69 Histon Road, Cambridge, where Cambridge Consultants had their first base
Tim had already registered Cambridge Consultants by the time he and David decided to work together, although at that stage the company didn’t employ anybody full-time. The initial idea was to provide a technical consultancy service which sourced the expertise for a range of specialist jobs, but the plan soon changed, as David explains.
“The whole concept of Cambridge Consultants was that it could find a technical specialist for any particular scientific field and put them in touch with industry. For example, supposing somebody was studying cheese and wanted to read a Polish paper about cheese making. They would have to find a specialist who knew all the technical jargon involved in cheese making and who also knew Polish. It turned out to be quite a difficult thing to do and it wasn’t a very satisfactory method of getting a company off the ground, really, and what we soon found was that we were actually doing the work ourselves.
“So what we did then, with a little bit of cash from both our parents, was set up a workshop at 69 Histon Road, at the back of a company called Polyhedron Printers, which was owned by a friend called Rodney Dale. We took on work making prototypes for the psychology laboratory and a lot of local industry; including commissions from parts of the Pye Group. Cambridge Prototypes is the name we traded under initially but that was under the wing of Cambridge Consultants.
“We had a little lathe and milling machine and hired a couple of really good instrument makers. In those days, Cambridge Instrument Company, who were famous for making the electron beam microscope, used to train instrument makers and ran a very good apprenticeship scheme, which, of course, nobody these days does. So we had a pool of labour in Cambridge that was extremely skilled and there were a lot of scientific instruments being made.
“At that stage Cambridge Consultants had one secretary on the top floor of 8 Jesus Lane in the centre of Cambridge and I had the workshop at Cambridge Prototypes. Then after about a year we started trading under Cambridge Consultants, Tim left the psychology laboratory and we expanded the premises at 69 Histon Road. It was about 1960 when I started, so that would have been 1961, I suppose.”
The work given to Cambridge Prototypes turned out to be varied, interesting and challenging. The company were called upon to make all sorts of esoteric pieces of equipment, often to help the university departments carry out very specific experimental research.
“It sounds a bit silly,” continues David, “but one of the biggest jobs we handled right at the beginning was making a piece of equipment to find out the characteristics of insect muscles – specifically bees. It was a vibrator to which you attached to the insect’s muscle and it vibrated it over a very accurate and precise distance at a set frequency. You then looked at the other end of the muscle to see the force that was generated.
This was done for a professor of zoology in Oxford, but what made it a bit difficult was that he wanted to measure it, not only in the normal atmosphere, but also in various other atmospheres; up to quite high pressures of about 1000PSI.
“The base plate for this thing was about two inches thick, 14 inches across and was made of stainless steel. This was because the vibration levels involved were extremely low and we didn’t want it to pick up the rumble from a passing truck, for example. It was a really solid piece of engineering and everything was stainless because it had to work in these varying atmospheres.
“We couldn’t make the pressure vessel itself so that was sub-contracted to another company. That looked almost like an oxygen cylinder with the top cut off, except it was larger in diameter.
“At that time we didn’t have any electronics expertise, so we used a friend of ours who was doing his PHD at the engineering labs. This was before transistors were in use so everything had to be done with valves and it was a hell of a beast. I can’t remember how much we were paid for it but probably about £3000.
“That was one of the most ambitious things that we tackled back then. But there were all kinds of instruments that people wanted. For example, we made a wind tunnel for aphids! Aphids are steered by, or attracted to, various frequencies of light, so the idea was that you would shine polarised light of various frequencies on a pseudo sky – which was just a bit of cloth through which the air passed – and watch how the aphids took off.
“I can’t remember too much about it but I just know that it was a thing of about a metre square in cross section. The airflow involved was very low but it had to be variable because you had to find out how hard the aphids were striving to get to the light that you were shining on the sky.
“Shortly after setting up with not much electronics expertise, we had some engineers join us. One was a chap called Peter Reiner, the other was Gordon Edge, and we made things like electronic petrol pumps for a garage forecourts, at a time when people hadn’t got such things. You could put a pound in and you got a pounds worth of petrol out. We made those for Gilbarco, which is one of the petrol manufacturers. And we did a similar thing for a private individual who wanted to get an idea off of the ground.
“One of the typical things that we made, for example, was a TV audience measuring instruments for AGB. They were a big market research organisation – the sort of people who would tell you that 9 million people were watching East Enders, etcetera, etcetera.
“I can’t remember exactly how it worked but every time you changed the channel it could tell what you were watching so AGB installed these instruments in thousands of homes throughout the country and from that they could work out what the audience figures were likely to be.”