabled very low power consumption. The company also made extensive use of computer-aided design, using homegrown software for chip layout and testing the circuits, before the designs were sent for manufacture. This process created almost error-free designs and reduced costly reruns.(These were the days before microprocessors and software controlled electronics, where engineers designed logic circuits using Boolean Algebra).

The company persuaded the GPO to invest in some new innovative electronic products, which would extend the life of its Strowger telephone exchanges. These included the Impulse Regenerator, The Register-Translator, Changed Number Interceptor, Call Transfer Unit and, later, Supplementary Services Exchange. The main product, however, in these early days in Malmesbury was The Register-Translator, which was manufactured in Airdrie and shipped to almost 200 exchanges around the UK. One was also sold to TLP in Portugal.

At the same time, the company was also developing new types of telephones. Initially it designed a separate dialling unit (called the Sphericall, but also dubbed the Ballcall, because of its shape). This used push buttons, rather than a dial, and generated both tones and pulses for signalling to the exchange, depending on the type of exchange. This led to the design of push button telephones for the GPO, which had a monopoly in those days. The first of this new generation of telephones was the Ambassador, (a design heavily influenced by the GPO, and also manufactured by Plessey, and GEC) followed by a cost-reduced version, the Statesman, (heavily influenced by TMC) which boasted a single screw to fasten the top and bottom together. These were manufactured in Airdrie, replacing the older dial telephones over the next few years. They were also exported, mainly to The Gulf States (and Hull!).

Product design was beginning to be influenced by Philips, which wanted to make TMC into what was called then, a Concern Centre for product design.

The Philips Influence

When TMC moved to Malmesbury the site was very little changed from Ekco (E.K.Cole acquired the site, which was a country home known as Cowbridge House, on the eve of World War II) days, with pre 1939 and Second World War buildings still in use, including the Tower, which was originally used for testing radar in the 1940s and in which the development of the Register-Translator was completed in around 1978. There was also some manufacture on site of private manual exchanges, which was eventually closed, and converted to a pre-production unit to manufacture new designs before they were transferred to Airdrie for volume manufacture.

Philips set about transforming the Malmesbury site. It had several buildings demolished, mainly unwanted manufacturing units from the 1940s, and replaced them with an engineering building and later added a marketing building. Some older buildings were also retained, because the company was expanding so quickly. Cowbridge House was preserved, along with the Old Mill, used in those days as a recreation centre with a bar and staff shop.

A word here about the Philips company. It had a public switching design activity in Holland, which had designed a public switch called the PRX. There was also another design centre, developing a range of private exchanges (PABXs) called the Sopho-S. It wanted to expand the markets for these in the UK and elsewhere. Some software development for the PRX, and later the PRX-D, was done in Malmesbury to meet the requirements of international markets.

The Sopho-S was sold in the UK by Philips Business Systems, based in Cambridge. However, the company needed some lower capacity switches, called key systems (A key system is an operator-less private exchange where anyone may answer and transfer a call using a telephone with multiple keys and indicators), to complement that product in the market for systems below 100 extensions, which at the time was a BT monopoly. (Philips was importing key systems from Japan to sell under its own name in Europe). The Concern Centre for PABXs was in Hilversum and Malmesbury was intended to be the Concern Centre for key systems and telephones.

Philips had been on an acquisition trail in Europe, buying up telecommunications companies, in anticipation that the market would be opened, and they would be able to compete in a Europe-wide liberalised telecom market. In addition to Pye of Cambridge in the UK, the company bought TRT in France, and what was to become PKI in Germany, amongst others. This meant that product development was fragmented, as each country in Europe, and elsewhere, had its own standards and ways of doing things. (Like electric plugs, there were no two countries with the same telephone line jack and socket, never mind complicated things like send and receive levels and side- tone. These are used in telephony to ensure sound levels and the analogue electrical signals on the telephone line are within national specifications).

Market Liberalisation

In the UK at that time the major telecom manufacturers were GEC, Plessey, and STC (GEC eventually bought Plessey and the new company was renamed Marconi before being bought by Ericsson. Nortel bought STC. Nortel is now in Administration) which, between them, manufactured almost all BT’s exchange, transmission and customer premises equipment. TMC was on the sidelines, apart from its telephone manufacturing activity. Products were also always designed to BT specifications, which meant there were limited export opportunities.

As the market was liberalised in the 1980s, BT lost its monopoly and newcomers entered the market such as Nortel, AT&T (to become Lucent Technologies), Mitel and many small importers such as Binatone, Amstrad, and Audioline. There were also new start-ups like London PABXs, Lake Electronics and others.

However, BT had not been sitting idly by during the lead-up to market liberalisation. It had a monopoly of telephones used on direct exchange lines and all private exchanges (PBXs) below 100 extensions. This was a market worth protecting.

TMC Defends BT’s Market Share

By far and away TMC’s most significant period as a manufacturing company, since it moved to Malmesbury, began when BT decided to upgrade its installed base of customer premises equipment in the early 1980s. This included its installed base of telephones and small private exchange systems with less than 100 extensions. (A market valued at the time at around £500 million, of which TMC was to claim around half).

