Sands Whiteley R&D Ltd


David Sands with Karspeak - a miserable failure SA2 Robot

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The article appeared in the Cambridge Evening News on the 2nd of April 1982, on the same page as three other stories about Cambridge IT companies. But Sands Whiteley got star billing and I should have been proud, having designed and built that robot. However, the mere mention of the SA2 set off facial twitches and convulsions worthy of inspector Clouseau’s hapless boss in those Pink Panther films. Sands himself should have been pleased with the coverage; it was press coverage companies reproduce in their marketing material. Except, of course, there was that rather unfortunate candid remark which found its way into the headline and the caption undeath his photograph. As well, in the 1980s, photocopiers weren’t sophisticated enough to prevent the lenses of those sunglasses leaving our CEO looking as though he was made up as a clown. Perhaps the PR company pushed a little too hard and the editor decided to have a little fun with the press release.

The Karspeak itself was a device that pestered drivers to fasten their seat belts. Market research not being Sand’s forte the project was started ignoring the fact that car companies were already experimented with similar technology. Consumer response was largely negative. Some drivers found the voice so annoying they took to stabbing the car’s door trim with a screwdriver in an attempt to disable the speaker.

The Sands Whiteley article, like the others that appeared in that edition of the local newspaper were formulaic reworkings of press announcements. All helped anchor local Cambridge companies in Britain’s rapidly growing IT sector and present Cambridge as something phenomenal. However in the 1980s there was no Cambridge phenomenon, just a continuation of the trade in scientific instruments to the local university. Only Hauser was an academic and he more closely resembled a customer than a supplier having asked Chris Curry, an ex-Sinclair Research director, to build a computer for a university research project.

Since its founding in 1209 Cambridge University focussed on the search for God. Only comparatively recently had scholars discovered long discussions while walking around in circles in walled gardens weren't bringing them any closer to discovering the true nature of the supreme being. So the search switched to things moving in mysterious ways at the edge of the universe and on microscope slides. This was the point at which young men were bought in from the farmland surrounding Cambridge to build scientific instruments; how I would start my career in engineering and many of the people running hi-tech companies in the 1980s started theirs.

Eventually the University realised the true worth of the instruments their servants were building and that the search was worth more than what was being sought. Then started the goldrush which attracted armies of prospectors staking claim to Cambridge. Then came the freeloaders who sold picks and shovels; or in this case legal advice, consultancy, property and coffee machines.

But that was later and for now local companies like Sands Whiteley were still making news. I too was planning to use the nascent microcomputer market to strike out on my own. Still working as a draughtsman at the CADCentre I advertised a microcomputer training course in the local newspaper. The plan was to buy a TRS 80 Microcomputer from Claude Cowen’s computer store and hire it out to local businesses as part of an introduction to the mircocomputing. David Sands, Managing Director of Sands Whiteley R&D (Whiteley was long gone by 1982) saw the advertisement and asked me to join his company. His was the only IT company in the village where I lived and he obviously wanted to make sure it stayed that way. That much became clear when I started works as General Manager of the company’s retail division - if a company that has only ten employees can have a division - and found William Miller already doing the job.

A few years early the company needed a microcomputer for a project and rather than paying the the exorbitant price charged by importers Sands bought one while on a trip to the US. So was born Intelligent Artefacts, which, in essence, was a grey importer of computers, mostly Commodore PETS, and peripherals. Shortly before I joined the company Sands had pulled off something of a marketing coup. In a blaze of publicity, he gave away Commodore computers to the surrounding primary schools. Miller encouraged him to capitalise on this media exposure, which Sands did until the headmaster of one of the schools began promoting himself as an educational computing guru. While Intelligent Artefacts received numerous mentions in the headmaster’s magazine articles Sands was no longer star of the spectacular and seemed to lose interest in the campaign. Unfortunately the publicity brought the company to the attention of Commodore UK who not only adopted the headmaster as their own but also put pressure on its US parent to tighten its distribution chain. Sands’ agent in the US, who was not computer literate, then began sourcing equipment from auction houses and we received equipment which Commodore had dumped after dealers returned it as dead on arrival.

