McMichael Company History

The following is a short history of the first sixty years of McMichael Limited, produced as a booklet on the occasion of the diamond jubilee of the Company in 1979.

The Early Years

The name of McMichael has been linked for some sixty years with the evolution of the Radio and Electronic industries from their origin in the art of communicating without wires, which achieved its practical realisation in the hands of a select band of professional and amateur pioneers in the early years of the twentieth century.

McMichael Limited grew from the so-called amateur branch of those pioneering days. On the 5th July 1913, Leslie McMichael and five other gentlemen met in the house of his wireless amateur friend, René H. Klein, at West Hampstead and formed the London Wireless Club, Mr. McMichael and Mr. Klein becoming Vice-Chairman and Hon. Secretary respectively. At the third meeting of this Club on the 13th September 1913, the wider circle of associates who had been attracted to its activities decided to change its name to the Wireless Society of London. In November 1922 this name was changed to the Radio Society of Great Britain, when it embraced most of the other local Wireless Societies which had been formed during the preceding years, up and down the country. Leslie McMichael's Vice-Chairman-ship of the movement continued until 1919 when he became Hon. Secretary.

Hubert Leslie McMichael was born in 1884 of a family of Yorkshire Quakers. He received his technical education at Birmingham Technical College while serving an apprenticeship in electrical engineering. During the 1914-18 War he served in the Wireless Instructional Section of the Royal Flying Corps. It was a natural sequel that, upon demobilisation in 1919, he should establish a business in Hampstead, London, NW6, with the object of supplying the growing needs of wireless experimenters. This business dealt mainly in the sale of "War-Surplus" goods and operated from his home in Quex Road, Hampstead.

In mid-1920, Benjamin Hesketh, B.Sc., set up as a manufacturer of wireless components and instruments in High Street, Chalvey, Slough, Bucks. Most of the components, such as "condensers", "leaks" and "chokes", were of his own novel and advanced design.

In June 1920, Leslie McMichael formed a private company, L. McMichael Ltd., the Directors being L. McMichael and René Henri Klein.

By mid-1921, the Company was selling not only war-surplus wireless apparatus, but held a "large stock of Wireless books, elementary and advanced" and also offered a package deal of "Set 1, 2 or 3 of complete Wireless apparatus". It also marketed the components and instruments manufactured by B. Hesketh.

A complete integration of the two companies was achieved early in 1922 and the trade-mark MH (McMichael Hesketh) was adopted. A new factory was opened initially in an existing shed on the ex-US Army site, then owned by Naylor's Paints Ltd. in Wexham Road, Slough. Naylor's Paints became part of ICI and L. McMichael Ltd. bought some two acres of the area bordering Wexham Road and the spur of the Grand Union Canal, moving into the first of the buildings on their present site. Head Office was meanwhile at Hastings House, Norfolk Street, London, WC2, with demonstration and showrooms at 179, Strand, on the corner of Norfolk Street. The name Radio Corner was given to this last mentioned site despite the still general use of the word "wireless".

The Start of Broadcasting

The broadcasting era was still to come. Its commencement in November 1922 was preceded by the first All-British Wireless Exhibition which was opened by Sir Henry Norman, MP, at the Horticultural Hall, Westminster, on 30th September 1922. The McMichael exhibit was so extensive and notable that the Wireless World magazine devoted more space to it than to any other – a full two pages which still left the reporter under the need to conclude "… space does not permit a full description, but it would appear that everything without exception which is of interest … is available …". In this report, the first of a long line of McMichael receivers are described and illustrated, the MH1, MH2, MH3 and MH4 (one to four-valve receivers) with the observation that "these sets are of exceptionally fine finish and of compact design". Thus did the technical press, nearly sixty years ago, acclaim the McMichael characteristics of quality, technical excellence and originality, a tradition which has been continuously upheld.

With the inception of a regular broadcasting service, a greater part of the McMichael range of products was specifically designed for the broadcast listener as distinct from the experimenter. The first broadcast receivers were designated by MHBR (McMichael Hesketh Broadcast Receiver) numbers and the two-valve receiver MHBR2 was reported upon in the Wireless World of 14th July 1923 with the closing remark – "The cleanness of the design and the high quality finish is at once appreciated by all those interested in the technicalities of instrument manufacture". The range attained a reputation so rapidly that the Wireless World report on the November 1923 All-British Wireless Exhibition referred to them as "perhaps the most famous of all the MH products", a phrase conveying established esteem for past and present products.

Minor, but interesting, landmarks in 1923 were the McMichael's Wireless Service Demonstration Van (Wireless World, 5th December 1923) and the marketing by McMichael of a home assembly (kit) set.