Up to that period BT, and its forerunner, the GPO, had created a wide range of products for use in small businesses including plansets, (simple boss-secretary systems), key and lamp units, (a two line, ten extension system), and small private manual branch exchanges which all had to be hard-wired to make anything work. The main problem, however, was moves and changes; every new extension meant a complete rewire using multiple cables.

In the US, and Japan in particular, a revolution had started several years before using electronics, to replace mechanical relays and wiring, with modern designs packed full of features such as call forwarding, ring back when free, intercom and hands free calling. BT urgently wanted to upgrade its customer base with new electronic systems with these features (as they became known) to prevent a mass exodus of customers when the market was liberalised, and to simplify and reduce the costs of moves and changes. TMC, along with others, was invited to make proposals and bid for contracts to design and manufacture such systems.

Well, TMC (GEC and STC) won development contracts to design stored program controlled key systems for BT. The TMC product became known as Herald. This was followed by another product called Ensign. These became the backbone of BT’s attempt to hold onto its grip of the market. They were designed in Malmesbury and manufactured in Airdrie, and in a new factory in Bellshill, near Glasgow, which was needed to cope with the demand. GEC and STC developed similar products for BT. Mitel also offered BT its proprietary products, adapted to suit the UK network.

But all was not well. As TMC manufactured tens of thousands of key systems for BT, and millions of push button telephones (the Statesman in particular), it was sowing the seeds of its own demise.

The Post BT Monopoly Market

It was fairly clear to most people in TMC (Malmesbury) that the glory days wouldn’t last forever and, to survive, the company needed more than a couple of products, and certainly more than one customer (BT).

The problem was that other customers were difficult to get. Apart from colonial-type markets like the Gulf, parts of Cable & Wireless’ empire, some government outposts, British Rail, Kingston upon Hull and Guernsey the rest of the world was either controlled by monopoly telecom companies, or highly competitive. The highly competitive markets included Japan, Korea and particularly, the US. It was decided that TMC (and Philips) could not invest in these competitive markets with its current product range. However, it did want to develop products for liberalised European markets, which would be coming along in the next few years, starting with the UK market. Thus a range of telephones (the ‘KT’ series) and a range of key systems (the ‘KBX’ series) were conceived, designed and put into production, initially for the liberalised UK market. These would be flexible and low cost products able to compete anywhere in the world.

Enter AT&T, Telecom Sciences Corporation, and Mitel

At about this time, the mid 1980s, Philips had entered into a partnership with AT&T, the US telecom giant. AT&T wanted to enter the European market, which it did by allowing Philips to sell its products to Philips’ main Dutch customer, the Dutch P&T.

Someone must have mentioned to AT&T that they had a ‘facility’ in the UK where software for the PRX-D was being developed. AT&T saw it as an ideal opportunity to get into the UK market. One thing led to another, and the upshot was that TMC would have to vacate the Malmesbury site, relocate to a building in Milngavie (owned by Collins the publishers, with a lovely view of the Campsie Fells), just north of Glasgow, leaving AT&T in Malmesbury to write code for its US manufactured products. So, in 1986 a mass migration began. Not of people from Malmesbury to Milngavie, but of people from Malmesbury to anywhere they could get jobs or start new businesses. And, that was the end of TMC in Malmesbury.

The Malmesbury site was taken over by AT&T, which became Lucent Technologies when AT&T was forced by US regulators to split its manufacturing operations from its telecom operating company activity. Lucent Technologies was merged with Alcatel of France in 2006, several years after it had abandoned the Malmesbury site, which is now a housing estate with some serviced offices. Alcatel-Lucent is currently struggling against competition from Huawei of China, as are most of the world’s remaining few telecom companies.

To be fair, TMC did survive for a few years in Scotland, until 1995, but was a shadow of its former self. Philips sold it off, in what turned out to be the equivalent of the transaction between BMW and Rover. Mitel, the Canadian company, with main UK location in Newport, Wales bought the core of the old TMC from Telecom Sciences Corporation (in Receivership) in 1998, the Rover of its day.

One final note

In Nuremberg a few years ago, around 2003, there was a corridor, in what is now an Alcatel-Lucent building, where there was a row of glass cases proudly displaying old products, with some basic information about each one. In one of them was a KT20 telephone. This was designed in Malmesbury and, as far as is known, is the only one still in existence. Long live TMC Malmesbury, and if you go to Nuremberg, you will see all that is left of it.

Some of the products mentioned above.

Postscript

Many of the people who left Philips TMC set up their own companies in the surrounding area. Included in these are Paul Harmer, and Martyn Ridley who set up Commsplus in Cirencester. Details of this company, which is still trading from Weston-super-Mare, are available from Companies House. A smaller version called Commsplus (TR) is also still trading from Cirencester. Here are two charts showing how they have fared;

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