Scientific Instrument Making
At the last moment, dignified gentlemen, who were town councillors, and even at one time the mayor of a south London borough, could be seen running for their lives to reach the factory gate before the clock struck eight, breathless to be on time. A minute late and they would be shut out and lose a quarter of an hour's pay. Inside was an assistant foreman who enjoyed his petty tyranny. He went up to any group of young boys or girls and hissed, “Time and tide wait for no Jimmy,” and they would scatter. The more dignified men, those with gravitas, were not imposed on by such a small power. They had run only in response to the clock and money.
Inside the gate they proceeded in a more decorous manner. They walked soberly to their familiar benches, changed into overalls, looked over their work and began the eternal battle of wits with the foreman. In highly skilled trades like instrument making, or tool making, everything was made on piecework. An instrument consisted of a number of separate parts, each calling for a particular skill and made on a particular machine, each priced and haggled over separately. The foreman would bargain for perhaps a hundred of a particular part, made to fixed tolerances, finished to a certain quality. The craftsman would protest at the price and finally they would agree.
From then the foreman played no part in the actual production. He had the right to buy, but he had no right to dictate how the work was done. Manufacture was the jealously defended right of the craftsman and, if the foreman approached, a cloth was ostentatiously thrown over the bench so that he could not see the methods being used. This was craft small-batch production at its most secretive.
This method of production can be traced back to the medieval guilds, where apprentices entered a ‘mystery'. They had to swear to keep secret the special knowledge that the guild would teach them, defending it if necessary with their lives. John H. Harvey tells a shocking story from the thirteenth century of a young apprentice who let out a secret. Masons building a cathedral were encountering difficulties with water. A stream was affecting the stonework and damp was creeping up the wall. The boy's father, the master of the freemason's lodge, had described how they were going to solve the problem, passing on information which might lead some day to his son himself becoming a master. The young lad, in his innocence and enthusiasm, described the solution to the bishop. The bishop was paying for the work, but had no right to know how it would be carried out. When the father heard the story, his honour as master and father required him to prevent the secret from being lost. The only way was to silence the bishop. The man stabbed his bishop to death and was duly hanged for it. The secret was kept.
Instrument makers did not go that far, but they kept their secrets close. Men thought out ingenious methods of making parts more quickly, or with less effort, and so increase their weekly money. Men watched each other, puzzled at a man who apparently started the job from the wrong end. Each one was anxious to pick up yet another tip which could be stored up at the back of the mind for later use. No craftsmen let out his secrets easily for they were his bread and butter. One often heard the phrase, ‘learning by sitting next to Nellie’. This was how craftsmen did learn, but Nellie was not always willing to help.
These small groups of skilled craftsmen were trapped in each other's company like rowers chained to the same galley oar. They could not get away from each other without leaving the firm and in the next, they must join a similar group. To be held in the same workshop, with large machines and room to move about, was one thing. A bench of jewellers could be far worse. A line of small benches in some back room in a converted house, could be a life sentence.
Some of them might be clever men. All would be skilled, but conversation could be acid. Banter could have its cutting edge, or a provoking insistence, so that some would become silent and morose. Tiny incidents, revealed in a moment of confidence, were recalled for years. The same jokes, homilies and prejudices, were aired day after day, making life a misery for the victim. Religion, politics, gambling, football - conversation varied from group to group. One dominant man could change the whole tone.
In the midst of this was the overriding concern with prices. Firms needed to reduce labour costs in a competitive market. The price of an article was argued to the farthing, so that each batch of work was a separate calculation - a separate tussle with the foreman. This gave a unity to the group. Everyone had to combine against the foreman. In the words of the workshop, the foreman and the workers ‘were right daggers.’