Commodore disk drives had a very high failure rate but were not the only devices requiring work to make them fit for sale. Intelligent Artefacts also imported a dot matrix printer called the Base 2 with a print head that emitted as much smoke as ink. The most common printer at that time was the Epsom TX 80, which sounded like a buzz saw and could print your company logo, as long as your logo was a sprite. The Base 2 on the other hand handled high resolution graphics and Intelligent Artefacts sold it for the roughly the same price as the Epsom. However the margin on the Base 2 was 50% while Northamber, the Epsom distributor, only gave us 30% off the UK list price. Which would have been fine were it not for a steady stream of dead Base 2 printers returned by customers. Sands didn't regard this as a problem as the parent company had engineers who could carry out repairs. Initially the engineers pointed out the madness of repairing the same printer up to three times over. However when work became short, and repairing printers was all there was left to do, no one objected to wasting the odd hour or two bring a printer back to life. It was left to me to deal with irate customers and on more than one occasion I put 240 volts through a long suffering Base 2's circuit board to put it out of its misery. Faulty Commodore equipment saw a problem turned into an opportunity and I wrote a software utility called ‘Disk Debug’ which recovered floppy disks corrupted by rogue disk drives.

Joining Sands Whiteley R&D in 1980

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Miller was under the impression my arrival meant he had been promoted and was now Managing Director in all but title. He also assumed I reported to him, which was not quite what the offer letter or job description said. Sands Whiteley occupied a building approximately 4 metres wide by 25 metres long; most of which was a workshop in which two engineers and three technicians built control equipment. Take away a few square metres for a kitchen and toilets and Sands, Miller, myself and a secretary were practically working on the same desk. This made the complex reporting structure Sands envisaged fraught and unworkable. Fortunately it was decided Intelligent Artefacts would be run from an outbuilding which the company rented at Wimpole Grange, a manor house seventy metres away as the crow flew but three hundred on foot or by car. I now had almost a third of a kilometre of autonomy, although there were still occasional visits from Miller and Sands who brought with them conflicting opinions on how Intelligent Artefacts should be run. When I joined Sands Whiteley only one room of the annex was in use; doubling as a store for imported computers and a workshop. My first month with the company was spent converting the upstairs of the annex into an office, and a room next to the workshop into a demonstration area. Apart from myself the workshop had only one other occupant: Stan Glessinger.

Stan was on permanent secondment from a company called Medco, an electronics subcontractor and personnel agency owned by Max Ahmed. He was Polish with contacts throughout the East European diaspora; only two degrees of separation from my father. Stan was friends with Stefan Fabish, a Cambridge butcher, who owned an orchard next to our piece of farmland in Orwell. As Stefan also claimed he was friends with Chris Curry of Acorn; you could say Stan was very well connected. Not that he was likely slip unnoticed into the glitzy world of Cambridge’s nouveau riche high tech entrepreneurs. He travelled out from Cambridge each morning in a battered green Sabre, eating his breakfast en route from a plastic box on the passenger seat. One morning I arrived at work to find Stan removing the interior of the car; including seats and door trims. Apparently while driving into work Stan was midway through breakfast when he thought he saw a rat sharing his bacon sandwich.

The secluded annex suited Stan who preferred to stay hidden from casual visitors to the office; in particular representatives from various departments of her majesty’s government. My impression was that Stan had remained pretty much invisible since arriving in Britain; he didn’t appear on a list of prominent Poles in Cambridge compiled by Dvorzak Tadeusz. He started the day with coffee or tea in the main office. This provided him with an opportunity vent his feelings about two of the world’s pressing issues; Margaret ‘Bloody’ Thatcher, pronounced ‘Tatcher’ and Terry ‘Bloody’ Wogan, pronounced ‘Vogun.’ Occasionally ‘David ‘Bloody’ Sands and Max ‘Bloody’ Ahmed’ – usually when he had been kept waiting for his wages. Sometimes both tea and coffee because on days when either Tatcher, Vogun, Sands or Mad Max had upset him or his, ‘cash,’ was overdue he would forget the instant coffee was already in the mug and fill it with builders tea. ‘This needs more sugar.’ He would say, adding four spoonfuls and then wandering over to the annex muttering. ‘Cash, cash, cash.’

Refuse collection day in Wimpole would find Stan’s journey to the annex interrupted by a rummage through household rubbish looking for anything electrical that could be repaired and resold at car boot sales. Radios, however, he kept as ‘spares.’ One morning the workshop was filled with acrid smelling smoke. Stan was stood at his bench, hammer in hand, staring at the remains of a radio. ‘What happened?’ I asked. All Stan could remember was someone saying. ‘This morning Terry Wogan is interviewing Margaret Thatcher,’ after which, apparently, everything was pretty much a blank.