In July 1924 McMichael played a major part in a railway train wireless communication experiment, conducted from a London to Scotland express and organised by members of the Radio Society of Great Britain with the co-operation of the London and North Eastern Railway. This was the fore-runner of many pioneering experiments and demonstrations in mobile wireless communication and broad- casting undertaken or participated in by McMichael during the ensuing decade, airborne reception featuring largely in these.

The McMichael products were exhibited at the 1924/25 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. A photograph of the stand is shown in the Wireless World of 21st May 1924. They were also displayed at the Wireless Exhibition held in the autumn of that year at the Albert Hall – the first trade exhibition to be held within its precincts. The succeeding years found the name McMichael in continued prominence at all the National Shows which were devoted in whole or in part to radio, television and electronics.

The year 1926 saw the commencement of McMichael activities as a Government Contractor. Admiralty contracts for the manufacture of naval transmitting and receiving equipment were executed under the technical auspices of HM Signal School, Portsmouth, then the focal point of the Royal Navy's wireless needs. The McMichael trade-mark letters MH were officially allotted as the Company's distinctive symbol of manufacturing origin. They stood unchanged until the second World War, when the Company was serving the needs of other Admiralty departments outside the conventional radio field to whom MH signified Milford Haven more strongly than it did McMichael.

In the late twenties and early thirties, a particularly renowned feature of the McMichael broadcast receiver products was the range of suitcase portable and cabinet transportable sets. The earliest of these, mainly produced in the years 1927 and 1928, was the Portable Five using triodes which were the only valves then available. Its two HF stages were coupled by unique untamed iron-cored chokes. These can be said to have anticipated by several years the common association of iron with high-frequency inductors, which was made a more practicable proposition by the development of iron-dust materials.

In 1928 the screened grid valves became generally available, followed closely by the peptide. McMichael receiver designs, such as the Screened Dimic Three (1928-1931), Super Range Portable Four (1928-1931), and Super Screened Portable Four (1928-1930), immediately exploited to the full the advantages inherent in these. A highlight of these receivers and their successors was the originality of the mechanical engineering design featured in such components as tuning condensers, their control mechanisms, and switching devices.

The registered name DIMIC identified a range of high efficiency plug-in tuning coils covering all the radio wavebands from 15 metres upwards. The Screened Dimic Three, designed around these coils, was outstanding In its time as a general all-purpose "all wave" receiver which found widespread professional use. It was supplied to the Radio Research Board, The Crown Agents for the Colonies and to many other home and overseas users.

Also in 1928 McMichael produced their first mains operated receivers, the technical design of which kept pace with the early attempts to develop satisfactory valves for this purpose.

The Thirties

McMichael MessengerPublication of the McMichael Messenger, a 12-page glossy monthly, commenced in July 1930. Issued to traders, it contained chat about the Company and its products and, most months, also gave the circuit and complete servicing instructions for one of the McMichael sets. The front cover bore the famous "Lion and Grill" trade-mark.

At the end of 1930, when a measure of stability in the technical design and total performance of these had been achieved, McMichael produced its first radio- gramophone. It was not until the end of 1933 that receivers based on the super- heterodyne principle and specifically intended for broadcast reception were produced – this despite the fact that McMichael superheterodyne receivers of considerable technical merit and widely used for experimental reception were produced in the middle l920s. There was a good reason for this apparent tardiness – the McMichael adherence to the quality concept. Quality of workmanship and electrotechnical design had long become a firmly established principle and it was natural that this attitude should extend to the attainment of tonal quality and freedom from background noise.

From this standpoint there was a lot to recommend the "straight" receiver. Among the many McMichael broadcast receivers of the early 1930s which were accorded high praise, perhaps the best known was the Twin Supervox which combined the use of two loudspeakers with other technical and presentational attributes, to set a new standard in tonal performance as well as maintaining the McMichael reputation in all other respects.

The originality consistently in evidence in McMichael products from pre-broadcast days, through the first decade of the broadcasting era, was made possible only by the self-sufficient nature of the Company's engineering facilities for both design and manufacture in all mechanical and electrical respects. These continuously expanding facilities resulted in McMichael designing and producing every class of radio component and associated device, with the sole exception of thermionic valves and headphones.

It was therefore not merely a geographical coincidence that the McMichael facilities were widely used, formally, and often to a greater extent informally, by the Radio Research Board establishment at Ditton Park, Slough.

In 1928 McMichael manufactured two experimental Cathode Ray Direction Finders which, by permission of the Board, were commissioned for the use of the United States Navy Department in an extension of the Board's programme of investigation into the origins of atmospheric disturbances.

