“I’ve always found the wisest and safest plans go straight in the direction that you believe to be right, and to plan without fear or compromise.”
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Learning To Dance

A very pretty girl called Maggie, my then girlfriend, later to become my wife, became the business manager of the FM tuner kit business, banking the money and putting the bits and pieces together in cardboard boxes ready for posting. We sold hundreds, the only snag being that some came back not working, having been put together very clumsily, and so a second repair business was started. We ran the kit business, and from then on, we ran everything else together. Eventually, we had to close it down, as I had landed a gap-year job prior to university, and my father was beginning to get embarrassing questions from the Inland Revenue about some business goings-on that he denied all knowledge of.

Muirhead in Beckenham, Kent, was not that far away, and I could bike to work from home easily, working in the facsimile laboratory where they had virtually invented the ubiquitous fax machine before the industry was taken over by Japan. The company then retreated upmarket and went on to develop high-resolution versions for newspaper-type setting transmission and weather chart displays. The company chairman at the time had one of the first machines on his desk, a model that I had worked on, which was, sixty years later, on display in a glass case at the Science Museum.

But, here at Muirhead, I made a useful contribution and solved one of the knotty practical issues in the engineering department in the process of getting my name added to an international patent application. At the American Embassy, I was paid one silver dollar to assign it to the company, which was the first of many more. One night, Peter Sieber, the chief engineer, walked some of the way home with me and told me that he thought I could become an electronic engineer—the first time anyone else had told me that I could do anything. It was also here one day that I learned that I had been accepted to Queen Mary College (QMC) and promptly burst into tears.

“Maggie was…the prettiest girl at Whitesides School of Dance, but when I asked if she would come to the pictures with me, she said that I needed to learn how to dance.”

I was and am a little fellow and decided to have at least some sort of armoury of self-defence, so I joined a judo club, progressing through a few belts to a modest level of competence. Next door to judo was ballroom dancing, and, as these two clubs both turned out around ten o’clock, one night I took a closer look at the women from dancing and decided that I was in the wrong club.

Maggie was my age and certainly the prettiest girl at Whitesides School of Dance, but when I asked if she would come to the pictures with me, she said that I needed to learn how to dance. Maggie was a gold medal dancer, so I worked at it and managed to get to the bronze standard before asking her again. We were very young, and neither of us wanted to be tied down—she had to work, as she had to help support her family, and I was about to attend university. Before meeting me, she had taken a Pitman’s secretarial course in high-speed shorthand and typing that would always give her a job and then trained on Burroughs comptometers, a forerunner to computers.

So far as I could see, she worked tirelessly and has continued to do so for the whole of our lives. She also liked working in London and became secretary to the manager of Barclays Bank at the Aldwych, now one of London’s most profitable hotels and a stone’s throw from SG, my father’s business in the Strand. Sometimes, when we go to the Royal Opera House just around the corner, we have supper there and, with a private smile, sit in the space her office occupied fifty years earlier.

A lucky man and his beautiful bride—Maggie’s dress was made by her mother, Florrie, who was a professional dressmaker.


Alongside the kit business, Maggie typed up my university lecture notes and often confused “valve” for “value”; she wasn’t to know. I left QMC with an engineering degree in electronics and couldn’t wait to get a paying job, promising myself that I would never attend a lecture again. It took just a year or two to discover that despite a good and higher-level education, I really knew very little and went back to lectures in the company of Tony Smith, one of my lifelong friends, to study the current hot subject, nuclear physics, and then aeronautical engineering at Kingston University.

But for me, tangible results from these extracurricular subjects proved disappointing; the UK nuclear industry never got off the ground, and my maths wasn’t up to solving the three-dimensional differential equations of flight. There were certainly jobs out there, but nothing appealed. I was told to get an apprenticeship or intern with a big company and was promptly turned down by IBM and Shell. It was mutual, I think; I needed something I could get a handle on and become deeply involved in. Smiths Industries provided an answer for my first job out of university. Smiths was an industrial conglomerate that had a car instrumentation division, where I worked, and an automatic aircraft landing division that used magnetic amplifiers for ultrahigh reliability.

