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
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
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
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
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...