Cundells in Wimpole next to Sands Whiteley R&D and, like Sands', Cundell's company failed

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There was the feeling of having travelled around in a circle; two in fact. Since leaving university I had walked away from two half decent careers with blue chip multinationals, albeit ones that made plastic bags and tins cans. Also abandoned was that job with the CADCentre; not particularly exciting but an ideal jumping off point for something better in engineering IT. But now I was back in the village where I was born and working in a building in worst condition than the rural slum I was bought up in. And by a twist of fate, between the annex which housed Intelligent Artefacts and Sands Whiteley’s office, was a piece of derelict land where in 1912 Cundell’s paper folding machine company stood. It was for Cundell, the man wearing the bowler hat on the left in the photograph, that my maternal grandfather worked. My grandfather was the man stood behind the bookkeeper and secretary; who was my great aunt Florence. She would be widowed during the first battle of the Somme, then remarry and settle in America. Married well as it turned out, moving in the same social circles as the Kennedys. To her dying day Florence denied it was her in the photograph; in fact she distanced herself from relatives who ‘lived in the sticks,’ which is what they called the natives of East Anglia. My grandfather didn’t find it so easy to escape his past.

Like Sands, Cundell was something of an eccentric entrepreneur; he was known to throw his hat on the ground and jump on it when things went wrong. And they did go wrong. I’m sure Cundell never came within a strategically placed comma of being labelled a miserable failure; even so his paper folding machine company ... well, folded. Like some of the young men in the photograph the company did not survive the First World War. My grandfather had learned his trade in a foundry in Cambridge. He was once asked by a young man from the Laurie McConnell department store to produce a fire grate the company had designed. The client did everything he could to frustrate the casting process and eventually told his manager the design could not be reproduced. A few months later the young man set up a in business as Mackay's Ironmongers; its first product was an innovative fire grate. I felt while Sand Whiteley R&D was following the same trajectory as Cundells paper folding machinery, I, like my grandfather, was about to miss out as intellectual property moved effortlessly from one company to another.

The ZX81, the device that taught a generation computing

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Intelligent Artefacts may have been a little rough around the edges, a cowboy outfit even, but it should be viewed in the context of a pioneering microcomputer industry that still resembled the Wild West. Up to 30% of microcomputers didn’t operate as advertised when the customer turned them on, if they worked at all. However fewer than 50% of the people buying them knew how a microcomputer functioned when it was working properly. Those who were computer literate had learned by building their own computers from kits; so receiving a faulty ZX81 they were happy to visit Gees in Mill Road to buy the components to fix it. Hence the phrase ‘Upgrading to a working computer.’

Also in the lexicon of 1980’s microcomputer was ‘The BBC’s last night of the EPROMS.’ That’s if you could get your hands on one of Acorn’s products.

Acorns rare even in Autumn

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Availability was one of the main problems Sands Whiteley faced when it attempted to market the Acorn Atom. Much of my day was spent pacifying customers who had been waiting weeks for computers they had on order. The announcement that the Atom was to be dropped from Intelligent Artefacts product range was seized upon by the computer press and prompted a call from Herman Hauser requesting the decision was reversed. But with the likelihood that famine would be followed by a glut, which it was, the Atom was replaced by the Texas Instruments TI99. During my time with the company we never managed to get our hands on a BBC model A.

Claude Cowen in his computer store on Emanuel Street

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Claude Cowen’s Cambridge Computer Store on Emanuel Street, like Acorn’s shop on the market square, was a meeting place for like-minded computer enthusiasts. It was the NEMS music shop of Cambridge’s high-tech Mersey Sound. Claude not only stocked Acorn and and Sinclair products but also a plethora of spinoffs and clones. This is where I first saw Mettoy’s Dragon 32 and the Jupiter Ace. These two computers, thanks to the British love of self-flagellation, were routinely panned in the computer press; in fact many people believed there was a computer manufacturer called ‘Ill Fated.’ By 1982, alongside ZX81 and Atom lookalikes, Cambridge Computer Stores was selling business machines. Both Miller and myself realised that, with US computer companies clamping down on grey imports, Intelligent Artefacts needed to follow Claude into the business market.

