Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Reminiscences part 3. Making films, work travels and celebrities

Lewes guy Fawkes, Bob Whittle
One time when we visited Brian and Geraldine in London, they drove us down to Lewes to see our Churchill College friend Bob Whittle. It was around November the fifth, and Bob took us to see the famous firework night celebrations in Lewes. Various different groups in the town had built elaborate floats which were paraded round the town and then set on fire. This is a very old tradition, and there were shouts of 'No Popery' and similar epithets, dating back to older times.

ICL film and DEC video
In the early days at Racal in Tewkesbury we were some of the first people in the world to use interactive graphics. ICL wanted to make a film showing this, and I was chosen to be the 'star', they told me I was a 'natural' - still not sure what that means. I demonstrated our PCB (printed circuit board) layout system, and gave a bit of commentary. We showed the film at a conference on CAD in Holland, and the main speaker (Andries Van Damn) borrowed it to show at his talk. When I went to the states (see later), the guys from Lockheed all recognized me from the film, they said I was known up and down the west coast. They may have been exaggerating, and I never got an Oscar.

Later on, I made a video at DEC - only black and white in those days - which they used to train their sales teams. I had no script, and just ad libbed for about half an hour, giving a more or less standard demo. I was somewhat surprised when the film maker said he was going to use it without editing. In those days this involved cutting and splicing, no video editing software.

Delft University
In my early days at Redac, the MD Eric Wolfendale asked me to give a talk in his place at a conference on computer graphics that he had been invited to. I flew to Amsterdam, and picked up a car and drove to Delft through the neat flat Dutch countryside. I had been booked into a nice hotel by the University, and when I arrived there was a large coffee table book about Rembrandt in my room, a gift from the University. Actually, I’m not a huge fan, and I ended up giving it to an artist friend of ours, Judy White. The young students at the University treated me as a visiting celebrity, and took me out to sample the local bars. The hotel had two restaurants, one very smart and expensive, and one more like a coffee shop. I was careful with the company’s cash, and so I ate in the cheaper one. At the end of my 3 day stay, I asked for the bill, and was told that it had been paid by the University. Damn, I could have eaten in the posh one at their expense.

First Trip to the U.S. Feb 1971
My first trip to the U.S. was quite eventful. I had always wanted to go to California, so when Nigel Pearce (then my boss) asked me if I wanted to go, I didn’t hesitate. I was told I was going to Anaheim. I couldn’t find out exactly where that was, it did not figure in my Times world atlas, and of course we didn’t have Google maps in those days. Anyway I was soon flying off to Los Angeles with Ken Wyatt (our Sales and Marketing director) in a ‘stretched’ Boeing 707 which was so full of fuel it took ages to lumber into the air. Eleven hours later we arrived and were met by ‘Jack’, our U.S. salesman at the time – he did not last long. He drove us to the Marriott at Anaheim, which was the biggest hotel (motel) I had ever seen, it seemed to stretch for hundreds of yards in all directions.

 After we checked in, Jack suggested a drink at the bar, so Ken and I started walking to the front of the hotel. Jack asked us where we were going, and said ‘this is Los Angeles, you don’t walk, you drive’, so he drove us all of a couple of hundred yards to the bar. We had a snack at the restaurant and I discovered the American way of having about ten salad dressings to choose from, I plumped for Green Goddess as it sounded exotic. Next day I started work in the Anaheim conference centre where we were demonstrating our software. DEC had delivered a PDP 15, and I checked it out.

 The next day there was not much for me to do, so Ken said I could go to Disneyland. This was right ‘across the street’ from the convention centre, so I walked to it. This involved crossing a huge car park then a six lane road, then the Disney entrance with is massive car parks, so maybe a mile or so.
Nobody walks into Disney, it is designed for cars. I suspect I may be the only person to have ever walked into it. I loved Disneyland, and have been back many times.

Jack was not impressed with the Marriott, so we moved into the Anaheim Grand, on the sixth floor of a ten story building. Next morning, at exactly 6.01 AM, I was woken by a loud rumbling sound, and the room shaking from side to side, with the lights swinging, and the door chain banging. Yup, it was an earthquake, one of the big ten year events that LA suffers from, about 6.5 on the Richter scale. The epicentre was around 40 miles away in the San Fernando Valley, but it was scary enough where we were.

When we had finished at Anaheim we spent one night at a plush hotel in Marina Del Rey (not sure why), then I flew up to San Francisco. I was determined to make the most of my first U.S. trip, so I had booked some day’s holiday while I was there. I didn’t have much money, and no credit card, so I stayed in a fairly cheap hotel in Union square for 3 or 4 days. I walked all over the area and took cable cars, Coit tower, Fishermans wharf, Washington square, Haight Ashbury, Golden Gate Park. I also took a short coach trip over the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir woods with lovely huge redwoods

After SF, I flew across to Newark where Michael picked me up at drove to his house in Princeton; at this time he was resident fellow at the Institute for advanced studies. Next day he drove me on the New Jersey turnpike to New York, and we spent the day there doing the usual tourist things – Empire State, Rockefeller Centre, Greenwich Village. The last day we drove around the area, into Princeton University and to the border with Connecticut.

