In the year I graduated (1978), jobs for graduates were relatively plentiful; in
fact, I seem to remember that GEC alone were boasting that they alone had more openings
than the number of new graduates. How things have changed in 33 years! I applied
for jobs at BBC Research, Dana Instruments (part of Racal) and Marconi Research (where
I had spent the previous summer vacation). The BBC turned me down, and I chose between
the other two on the sound basis of £200 more per year (my starting salary was £3,400
I seem to remember).
We worked at the forefront of technology from 0830-1701 Mon-Thurs and 0830-1626 on
Fridays and then retired to the pub. For me, this routine continued for 5 years until
I received a ‘phone call from from an old friend of mine from Marconi Radar: The
previous year Geoff Lunn had moved from the Radar company to a television broadcast
electronics company in Suffolk called Screen Electronics.
They were expanding and looking for design engineers at the time, so I moved to Screen
and spend a further 6 years working there.
After designing a versatile teletext encoding/decoding board, we won a contract with
the BBC to revamp their teletext subtitle replay and transmission system. In those
days the BBC stored their subtitles on 8-inch floppy discs and we had to design our
own floppy disc controller! My main task was to design a “Subtitle Combiner” which
intelligently interleaved the subtitle pages with the general CEEFAX teletext magazines.
The system was a great success and, for the first time in my life, something I had
worked on went into general service. I have to admit I gained a great sense of satisfaction
from the project, and I would regularly dial up page 888 when watching BBC TV to
keep an eye on my handiwork.
Finally, Geoff and I left Screen Electronics to form our own electronics design consultancy,
first as a partnership which we called Insight Technology and then as a Limited Company
called Invision Microsystems. Our first contract was with Pont Data, a financial
information systems provider. We developed a PC plug-in (ISA) card which could interface
with an EGA graphics card to display full-screen or quarter-screen live video - one
of the first such products in the World. Then we developed a fax card for the Macintosh
computer which won a 10-way product comparison in Mac User magazine.
In 1993 we gained a contract with Dover Harbour Board to supply three large outdoor
passenger information displays. Again, the project was successful, and led to a total
of five displays installed at the Eastern Docks, Dover, plus smaller projects at
other ferry ports around the UK plus customer information systems for both UK and
French Eurotunnel terminals.
By 1994, we had demonstrated live video on an outdoor red/green LED screen and we
were amongst the first companies in the world to demonstrate a full-colour LED module
shortly after bright blue Gallium Nitride LEDs had been made available by Nichia
Corporation of Japan. I even appeared on television in a feature on LED video screens.
We supplied early LED video screens to Aston Villa FC in 1997 and The Trafford Centre
and Leeds United FC in 1998.
1997 was a year of change at Invision Microsystems. One of our customers bought a
stake in our company and we obtained further equity funding from the venture capitalist
3i plc. Despite the fact that we had been growing exponentially since 1989, 3i wanted
to strengthen the management team and, by 1998, I had relinquished my position as
Managing Director. I fulfilled a role as Projects Director for a while, but found
that I was being sidelined to an ever-greater degree by my replacement.
The situation was resolved by spinning off a new company, Technographic Displays
in 1998, owned by me and managed in conjunction with two like-minded Invision colleagues.
I spent 12 years running Technographic Displays. Initially we developed a graphics
controller to drive Invision screens but Invision failed a year after we left, so
we re-developed our controller to drive display modules manufactured by Unitek Displays,
the only other UK-based LED video screen manufacturer. This became ACTIV-Banner,
which was marketed jointly by Technographic and Unitek and was used at numerous live
events and in a number of permanent installations (see my portfolio page).
In those early years, we also re-developed the Dover Harbour PAXIS displays into
a full-colour system. We upgraded all five PAXIS displays which had been installed
by Invision and added two more new displays. The displays featured dual-redundant
power supplies in every module, pixel-levelling capability, air-to-air heat exchangers
and real-time feedback of module status via the fibre optic data connections.
Technographic Displays designed and installed a number of one-off custom LED displays,
including the iconic Energy Ring at London’s Science Museum in 2004.
ACTIV-Media was developed to control LED advertising screens such as the Coca Cola
screen in Piccadilly Circus, London.
TELETEXT PROJECT MANAGER
1984 – 1989
Screen Electronics Ltd.
1989 – Dec 1997
Invision Microsystems Ltd.
Jan 1998 – Sep 1998
Invision Microsystems Ltd.
Oct 1998 – Sep 2010
Technographic Displays Ltd.
OWNER AND DIRECTOR
Oct 2010 - Present
Technographic’s products were all manufactured in the UK to a high level of quality
and always proved durable and reliable, but, over the last decade, screens manufactured
in China have come to dominate the market. In 2010, Technographic Displays relented
for the first time and bought in a Chinese screen for an indoor display project in
the UK. The screen turned out to be poorly designed, poorly manufactured, unsafe
and it exceeded the statutory limit for radiated RF emissions by 40dB (13 times
in terms of power)! We tried to obtain a refund from the UK importer: Initially they
were sympathetic and offered a better quality replacement, but could not offer any
guarantee that it would comply with EU legislation. They stopped returning our communications,
went into liquidation, then carried on trading under a very similar name, so buyers
beware! Our only viable option at the time was to close down Technographic Displays.
My own feeling is that this display represented the tip of an iceberg. Most Chinese
LED screen manufacturers will claim CE compliance, but actual compliance is doubtful
in many cases. It amazes me that European governments will happily put in place stringent
legislation, increasing the costs of their domestic manufacturers, whilst not protecting
the market from illegal imports with false CE certificates. One day, if I had the
time and resources, I would love to expose those manufacturers and importers who
are flaunting the law so unfairly.
In 2010 I set up SysDev Ltd in order to continue technical support to Invision and
Technographic clients. SysDev offers a number of services such as consultancy and
project management on the selection and installation of LED screens, based on my
17 years of experience in the industry.