Miller tried to bring some economic sanity to the microcomputer retail side of the business; also to reinforce and exploit some of the existing commercial relationships rather than buying new business through deeper discounting. My contribution was tidying up an accounts program Sands had written, and changing the name of Intelligent Artefacts to IAS Ltd. It was impossible to concentrate with Sands breathing down my neck and Stan cursing or smashing electronic devices with a hammer. So I borrowed a NorthStar Horizon Z80 based microcomputer, one of the few machines to arrive from the US in working order, and debugged the accounts software at home. This also gave me the opportunity to learn Basic as the only computer language I had worked with to date was Fortran.

While idea for process control, it had a S100 bus, the aesthetics of NorthStar Horizon made it unsuitable for an office environment; today it would be stood on end and marketed as a tower. As an alternative, we started selling the Intertec Superbrain, an integrated unit whose display had a migraine inducing jitter caused by the close proximity of disk drives to the screen. As well, unlike the NorthStars, half of the Superbrains were dead on arrival from the US.

Eventually Miller left the company and, with the start of the SA Robot project, my work on the accounts program came to an abrupt end. IAS became an official Commodore dealer; however this was too little too late for the business market the company was trying to address. Stephen Cronk and Stephen Childerley were IAS's only full time staff while I worked on the SA2. With the best will in the world they looked very much what they were, two A level students on work experience. Both were innovative and wasted talking to buyers from corporate IT departments. Stephen Cronk wrote a CAD package for the Acorn Atom which actually made more money than the robot. Stephen Childerly had already developed a home network that used a domestic 240 volt ring main.

Sands Whiteley had a repository of technology IAS could have marketed if only Sands himself had been a little more focussed. He had written a version of Forth and Sands Whiteley engineers had developed a range of S100 cards. The Karspeak drew resources away from the marketing and development of the SpeakEasy, a text to voice device that was selling in hundreds. No attempt was made to discover what customers were using the SpeakEasy for. And, of course, the IAS robot only existed because Rod Starksfield, another Sands Whiteley engineer, suggested we developed a low cost robot vision system, which, in retrospect would have been a more lucrative product than Karspak or the SA2.

The first reaction on discovering that Sands expected me to design and build a robot rather than buy one from Colne Electronics was to seek alternative employment. I really didn’t want, ‘Attempted to construct a robot using nothing more than kitchen utensils,’ on my CV. Unfortunately we were mid-way through a recession and PATCentre, who invited me for an interview, had just discovered psychometric testing which brought back painful memories of the 11 plus I failed. So I was stuck with the Intelligent Artefacts Small Arm (SA) robot for the next twelve months at least.

Rod Starkesfield with the original Sands Technology robot

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Until the above photograph was taken, and the associated press release appeared in magazines, there was hope the idea of the SA Robot would die as quickly as it had been born. Unfortunately, mainly due to hope over reason, ten people ordered the robot, which obviously didn't exist. Well, just take a good look at the device in the picture. Unfortunately, Sands insisted the company that built the bizarre mock-up was capable of building the real thing. The metalworkers themselves knew they didn’t have the resources to mass produce a precision instrument but feared losing existing contracts to modify cabinets and build the casing for Sands Whiteley's torque tester if we sought an alternative supplier. It took several stand-up rows before sanity prevailed. Eventually most of the components were sourced from the same companies that supplied Colne Electronics. Only the external metalwork was still being manufactured by the original supplier by the time we started work on the pre-production prototype. These would be obtained elsewhere once we replaced the aluminium plated with a plastic clad pressed steel frame. Unfortunately Sands Whiteley was running out of money and so the pre-production prototype became the real thing.

Finalising the original grant application for the SA2 Robot

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The grant application to the Department of Trade illustrates that even at 1980’s prices the SA2 was developed on a shoestring. Much of the work was carried out after hours and the design and draughting I did at home. Assembly was carried out at weekends when engineers had vacated their benches and it was possible to set up a makeshift production line.

Writing the driving software for the original ST robot

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While assembling the robots during working hours was difficult writing software with Sands dancing nervously pacing the room clicking his fingers proved impossible. Also, at that time, I knew next to nothing about programming a microcomputer so here was an opportunity to spend evenings and weekends at home learning 6502 assembler; something that was very helpful two years later when writing driver software for the MicroEye.

