True Story No18


You can book 2 man weeks to the Rack

Mechanical engineers are a special breed.

Some of the one's I've known have been very good but some have been awful.

Usually the awful ones get promoted to keep them out of trouble. They usually rise to a point in the organisation where their questionable mechanical engineering doesn't get a chance to get tried out. This goes for electrical engineers and programmers as well.

Our bit of the Plessey Company was responsible for the design of a rack assembly to hold a computer equipment inside an Army Lorry.

I think the whole job was a fiasco from beginning to end and the rack part was no different.

Because our branch of the business was quite busy doing really interesting projects, the design of the rack was given to a small team of young mechanical design engineers under a manager who also had a background in mechanical engineering.

The latter chap could neither design things mechanical nor could he understand finances. He was what's now termed a "politician", and to help him with this aspect he wore built-up shoes so he seemed taller, and probably felt more important than he really was.

The customer's representatives didn't know much about mere mechanical engineering either and were probably pre-occupied with other more important stuff like massaging their expense reports?

From the start, things had gone pear-shaped.

We had won the whole project (known as Project Wavell) in the face of stiff competition (never engineering excellence but most decidedly how much the exchequer would have to fork out), but afterwards, due to string pulling in high places, another company (GEC) had managed to substitute, for our data processing system (like the one in Ptarmigan), a "white elephant" in the shape of a computer, into whose development, vast millions had been poured to no avail... because nobody wanted it. I had been a member of the bidding team dealing with computers so understood what later transpired. Read also about the nuclear hardening bit.

It was the start of the time when as soon as something new appeared, after being on the drawing board for five years, it was already obsolete.

It was also getting near to the end of the time when certain Customers issued cost-plus contracts. A cost-plus contract enabled a company to spend virtually any amount of money and get paid in full with a handsome bonus or fixed percentage profit. I remember once venturing into our Finance Department and being staggered at the vast number of people sitting at rows and rows of desks stretching off into the distance. Plessey Company #1 would issue a sub-contract to Plessey Company #2 who would issue a sub-contract to an outside firm. To keep tabs on the shenanigans you needed a lot of finance guys.

Anyway... to cut things short.. Why book two man weeks when you can book 4 man weeks and get paid twice as much?

It's not easy to visualise the value of money, looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, because inflation has completely distorted the pound.

Labour rates in the Computer Industry were only 2 or 3 pounds an hour and a really good salary was £2,000.

I recall the Department Head of the Rack Project at monthly meetings offering to do things to help out other projects by booking overspend to the "Rack".

The day for the Acceptance of the Rack duly arrived.

Strangely, this was the first time the end user had been involved and he was probably looking forward to the days events (mainly wining and dining) and getting his new toy.

Well... it wasn't accepted.

It was too big, it was too heavy and the computers wouldn't fit in it (in those days no-one could quite get to grips with metric measurements).

It had cost, it transpired, £1,000,000 but I don't remember anyone getting into trouble.

The boss of the Department looking after the Rack got promoted.

The engineers were moved to another project, and a bit later the senior mechanical engineer got promoted.

A new team was appointed and, after a lot of promises by management, they started on a new venture "The New Wavell Rack".

This was a totally new design and used aluminium to keep the weight down and the mechanical engineers promised to use the same rulers and bits of string as the mechanical engineers designing the computers.

Later, for some reason, which I never fathomed, I was asked to be "Chairman of the Acceptance Committee", a device intended either to inspire customer confidence or maybe to hoodwink him, I don't know but a member of the committee was the previous boss of the Rack Project. I remember being told what to do and what to say and the meeting minutes were to be vetted before I could issue them. Something to do with politics I guess, but maybe nearer to fibbing. As I didn't wear built up shoes I wasn't accepted as a politician, just an honest engineer.

The new rack was accepted but it was a miracle it was!

The weight was OK and all the dimensions were correct but, for some reason they had chosen a single gigantic cooling fan for keeping the computers from getting too hot.

It was a sort of huge snail shaped thing and, when switched on, made a horrendous noise like a Harrier taking off. Maybe it had become surplus to a hovercraft project?

It was so noisy that no-one thought to mention it during acceptance (or if they had no-one heard them), and I understand it was so loud that the design engineers hadn't previously been allowed to turn it on in the lab for more than a few moments. I'd say for Health & Safety reasons but that expession hadn't been invented and people just used common sense. Nowadays Health & Safety rules because hardly anyone uses common sense. EU Dictate number blah blah "no-one is permitted to use Common Sense".

I don't think the specification ever mentioned noise as it was just a metal rack.

Later, over more wine and food, I overheard the Customer's people discussing it... but it was too late, they'd already signed everything.

If you ever meet a deaf soldier write him a little note asking if he ever worked on the bit of Wavell with the noisy cooling fan.

Why was there a very large fan in the rack? Well... those GEC computers substituted for the Ptarmigan computers got so hot you could have used the Rack as a toaster if there hadn't been a cooling fan. Those same computers ended up in the Nimrod... but all that's a different story and you'd have to quiz a pensioner from GEC about that...


Return to stories page