Mentors : David Kynaston at Philips – Pye Unicam

Way back in 1976 I was very very fortunate to meet and work for David Kynaston. He was the Managing Director of Pye Unicam Ltd, a company owned by the Dutch Philips company. Pye Unicam was in a ‘sorry state’, quite run down and steeped in it’s past. David had come in to revive the company and its products and that’s exactly what he did. I’ll tell you what I learned from him whilst part of the team. His greatest talent was for leadership which he showed by example. No alpha male ordering about, just making the necessary changes whilst transforming the culture to be quality conscious in everything it was involved in. I shall tell the story using some of the products and processes I worked on with my business partner at the time Peter Crowe. I hope that you will absorb the lessons just as I did from David Kynaston and his creative team of innovators and changers.

Early Days : Toilets and Electronics … with a bit of software …

I was introduced to PYE Unicam by Peter Crowe. He was a ‘one man band’ running an electronics business just doing custom developments. His company was called FBN Electronics Ltd, people were impressed by that for some reason; they didn’t realise that the FBN was short for Fly By Night … typical of Peter’s humour. Anyway we got on really well; I had started in electronics and migrated to software whilst at General Instruments. I’d developed all kinds of products and tools like simulators, compilers and linkers etc to support the new microprocessors that were sprouting up like flowers in the spring. I’d used powerful computers in the USA for all the development, via a 10 character per second teletype via an ordinary telephone line using a modem that I literally could hardly lift! We call it ‘cloud’ computing these days, it was call ‘Timesharing’ then. There is nothing new under the sun. Peter designed and made the hardware, including the printed circuit boards themselves, and I worked with the clients to extract what they thought product was supposed to do (and just as important what it should not do) and then I programmed the hardware to do just that.

Peter then landed a Contract with PYE Unicam but it was a bit too big for him and it needed software, some in assembler code and some in Hewlett Packard Pascal (actually USCD Pascal). The only problem was I had a full time job and we had no computing equipment at all to do the development work on. We also had no choice about which microprocessor to use. By a miracle of serendipity ZILOG had just released the Z80 microprocessor and with it a low cost software development platform (the blue box) targeted at the Z80 BUT with a wonderful Assembler tool which supported “macros”. A macro is simply a ‘piece of text’ with a name that can be substituted for another ‘piece of text’. Sounds simple and it is simple. By writing ‘pieces of text’ which described very accurately the instructions of a different microprocessor we were able to use this crude development tool to create programs for many other kinds of microprocessors. There was no support for error detection or syntax checking so programming was fiddly to do, but very low cost and the blue box did the job well enough. It impressed people who were unaware of the crudeness that lay beneath the neat veneer of tidily laid out programs! So, Peter and I took on the Contract … a new dawn was rising.

Meanwhile on our weekly visits to PYE in Cambridge (up at 5-30am, drive 3 hours, look fresh on arrival) we noticed that changes were afoot, the toilets were out of action, one after another, very mysterious. After about a month all the toilets in the building had been completely refurbished – from Dark Satanic Mill style to modern, fresh, well lit, warm and hygienic places which had a prominent cleaning rota on display, personally signed off by the cleaners on each of their regular visits. Everyone was perplexed.

But this was typical of David Kynaston, he made quiet changes that affected everyone first; everyone goes to the toilet ! The quality of the new toilets was excellent; the ‘message delivery’ had started, a clean break with the past. The old ways were being literally flushed away.

Next step : Revolutions in Production, Product and System Design

After doing a few trivial jobs we were trusted with what initially seemed to be a simple upgrade to a product, the SP6 UltraViolet/ Visible Spectrophotometer. Don’t faint, its just a glorified prism that produces a spectrum from light passing through a sample of a substance. The idea is to capture the position of the bright lines in the spectrum as they indicate which atoms or molecules are ‘resonating’. Each substance has a characteristic set of lines, depending on its unique atomic makeup – hence it becomes possible to identify the nature of the sample from its spectrum. This is used in laboratories for non-destructive chemical analysis of things like drugs or explosives … here is a picture of the SP6 just before we redesigned and engineered it.

SP6 Spectrophotometer UV/Vis – Manual Operation Version


  1. The next time I read a blog, Hopefully it doesnt fail me just as much as this one. I mean, Yes, it was my choice to read through, but I actually thought you would have something useful to say. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something that you could fix if you werent too busy searching for attention.

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