The antagonism between the foreman and the trades union representative was natural. They met and negotiated, fighting closely over fractions of a penny, but it was the lesser lights who earned the dislike. One assistant foreman was particularly irritating. He was in the meeting but had no proper role, merely reiterating what the foreman had just said. No sooner had the foreman stated his position than the assistant jumped up and repeated his words. He added nothing, put things in a more confused way and sat down well pleased with himself. After about the third time the trades union representative began to look under the table in a puzzled way. Each time the man stood up the trade unionist bent down and peered under the table, completely ignoring what the man was saying. Soon the foreman started looking under the table too. At last he said:-
The second struggle was against the dilution of the trade. Outsiders had to be kept out by a strictly controlled apprenticeship system. The key to both of these was craftsmanship. Work could always be done less accurately, or finished more carelessly, and so prices reduced. This struggle for standards was at the heart of the matter. Craftsmanship was a thing of intense pride. Poor workmanship was despised and rejected by good firms which had built their reputations at the top end of the market. Work was always done to a high degree of polish. Steel parts were blued to exactly the right colour.. No sheet stampings were left with edges torn from the machine. All had to be ‘draw-filed’ to a high polish, time consuming but the sign of high-class work. This quality of workmanship separated the craftsman from the jobber, the Johnny-come-lately who had served no apprenticeship, who would skimp the finish and cut the price.
Factories had their share of eccentrics, tolerated and ignored. One man, perfectly normal in other ways, went from workshop to workshop with a small board under his arm, to follow up jobs and see how they were progressing. He came inside the door, placed the board on the ground and did a little tap dance. Nobody took any notice, but he had announced his presence and he then proceeded to move from one machine to the next checking progress. Another man, when his work was not going smoothly would stop suddenly, raise his hands and face to some unseen god above and cry, “Be fair. Be fair.” After a minute he would go on with his work and be quiet for a period. This was taken as a matter of course and hardly mentioned.
Another, completely bald, wore a smart bowler hat to work and all the way to his work bench. Suddenly he removed the bowler and put on a cap, but so quickly that nobody ever saw his bald head. They took bets on it, tried to divert him at the crucial moment, but never succeeded.
A man with a good baritone voice sang the typical Peter Dawson songs of the period about rolling roads and the open air. By the end of two verses of ‘I am a Vagabond,’ sung at the top of his voice, there were shouts telling him what road to take and threatening to set the dogs on him as a poultry thief. This was accompanied by a hail of screwed up paper balls and small pieces of wood until he had to stop.
In the middle of the afternoon, when the air was hot and people were bored, someone would shout,
Everyone took up the chorus. In a moment the air was full of shouts and train noises.
There were the sounds of whistles.
Men up and down the workshop pulled out the drawers in their benches and slammed them shut to make the sound of train doors closing.
People started stamping in unison to imitate the engine starting up slowly and gradually getting faster and faster and softer and softer as the train disappeared in the distance.
After five minutes of shouting and play acting, the foreman put his head out of the office without saying anything. Slowly the workshop returned to its usual calm. Men and women settled down to the final quarter of the day like children in from play.
Some of the work was very specialized . In the 1930s one skilled instrument maker was the only man who could repair a Wheatstone. Not a Wheatstone Bridge, but a precursor of the teleprinters, which have themselves been obsolete now for many years. There was only one Wheatstone machine in the country and that was at Rugby. When it went wrong it was rushed up to London and he had to stop everything, working overtime if necessary, to get the machine back to Rugby as quickly as possible.
Most of the time however, most of the work was real grind. During both world wars many Camden factories worked twelve hour shifts and more, making instruments. Some were secret - pieces of unknown machines to be assembled elsewhere, for purposes unknown. Sensitive work which was not to be spoken about. Other pieces were obvious. Hundreds and hundreds of clinometers were made - spirit levels on brackets for giving the angles on field guns and aeroplane wings. They were set up on a special piece of equipment in the factory and painted green before being fitted to 3.7 and 4.5 anti-aircraft guns. The same firm made specially sensitive anemometers for weather prediction. Three revolving cups weighing less than an eggshell, were joined to arms with some gentle rivetting and attached to a specially adapted stopwatch. Carried aloft by a balloon, they were floated down to earth. As the air got heavier, the anemometer revolved faster. The quality of this workmanship was quite outstanding. Merely waving the hand in front of the anemometer made it revolve.
Marvels of precision were made in tumble-down factories. In 1945, with the world to rebuild, one could sell anything. It appeared that Camden factories would produce goods for ever, but the machines were worn out, production methods obsolete, prices too high.