Professional and personal contact with Mr. (later Sir) Robert Watson-Watt and his team continued until the middle 1930s, when a shroud of secrecy slowly enveloped their activities. Cathode ray direction finding, followed by ionosphere measurements using pulse emissions had led them to establish the foundations of Radar, a field of activity which claimed some part of McMichael attention during the second World War.

In November 1932 the Company "went public" under the name of McMichael Radio Limited. The Directors were Hubert Leslie McMichael, René Henri Klein, Benjamin Hesketh and Sir Glynn Hamilton West. 150,000 Preference Shares at £l each and 150,000 Ordinary Shares of 5/- each were offered.

When the 1934/35 balance sheet was published, to everyone's horror it showed a trading loss of £50,000. This led ultimately to Ben Hesketh resigning from the Board and leaving the Company in the autumn.

J. Langham Thompson was then put in charge of set design for the 1935 Radio Show, and the result was the 135 set, followed by the 235 and 335, all of which proved to be absolute winners so that by the time the 1935/36 accounts appeared, not only had the previous year's loss been recouped but a substantial profit had been made.

Herbert F. Buckmaster joined the Company early in 1934 as a Senior Engineer in the Development Laboratory. He was invited to become Technical Director when Ben Hesketh departed.

By the 1930s, specialist component manufacturers had firmly established their status in the radio industry, but amid a rapidly increasing trend for broadcast receiver manufacture to be almost solely an assembly process, McMichael receivers continued to maintain a large measure of individuality by the employment of the Company's engineering resources for the design and manufacture of many electrotechnical, mechanical and presentational features.

Wartime Activities

This engineering versatility was immediately reflected in the diverse nature of the McMichael contribution to the national effort before and during the second World War, a phase which, commencing as it did in 1938, had a restricting effect on the growth of McMichael television receiver production. Television development had been active from 1936 onwards. The relatively small scale production which followed the inception of the British Television Service was ultimately brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of war.

A retrospective view of McMichael activities during the war years regarding the broad nature of their engineering impact shows two phases. The first was characterised by an apparently untidy and illogical spread of work over the whole field of light electrical and light mechanical engineering as well as within the mainly communication boundaries of radio. The immediate national need was for every likely facility to be pressed into service and the McMichael facility was broad enough to produce results in this wide spread of disciplines.

The second phase was one of more logical employment of the specialized experience and ability of McMichael in the radio area – an area which had been extended beyond the bounds of communication, to embrace radar in an ever-widening range of navigational aids and their auxiliary needs.

The former phase included the production of large quantities of bomb racks for aircraft. These were shipped regularly to Liverpool by furniture removal vans. Also throughout the War, the Company produced hundreds of thousands of general purpose suppressors which were fitted to the ignition systems of all types of allied tanks and motor vehicles.

During the second phase, receiver sections for the HF Transmitter/Receiver Type WT11 for use in tanks and other vehicles, together with test gear for servicing, and the aircraft Receiver Type R1125 were in quantity production. Also during this period the Company produced the receiver (B2) for a small suitcase Transmitter/Receiver which was dropped into Occupied Territories for use by the local Resistance Movements.

From mid 1942 onwards, parts for the highly secret IFF transmitter were built, together with detectors and detonators for magnetic mines.

An interesting side-light on the war years is a set of instructions issued in mid-1940 by Herbert Buckmaster. The instructions were restricted to a few key personnel and dealt with the disposal and/or destruction of equipment, parts, machinery and services in the event of a German invasion.

McMichael Home Guard PlatoonDuring this period also, McMichael formed its own Home Guard Platoon under the leadership of Lieutenant Buckmaster. This Platoon was fortunate and somewhat exceptional in that it was actually equipped with firearms – .22 rifles expropriated from the shooting section of the Company's Sports and Social Club!

The factory was fortunate in that it escaped major damage from German bombing, though one specific attack was carried out by a Heinkel 111 in 1941. It was plain that the factory was its target because the aircraft made its initial run from approximately south to north dropping one stick of bombs, then made a 180° turn and dropped a second stick on the reciprocal run. No personnel were killed, but a certain amount of damage was done; indeed, the metal pillars of the coil winding department still bear the scars of bomb splinters from the attack.

Post-War Years

In 1941 Leslie McMichael became a Member of the British Institution of Radio Engineers. He had become a Member of the American Institute of Radio Engineers in 1921 and a Fellow in 1926, while in 1927 he had become an Associate Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and a full member in 1933. Later in 1941 he was elected a Vice-president of the British Institution of Radio Engineers and was President in 1945/46.