 Brochure for the original Sands Technology robot

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The first, and last, batch of SA2s shipped. Attached to British Leyland via an IEEE cable Sands Whiteley was about to be dragged into a black hole by the failing car company. Sands made me a bizarre offer, the position of engineer at Medco; I was to be interviewed by Max that very evening. Bizarre because Sands Whiteley and Medco were two separate companies. Even so I attended the interview and discovered the job was based in India. Later the same evening I received a phone call from John Grover, an engineer at Medco, who advised I turned down the job because his employer, like mine, was in financial difficulties. He also pointed out that the last person who had taken up a similar offer was still in India waiting to be paid and to receive a ticket to get him home again.

Sands said it wasn’t my place to turn down the offer and If I didn’t take it would either have to resign or be sacked. Then he suggested I might want to broaden my horizons and move away. Sands never held back from telling employees how to manage their personal lives so, at the time, I thought this was just another example of my employer’s paternalistic megalomania.

Sands Whiteley R&D

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So long and thanks for the ST robot

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Looking to return to conventional employment I applied for a job as manager of an IT training school in Stevenage. The interview went well and I thought the job was mine; there were just the references to check. However the rejection letter arrived two weeks later. A succession of other applications, including one for the position of production controller; a job I had been doing three years earlier, were also unsuccessful.

Sands Whiteley R&D

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Sands Whiteley R&D

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Sands knew little about life in a small village. He didn’t realise my wife collected his secretary’s children from school each afternoon. So, no surprise I ended up with a copy of one of the references he had been sending out. It was clear the lengths Sands would go to force me to travel to India for Medco; the job description was even reproduced in the letter he sent to Stevenage Borough Council.

I also started receiving weekly visits from Sands’ right hand man. Mark. Igor, as we called him, in part because of his gait and strange Norfolk accent but mainly because of his slavish devotion to Sands, arrived after work every Friday afternoon. Always the same opening gambit ‘How’s things going Pete?’ Sometimes adding, ‘Seen anything of Steve recently?’ However, asked what was happening at Sands Whiteley and Igor would reply. ‘Oh, chaos, sheer chaos.’ Without explaining the scale or nature of the chaos, or even providing proof it even existed. I suspected Igor was merely gathering information for his master.

Steve and I finished work early on Fridays and Igor's weekly inspection found me in the garden. ‘While you’re here Mark, grab a fork and give me a hand with these potatoes.’ Mark didn’t really have the build for physical exertion, in fact walking upright seemed a challenge, and he never returned. However it was now clear Sands wanted me as far away as possible to provide him with a clear run at what he was now working on. Stephen and I suspected a new company would rise phoenix like from the ashes of Sands Whiteley with a robot vision system. With the resources available to him, including that hyperactive PR company, we stood little chance of competing with our former employer. The reluctance of Sands Whiteley’s former bank manager, Walter Herriot to back our venture suggested our fears were correct. Having already had enough of the grubby world of small high tech companies I too wasn’t that keen to push ahead with the project; however, Sands stream of damning references was leaving me little choice.

Sands Whiteley R&D

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There was a sinking feeling when we saw the hand and eye logo as we thought Sands had pursued Rod Starksfield’s idea of developing a small camera for use in microcomputer based robotics.


Sands Whiteley R&D's robot rises from the ahses

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The budget didn’t stretch to champagne so we celebrated with beer and pizza when Sands relaunched the SA2 robot. A brilliant piece of corporate amnesia saw Sands invent, design and build the SA2 all over again. The Department of Trade was very polite given they had seen this robot before. ‘You must be livid.’ Said Dave Young and John Grover, now working for their own company Polytec as Medco, like Sands Whiteley had gone into liquidation. They had seen me on Anglia TV with the SA2 while I was working for Sands. ‘It was your idea, wasn’t it?’ Well no it was not and I lost count of the number of times I tried to distance myself from the SA2; thankfully its mere mention no longer triggered that facial twitch. Now there was just an overwhelming sense of relief. For over twelve months it felt as though I had stepped off a bus leaving behind a small fortune in cash. Now returning to look for it I’d discover Sands had taken the carrier bag and left the money in a neat pile on the seat.

Sands Whiteley R&D

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The Robot and its offspring appeared in many guises over the next twenty-five years. It rattled on, quite literally in the case of the SA2, a constant reminder of those Wild West days of Cambridge in the 1980s. Its final appearance was in a company called Imagecroft, which crashed and burned in August 2014. Even then it didn’t go quietly but saw instead a typical Cambridge hi-tech bust up with directors battling it out in court. The SA2 should have been just a footnote in this story but without it, and the Machiavellian attempt by Sands to get me to India, I would never founded Digithurst.