One instrument maker I knew was apprenticed in the 1930s in Camden Town. The firm went bankrupt a couple of years later. This was one firm which had collapsed, a tragedy for people employed and for the creditors, but a normal industrial hazard. The lad was able to continue in another firm and finally became highly qualified. The story was different in the 1960s. Then Camden Town firms were disappearing all round, so that there were no other places to go to.
I was a housemaster in a large London comprehensive school, very concerned about finding jobs for my school leavers. At this time children could leave at the Easter if they had reached fifteen years of age. Traditionally the factories, and in particular those like the printers, controlled by craft unions, favoured the children of existing members. When Dad had a word with the foreman and the union, a place was found. Sometimes this was a safe niche for a lad, but I could see the world was changing. Some boys were very clever and would have done well in their exams, but they were leaving school too early. These were the potential managers who would be helped in their careers by a broader education, leading to further qualifications. Most unions and employers rejected all my letters, even when I could persuade the parents to allow the boy to stay on. Tradition demanded that boys should leave at the minimum age and their training would then take its normal trade course - leave later and they would never get into the industry.
When the school leaving age was raised to sixteen, I had a better case: some engineering firms were willing to allow boys to stay on the extra term to take their exams, but many still refused. In one case I had a letter from the managing director agreeing to defer entry until the end of the O Level exams, but the boy was withdrawn at Easter and I never saw him again. Someone lower down the ladder had intervened.
Slowly we persuaded employers to accept apprentices at a later age. Boys took their exams before signing apprenticeship papers - we appeared to be winning, but a few years later many of these apprenticeships failed. As I was busy persuading more firms to delay apprenticeship entry, other firms throughout Britain were collapsing.
Several factors combined in the 1960s to destroy Camden Town industry. Road transport instead of canal and rail; competition from new factories on green-field sites and abroad, were common to all British industry, but instrument making and fine engineering faced an extra hazard. New computer controlled machinery threatened the old craft skills. Machines could now be programmed to work automatically.
Always up to then engineers had been able to make machines which repeated actions time and time again. A crankshaft rotated, a piston moved up and down, but each part of the machine moved in some well known geometrical path. In a circle, forward in a straight line and back again, or in more sophisticated paths such as cycloids and epicycloids, but never in erratic paths. No machine was ever able, for example, to imitate the path of a firefly. Everything was regular as clockwork. Familiar movements were repeated time and again. Then, in the sixties, came computer control.
Suddenly any path, however unpredictable, could be repeated exactly by a computer. A man spraying a machine part with a spray gun, moves his hand in a completely irregular way, but let him spray it just once and the computer can record every movement of the spray nozzle in three directions. When the next similar component moves into the spray booth, the machine can repeat every action and there is no more need for the sprayer. A modern car production line with its rows of attendant robots, is a display of computer-controlled machines working in four dimensions – up, down, sideways and in time.
Alternatively, a typist can key in a series of processes, precise measurements and a self-checking programme, into a modern machine so that it will work automatically, and with an accuracy which it used to take a man seven years and more to learn. The tape can play for twenty-four hours a day on a machine manufactured abroad. One skilled man can supervise a dozen machines, while labourers collect the finished articles from the buckets below. A revolution indeed.
In addition, in the 1960s the goal-posts were being moved. The micro-miniaturization of modern electronic components is several orders of magnitude beyond the power of the human hand. This is work solely for robots. As result, industry needed a complete new capitalization - new machines, new transport, new training, new working practices.
For years robots had been resisted in Britain and elsewhere. Japan, with a large man-power shortage and bulging order books, introduced them and, as a result, thousands of old craft skills disappeared all over the world. Japan's success contributed to our local unemployment and the decay of Camden Town industry. My carefully planned apprenticeships for a forgotten world, faded away like mist. Since the nineteen sixties we have seen the biggest industrial revolution since the steam engine, so the workshop stories recorded here reveal a completely different society - one of apprenticeships; long-term employment using traditional production skills; in a world which changed only slowly. Our modern technical upheavals were unknown.
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