1945 saw the twenty-years-old Radio Manufacturers Association superseded by the British Radio Equipment Manufacturers Association, and Leslie McMichael, a founder member of the old Association, became one of three Trustees of the new one.

In 1950 the Brit. IRE elected him an Honorary Member of the Institution, while at the same time the Council directed that a permanent tribute to his services be made by the inauguration of a Premium bearing his name. This is awarded annually to the author of the most outstanding paper published in the institution's Journal on improvements in the technique of broadcast or television reception.

After the War, McMichael Limited was quickly back into the production of commercial radio and television sets. At the 1947 Radiolympia, the first post-war Radio Show, the Company exhibited a range of new radios, radiograms and televisions, many of the former having two short-wave bands as well as medium and long-wave reception, covering the complete wavelength range from 13 metres to 2,000 metres.

In parallel with the commercial output, the Company was still designing and producing a variety of equipment for the Armed Forces.

Towards the end of the War, the United States introduced "Sonar" for the detection of submarines below the surface and in the late 1940s McMichael Ltd. was commissioned by the Royal Aircraft Establishment to design and produce sonobuoys to achieve the same results as the American buoy. The outcome was the sonobuoy Type 1945, the original British sonobuoy. It was a passive omnidirectional buoy operating in the 62 MHz to 72 MHz band. Some 75,000 of these buoys were produced and supplied to both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

After the T1945, the Company designed and produced 500 pre-production models of the sonobuoy Type T1302, operating in the higher frequency band. The first models were free-falling and, although this method of dropping was effective from moderate height, when dropped from low altitude the buoy tended to "porpoise" and either break up or malfunction. The answer was in parachute deployment, but the buoy never went into quantity production because the Admiralty lost interest in sonobuoys and the RAF's requirements could be met by the supply of a similar American buoy.

In conjunction with the sonar programme the Company designed and produced a whole range of special-to-type test gear for sonobuoys and, as the equipment came into use in RAF Coastal Command aircraft, it built a series of synthetic trainers which were installed at various RAF stations throughout the world for the training of complete aircrews in the use of airborne submarine detection equipment.

After the abandonment of the T1302 buoy, the Company was commissioned to carry out design studies, in conjunction with RAE, into the Mk1C sonobuoy system and indeed early experimental work which has led to the development of the present sonar equipment in Nimrod. At the same time, the Company turned from the manufacture of buoys to the design and manufacture of indicating equipment for use with the sonobuoys, a discipline in which it continues to be employed.

During a world tour in 1949/50, Leslie McMichael assisted in the formation of the Union of South Africa Section of the British Institution of Radio Engineers. He had been suffering from poor health for some time and the object of the world tour was to rest and improve his health.

It is probable, though, that with his usual eagerness he overcalled his strength, for on the 17th November of the following year he died at the age of 67. He was succeeded as Managing Director by Herbert Buckmaster later in the year.

The Company, meanwhile, was making great efforts to regain its pre-war position as a leading maker of high quality radios and televisions. It was producing a proliferation of sets, the manufacture of which occupied most of the available space at Wexham Road. It therefore became necessary to lease premises in Bedford Avenue, to which all the Ministry experimental and development work was moved. This state lasted for some three or four years, by which time the demand for McMichael radios and televisions had decreased and the Ministry-orientated side of the Company was able to move back to Wexham Road.

In March 1954 George de Kort joined McMichael Limited as a Planning Engineer, moving to the Contracts Department in 1957.

Sobell, then GEC

On 31st May 1956 the City Commentary column in the Daily Express began "In the quiet and efficient offices of the S.G. Warburg banking firm, a £350,000 deal was announced last night which will end the independence of one of Britain's oldest radio firms." So was the merger of the Sobell Group and McMichael Radio Limited announced, to be known thereafter as Radio and Allied Industries Limited.

This was a convenient marriage as McMichael Limited had spare factory capacity available at the Slough works, while the Sobell range of equipment was expanding rapidly and its South Wales works was becoming over-crowded. Accordingly the Sobell Radio and Television Development Laboratory and the radio production unit moved into the Wexham Road works while the South Wales factory was given over entirely to the production of television sets.

At the same time it was decided to rationalise, and in the future all domestic radio, television and associated equipment would be produced and marketed under the Sobell name, while McMichael Limited would concentrate exclusively on the development and production of equipment for the armed forces and scientific experimental equipment for some Universities and the Imperial College of Science. Thus the long revered name of McMichael began to fade from the public's attention as the Company's efforts were channelled into less publicized work.