I was the one and only development engineer in the spark plug laboratory. I did a few useful things at SI; there was a serious problem with the iridium-tipped spark plugs used in aero engines, which need two per cylinder. Some iridium has unwelcome inclusions that allow the tip to split and drop into the machinery with often disastrous consequences. I developed an automatic iridium tester that solved that problem. I also saved the reputation of the chief engineer by cooking up a cock-and-bull story about a new plug design that was pure figment but answered a need at the time. Later, I was cited as the inventor for my second patent.

The happy couple strolling in their finery, 1960s.

Maggie poses on her honeymoon in Monaco, where Pete had the sports car he built, a Jowett Jupiter R4, delivered by train so they could explore the region.

I needed to move on and looked around for a career step. The unhappy fact was that there were only a few really interesting jobs out there, and I wasn’t going to get one with my engineering degree—I needed a first or upper second that I was never going to achieve and didn’t really want to. So I enrolled in a course that gave me strength in the oldest science in the world: management. It wasn’t called an MBA, but it was three years of solid part-time work, and somewhere in that gap, I moved jobs to Plessey at Ilford, Essex, a real electronics company, and got married to Maggie. She had remained a loyal supporter and happy helper on my road to the future, with determination and a sparky character that would bring her springing to my defence at the least hint of criticism. One evening I spent under a car with her handing me spanners, I cleaned up and walked her to the bus stop and, in what was some attempt at a proposal, asked whether she wanted the relationship to be more permanent. She said yes, so I bought her an engagement ring with a tiny diamond that cost £70; she was thrilled.

Sometime later, when I had promised to take her out for dinner, a rarity then, I was still stuck under the car like a grease monkey. She lost her temper, took the ring off, threw it on the ground, and, to my amazement, walked out. I left it a few minutes for her to calm down and set off in the car to retrieve her just a quarter of a mile away. She told me later that she had decided to forgive me and had turned around to come back, but as soon as she saw my headlights, she about turned and continued to walk away. After that lesson, I realised that there were limits, and I was to see and experience her fiery temper in our life together. Had she kept walking, much of what came to be would have never happened—and there certainly wouldn’t be a gorgeous Pinot Noir named ‘Ma Danseuse’ (“My Dancer’), which came much, much later.

“Had she kept walking, much of what came to be would have never happened—and there certainly wouldn’t be a gorgeous Pinot Noir named ‘Ma Danseuse’ (“My Dancer”) that came much, much later.”

Another few years passed by as I engineered my way through various bits of Plessey and ended up at an interview for a sales job in Swindon, with the sole purpose of getting a company car. During the interview with the divisional boss, the phone on his desk rang, and the voice at the other end, rather surprisingly, asked to speak to me. I immediately thought that the interruption would probably end the job interview rather promptly, but, as I told the interviewer, I had become the a father of a son, which I think clinched the position. Paul was born April 1, 1965.

Pete takes a wintry walk in Billericay, Essex, with his first-born, Paul­—who was born two years to the day before his brother, David.

So now I had a wife and house in Essex and a job with a car in Swindon, three or four hours by road away. That problem was solved when I found digs at a famous pub, the Shepherd’s Rest, on the old Roman road, very close to where I am now living, at Eddington, a wonderful farming estate. Monday mornings saw me off at 05:00 and Friday night back late to spend the weekend with Maggie and Paul, shortly to be joined by David, born April 1, 1967, exactly two years later. The sales position was a very good experience, and I did sell quite a few components as I screamed my highly modified Ford Cortina around the roads of the southeastern corner of England, visiting all the electronic establishments I could find.

But this was not to be my job for long, as I eased my way into the microelectronics chip division, just across the road at Swindon. Plessey could legitimately have claimed to have invented the microchip integrated circuit, as the very first derivation of the technology was a transistor and a resistor on one piece of silicon. The transistor was invented by William Shockley at Bell Labs in 1948, when I was ten, and it has been the dominant technology in my life ever since.

As the family got more expensive, I needed to succeed and thought about the future. In my travels across the electronics companies for Plessey, I had discovered that there was one common thread emerging. Computing up until then had been the analogue technology of the 1950s that produced good results quite fast but not precisely accurate. The new digital computers were, at that time, rather slower but very accurate, and the idea was to connect the two computing genres to get both speed and accuracy as a hybrid. The device that was needed and didn’t exist was the link between them, and I thought I could see a way of doing just that.