Finally I flew to Boston to visit DEC at Maynard. New York had been cold after the west coast, but Boston was colder, around 0 F. I had been booked into the (old) Boston Sheraton, which was overheated and had windows that would not open. Not having a credit card, I had to pay using my dwindling supply of dollars. This somewhat surprised the check out guy, even in those days credit cards were the norm for any business expenses. He had to hunt around to find an ancient cash register. I had been told I could get a train to Concorde, near Maynard, but had great difficulty getting the hotel receptionist to deal with my query. I had to spell out ‘Concorde’ before she understood me – ‘Oh you wanna go to KahnKard’ she said. Anyway I took the train, met the guys at Dec, (Fred Katz, Dave Saari) and they took me to their local car hire agent, who gave me a Plymouth Fury to drive to the airport. This was about 17 feet long with a 6 litre engine, automatic (natch), power brakes, power steering, none of which I had ever used before. I also had to navigate my way to Logan airport, and although this was fairly straightforward, it involved crossing several lanes of solid traffic as the Mass Pike turned into a tunnel to Logan. I kept hitting the brakes too hard and coming to a squealing halt, much to my embarrassment. I was greatly relieved to finally get to Logan and fly home.

DEC & 4 months in the US
Not long after my first visit to the U.S. I was asked by Redac to go there for 3 months (turned out to be 4) to support sales at DEC in the old mill buildings at Maynard. First I stayed in some rooms rented out by the week, then I shared a flat in West Concorde with a DEC field service engineer called Art Newberry. He was always flying off somewhere in the states to fix a computer, and I was also travelling a great deal, so we often did not see each other for a week or so. While there I flew to Knoxville Tennessee, Washington DC (several times), Rochester NY, Cedar Rapids Iowa, Omaha Nebraska, Los Angeles (more than once) and Seattle (twice).

DEC’s place at Maynard was in a jumble of huge old mill buildings, on different levels, with both internal and external walkways between buildings. So building 5 level 3 was connected to building 3 level 5 and so on. I discovered that there were two PDP15s in these buildings that I could use, so sometimes I was using both at once, running like crazy between buildings. Then I found another in building 11, which made life really interesting. I think the Americans just thought I was a crazy Brit. There was just such a massive difference in scale of operation between Redac in Tewkesbury, where we had only one computer, and Maynard where there were dozens.

When we flew to Rochester to visit Kodak, we left very early from Rolph Hubert’s place to Logan, but it was fog bound, so the flight was delayed. We decided to use the time to have a good breakfast. When we came out of the coffee shop, we found that the fog had cleared, and our flight had left. Still, there was another not long after. In those days there was no security, getting a local plane was like getting a bus. In Rochester we picked up a car and drove to Buffalo, then Niagara to see the falls.

In Knoxville it was coming up to a week end, so I took a few days holiday and drove around the Smoky Mountain National Park, staying in Gatlinburg (we went there recently and its now tacky). I flew back via Washington, then got a call from Tony Chapman asking where I had got to, and to fly back to Washington straight away. I spent a lot of time going back and forward to Logan airport.

While in Maynard I made friends with a couple of Brits and a Canadian who were there on a DEC training course. On weekends we sometimes used to walk around Walden Pond nearby, made famous by David Thoreau. We also went rowing in the river, trailing cans of Budweiser behind us to keep them cool.

At the end of my time I was in Seattle visiting Boeing, so I took about a week’s holiday, and drove from Seattle to Denver, over the Snoqualmie pass into eastern Washington, going from green and temperate Pacific Northwest to hot dry desert conditions in Spokane and further. I got to Spokane about 6 PM, and the temperature was still 90 F. Then I went through northern Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Yellowstone, down to Utah and Salt Lake City, and finally east to Denver, where I flew back to the UK.

 Neil Diamond
The first time I went to Seattle to visit Boeing I was staying in the SeaTac Thunderbird motel about 20 miles north of Seattle, between Seattle and Tacoma, hence the name. I had been in Boston about three days before flying out west, so was still somewhat jet lagged. When I explored downtown Seattle, I discovered that Neil Diamond was performing in the Kingdome (since demolished). I was quite keen on him at the time, so booked a ticket for that evening. Then I drove back to the motel, had some food and drove back into downtown. By the end of the show, I was virtually falling asleep, and still had to drive another 20 miles back to the motel. Seems crazy, but I was a lot younger then, and had plenty of energy.