It is interesting to note here that one of the Chief Directors of the Sobell Group was Mr. (now Sir) Arnold Weinstock, currently the Supremo of the General Electric Company.

Apart from numerous classified projects, since the amalgamation the Company has completed tasks for the Defence Forces which include the following:

– L. F. Receiver outfits CJDI, 2 and 3. These are the standard Admiralty very low-frequency receivers, which were developed and produced to a very short time schedule. The receiver proved to be so inherently stable that with updating modifications it has been in use for nearly twenty years and is still in production.
– Converter, single sideband, developed to convert an existing double sideband receiver into a double superhet and correct the drift of the first local oscillator of the parent receiver by controlling the second local oscillator of the converter.
– Test Set Radio Frequency which is used for testing frequency shift keyed teleprinter systems from input to print-out.
– UHF Aerial Type A100. Many hundreds of these ultra high frequency aerials have been produced for use on supersonic and subsonic aircraft.
– Filter, Low Pass, was developed for shipboard use to eliminate interference with m.f. and h.f. reception which might be encountered when high powered v.h.f., u.h.f. and radar transmissions are taking place from near-by aerials.
– A Direct Reading (digital) Clock of very high accuracy.
– Analogue Recording Equipment. A comprehensive and highly accurate recording system designed for use in severe environments, working from normal aircraft power supplies.
– For the E.Q.D., McMichael designed and built a Drop-Test Range for testing sonobuoys under active service conditions.

More recent ventures include an Environmental Data Collection System using satellite relay, a number of Radar projects including gunnery, sea-to-air and missile guidance systems and an underwater sound range for the Admiralty.

In 1960, the Company was commissioned by the Imperial College of Science to develop and manufacture equipment for installation in the first British satellite UK1, to carry out cosmic ray measurements in the Van Allen belt. The satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard Aerial 1 in April 1962 and worked successfully for the 265 days of the satellite's life, despite adverse irradiation conditions in the upper atmosphere.

Since then, the Company has developed and produced specialised equipment for a number of other experiments. Three for Imperial College (S25, S27 and S28) and one for Leeds University (S29) in ESRO II and a further three for Imperial College (S24A, S24B and S24C) in HEOS.

As a result of work in this field, the Aerospace Laboratory developed specialised units which were employed in such projects as OSO IV, the Skylark experiment for Oxford University; the Nike, Apache, Centaur, Petrel and Skua experiments for the Radio Research Establishment and OGO II experiment for Southampton University.

In the early 1960s Herbert Buckmaster suffered a severe stroke which resulted in his taking a decreasing part in the management of the Company. George de Kort had become Contracts Manager in January 1961 and was made Assistant General Manager in January 1962 to take some of the burden off Mr. Buckmaster's shoulders. In April 1964 he was given a Directorship in the Company and in August 1964 became General Manager.

Herbert Buckmaster died in January 1967 after years of deteriorating health and in April 1968 George de Kort became Managing Director of McMichael Limited, which he still is today.

Meanwhile Mr. Weinstock had made such a success of running the parent Company, Radio and Allied Industries Limited, that the General Electric Company decided to buy out the Group. McMichael Limited thus, in 1961, became a largely autonomous member of the G.E.C. consortium of Companies and G.E.C. gained its future head in Arnold Weinstock.

By 1963 the name McMichael Radio Ltd. appeared somewhat anomalous as the Company had not been active in the field of domestic radio for more than seven years. The title was therefore changed to its present McMichael Limited.

In addition to its commitments with Government Departments, the Company is again becoming active in the domestic or commercial market with such products as the low cost, high quality colour TV monitor and the digital field strength meter. The former is of interest to the Television Companies for studio and outside broadcast use as well as being used for closed-circuit TV. The latter gives a digital read-out of field strength measurements of television transmissions in UHF bands IV and V.

This short history of McMichael Limited was compiled by Philip M. Moss, ex-Manager of the Technical Publications Department of the Company. For the coverage of the early days he drew heavily on information left by the late F.G. Diver, one-time Chief Engineer. He would also like to acknowledge the invaluable information provided by "Curly" Barr, now retired after more than 50 years with the Company, Miss R. Redrupp, Personnel and Welfare Officer, Ted Allen, Bert Keen, Peter Ward, Gordon Wilkins and a host of others who chipped in with snippets of information and anecdotes. He also made great use of past copies of the Wireless World magazine. Photography for the illustrations was taken care of by Wilf Rew.

Every effort has been made to keep the account as accurate as possible but much of the information is from memory – memories from up to 50 years ago.

Slough (1979)