I had equipped the tiny spare bedroom at Billericay as an experimenter’s workshop, and whilst Maggie was giving birth to David, in the next room, I was giving birth to what would become our first million, although I didn’t know that at the time.

Going For It

My own certainty was that I would start a business of my own some time, and it looked as if—with the computer link I had thought up now working—that time was probably approaching. A plan started to form in my head. At home, still in Newbury, I talked about the idea I had with Maggie and asked whether she would be willing to back me with something that could support her and two young sons. It didn’t take her long; she said, “Pete, go for it,” and so I did.

I thought it would take me about six months to find out if I could survive. Although my father didn’t understand the technical plan, he was willing to lend me £2,000 via a debenture with Westminster Bank in Billericay run by Alan Hemans. Initially, I had asked Alan to give me a straight loan and quickly learnt that banks aren’t there to help unless you don’t need the money. But, on top of the loan, I wanted to preserve my notice period so that I could get going and needed to be peremptorily fired. I also needed the company car until I could afford one myself.

Plessey wasn’t the only company working in the microelectronic field; there were some serious competitors emerging. On what I recollect as a difficult day, I told my boss at the time, John Maddison, that I was going to hand in my notice and apologised, knowing that I was about to let him down. Later, I was forgiven and made godfather to his brilliant son Richard, who lives in Goa and works with me. I was asked who my next employer would be, and as I refused to name one, the assumption was naturally that I was going to a competitor. Before long, two burly security guards arrived to escort me off the premises and asked for the keys to my car that, anticipating this question, I had parked some way away from the company car park.

Phase one of the plan had been completed. I had six months of salary still to come, and I claimed that as part of my employment contract, a car needed to be provided and that it would be returned at the end of this period. That was a lifesaver. I had one further lever to get what I wanted, for during my work, I had been involved in several new ideas that the company decided to patent with my name included. Patents are always in the individual name of the inventor, not the employer, although the contract of employment generally specifies that they have the right to have them assigned. Two of these inventions had not been assigned, and I refused to do so for some time to ensure specific performance. It all worked out, and from then on, the Plessey employment contracts had a few “Peter Michael” clauses added.

The Muirhead High Resolution fax that Pete worked on in his gap year, for which he had his first patent citation. One similar to this is displayed in the Science Museum sixty years later.

This was to be the start of the next and important part of my future life, which would morph and develop through twists and turns to goodness knows where. Bob Graves, from the TV/radio repair shop, was very willing to join me in building a business. Even if the product wasn’t quite a match, it looked as if the market timing was right, and a bit of advertising soon produced multiple enquiries. Chris Brabant, the production manager from Swindon, soon joined the team and brought with him half a dozen of the best women from the line, so within a week or two, we had a production company.

Pete’s business partner, Bob Graves, and (then) Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, at the King’s Cup air race, where Gordon Franks piloted the aircraft, 1985.

The question of what we were going to call it occupied some smoke and not much light, so I pulled rank and called it “Micro Consultants,” incorporating in June 1967, and there it stayed for a couple of decades whilst other things grew up around it. These were rather wonderful years that lasted well into the 1970s, with all the muck and bullets from the oil shock and the three-day week. We overtraded like mad and, in one of several economic crashes, only got away with it by the skin of our teeth.

That was when I met Roy Gamble, treasurer at the bank, another helpful gentleman. I managed to defy gravity and, after the bank threatened to foreclose on us—a disaster—repaid all our overdraft within three months. Roy could see that he was going to lose a young, growing corporate client to another bank and stepped into a meeting with an offer to double our facility. Actually, we didn’t have an alternative, but he didn’t know that. We remained wonderful friends for years.

The very first serious order came from Tony Smith’s employer, Hawker Siddeley Dynamics, and that kept us going on its own for a long time. One day, we were at a conference with an associated commercial exhibition, and along came two new important enquiries, one from ITV, the Independent Television Authority, and one from GEC, General Electric Company. These took us off in another direction, which had much larger potential. The television requirement took us a bit of understanding, but by midnight oil, we were able to acquit ourselves well for the next phase of international studio equipment, which we would go on to supply to the world. At the same time, the defence enquiry moved us into a more lucrative sector altogether. We were on our way.