Boeing Contract and Seattle
When we first tried selling a system to Boeing (actually Boeing computer services), they flew to DEC's plant in Maynard, outside Boston. I flew to Boston to meet them at DEC and demonstrate the system, which took about three days - they were very thorough. I then flew back to the UK and went back to work in Tewkesbury. Our MD Eric Wolfendale was out of the office for a few days, so I was a bit surprised to get a phone call from Ernie Harrison, the head honcho of the whole Racal group of companies. Apparently Boeing had asked for me to go back again as they hadn't made up their mind yet, and Tony Chapman (Racal's guy in the US) had called Ernie, so he called me and told me to get the next flight back to Boston. So I did - the next day which was Friday. I went straight to work in Maynard  and worked through the week end, then flew back again on Monday.
 It was all arranged last minute, and DEC couldn't find me a room at our normal HoJo, so for the first night I shared a room with one of the Boeing guys in a cheap motel  6. They worked on a fixed allowance per day, so saved money on the motel. I was a bit tired throughout the trip, but we got the contract from Boeing.

I ended up going to Seattle several times, mostly on my own, but once with Dave Ellis. We were there for a while, so we got to know the guys quite well, and we invited two of them out for a meal with their wives at Ivar’s Salmon House. We had eaten there before, and found it to be a really good place to indulge in Pacific salmon, cooked in the open area in the restaurant over a fire of alder wood. We arranged to meet in the bar, and had a drink with the first couple to arrive while we waited for the others. We waited, and waited, then someone pointed out that there were two Ivar’s in Seattle; the other couple had been waiting at the second one. All was well in the end and we enjoyed a good evening.

One time that I was there alone over a weekend, I drove to Mount Rainier (14000 feet), about 90 miles away.  On a clear day, from one point on a road around the outskirts of Seattle, you can see the snow covered peak of Mt. Rainier across the plain. When you drive round the bend and see it for the first time it is a breathtaking sight. You can drive up almost to the peak of the mountain (where there is naturally a souvenir shop complex). It was early season and they had just cleared the road of snow, so I was driving through snow banked on either side up to a height of about six feet.

I saw a fair bit of Tony Chapman later, when I spent 4 months in the US. He had been in the states for 20 years, but still had an upper class English accent. When I asked the secretary for a 'regular' coffee (cream and sugar), he had never heard the expression, and couldn't understand how I had picked it up after being there a few days, and he hadn't after 20 years. He tried to persuade Tewkesbury to ship me out to the states permanently, but that never came about.

Another time when I flew to Boston with Bill Hillier, we spent some time there with DEC, and then flew to Chicago to visit a potential customer. We were then due to fly back to the UK, having been in the States for a while. Bill phoned the Tewkesbury office from O’ Hare airport, and told me I my flight had been changed, and I had to fly on to Los Angeles to visit another customer (Lockheed probably). Normally I would be keen to go to California, but this time I’d had enough and wanted to go home, so was somewhat aggrieved.

Kongsberg in Norway
When we started actually selling our PCB design system at Redac, I ended up doing the installation in the early days. Later on, we had grown into different departments for development and production; but back then I got involved in all aspects: development, production, testing, installation, training. So when we sold a system to Kongsberg Vapenfabrik in Norway, I flew out to Oslo and spent a few days there installing and demonstrating the software. Their site was outside Oslo, but not too far as I recall. I was due to fly with Ken Wyatt, our S&M director, but when we got to check in, he discovered he had brought his wife’s passport. So I flew on my own, and Ken got the company driver to bring his passport and he joined me later. I was met at the airport and driven to Kongsberg. The site was adjacent to the old silver mines, and the English guy who ran their CAD department, who I dealt with, told me that they had company parties that involved people wandering about in the mines after consuming large quantities of alcohol.

ASEA in Sweden and Linkoping
A bit later I installed another system at ASEA in Sweden, in Stockholm. I was not that impressed with Stockholm at the time (though I have been back and seen its better side). I was suffering from a nasty sore throat which did not help, but I recall walking round the city at night and finding it almost deserted. Maybe it was Sunday.  But I have to say this impression was reinforced when I later went with Martin Oakes to a conference in Linnkoping at the University. The conference was fun as there was a good mix from different European countries, with the Swedes and Norwegians making jokes about each other. We arrived quite late on a Sunday (obviously not a good idea), and when I had driven to our hotel from Stockholm airport, we expected to get a good meal. They seemed quite surprised at such an outrageous request, and we had to settle for some sandwiches at the bar.

Shirley Maclaine

Round about 1975, give or take a few years, I went to a DEC users group (DECUS) meeting in Copenhagen, along with Kevin Foster. It wasn't very memorable except for one thing. On the second or third night we went along to the Tivoli gardens, which was not far from our hotel.  While there we decided to have meal in a rather nice restaurant, we chose a typical Danish meal involving ham, potatoes and apples, and some very good Danish lager to go with it. While eating my meal I became rather entranced by a woman sitting nearby, and after a while I realised it was Shirley Maclaine. Now there was a time when she was my favourite female film star, so I decided to go over and have a chat with her. I think I was somewhat incoherent, owing to a combination of strong lager and being a bit star struck. But she was very patient and smiled sweetly at me as I burbled along. I suspect her male companion was slightly less impressed, but I didn't care; he was probably just some film director. 

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