Turning up the interest in city’s unsung visionary

Inventor Theo Williamson
Inventor Theo Williamson
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SITTING in his bed, Theo Williamson could hear the world passing by his window as 1930s Tollcross went through its daily routines.

Unable to move around too much in case it brought on another bout of coughing, all he had to while away the long hours as he recovered from tuberculosis were his books and magazines.

The Gilmore Place home where Theo Williamson was born and raised is home now a B&B

The Gilmore Place home where Theo Williamson was born and raised is home now a B&B

But while other young boys may have lost themselves in Treasure Island or the Black Arrow, their imaginations full of pirates and kidnap, for David Theodore Nelson Williamson it was the excitement of mechanics and engineering, circuits and vacuum pumps that filled his enquiring mind as he read and re-read his copies of Popular Science and Popular Wireless magazines.

It was probably not too surprising that the Gillespie’s Boys School pupil was fascinated in how things worked – his father, who ran a successful car hire firm near their Gilmore Place home, was an enthusiastic DIY man. So much so that their house was the first to be fully electrified in Edinburgh as he converted it from gas by himself.

What is more astonishing though is that his budding career as an engineer was nearly cut short by him failing a maths exam four times at Edinburgh University, leaving him with no professional qualifications, yet he went on to become one of the 20th century’s most important inventors, revolutionising the way people listened to music in their homes and inventing computer-aided precision design machines which changed the way factories across the world produced their goods.

Despite such achievements, and ultimately being made a Fellow of the Royal Society, his name is now only remembered in engineering circles, his hometown having almost forgotten him.

Indeed, just this week when the Waverley Paddle Steamer received a Heritage Award from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it was revealed that it was not the first Scottish winner of the prestigious accolade. That honour went to Theo Williamson, posthumously, in 1995.

Today a brass plaque is the only physical reminder of his achievements in Edinburgh. On the front of his former family home, which is now the four-star Town House bed-and-breakfast, it reads: “In this house lived David Theodore Nelson Williamson 1923–1992. Mechanical and electrical engineer. Originator of high-quality sound reproduction through his amplifier. World pioneer in the application of numerical control to machine tools which led to computer-aided manufacture.”

It hardly tells the whole story. Professor Joseph McGeough, senior honorary professorial fellow at Edinburgh University’s School of Engineering, says that Theo Williamson was a “genius” who has perhaps faded from memory because of his own self-effacement.

Born in 1923, he went on to attend George Heriot’s after completing primary school, “not because the family were well-to-do,” says Prof McGeough, “but because they were very interested in education.” There he won the school’s prize for applied science – twice.

“That was the first sign of his aptitude,” says Prof McGeough, who knew Williamson in his later years. “He went on to study engineering at Edinburgh University when he was just 17, which also meant study at Heriot-Watt University, but three years later he had to leave because he failed an important maths exam four times.

“Because of that he had to discontinue his studies in engineering. And this was war time, but because of having suffered from TB as a child, he was not able to serve in the forces. He’d also been interviewed for a research engineer’s position with the civil service, and was told by the chief recruiter that he could “smell them” and he was not one.

“All in all, it was an extremely low point for him. He felt he had let everyone down. He ended up being sent to London to work for the Defence Ministry in testing valves for RAF equipment. He told me it was the most boring job in the world, but because he had no degree he wasn’t allowed to do anything else.

“However, he had a good boss who told him how many valves he had to test in a day, so the rest of the time he could work on his own ideas.”

Williamson’s big idea was in the amplification of sound – the wireless, after all, had been his love as a child.

“He invented what really became hi-fi,” says Prof McGeough. “He published his design in a magazine called Wireless World – a magazine which my father used to buy – and it went around the world. It was known as the Williamson amplifier and although he never made any money from it, people around the world made their own using his design. It was a real breakthrough.”

After the war Williamson returned to Edinburgh and joined Ferranti. It was the time of the Cold War and the demand for radar components was huge. In fact, the factory couldn’t make them fast enough. Williamson was tasked with developing a machine which would solve the problem.

According to a memoir of Williamson, published after his death at the age of 69 by the Royal Society: “The time taken to make some of the complex assemblies for aircraft radar was, as Theo put it, astronomical. So the Ferranti system of computer- controlled machinery was born.”

It continues: “Under the control of a computer, parts were made by dead-reckoning rather than relying on the skills of a machinist . . . the way was open for the development of high- precision machine tools.

“Ferranti ended up with a system which was better than anything else in the world . . . the Ferranti measurement system remains unsurpassed as a precision measuring system capable of resolution down to one micrometre.”

Prof McGeough agrees. “What he developed was way ahead of its time.”

“Ferranti used to send him out to try and sell these machines and people would say ‘are you the Williamson of the Williamson amplifier?’ Once they knew that they would do business with him – his name and reputation was so high. He brought a lot of business.”

Despite all his hard work Williamson did have time for romance. He met his wife Alexandra at Ferranti and they married in 1951, going on to have four children, one of whom was born in Theo’s own childhood home.

But after 14 years with Ferranti he was offered a job in London by Molins, a company which made cigarettes.

Prof McGeough says: “He wasn’t so interested in the job as the money. They were offering him a salary which was higher than the Prime Minister’s at that time. When Ferranti said it couldn’t match that, he left.”

At Molins Williamson was director of research and development and his genius for invention was at its peak. It was the early 1960s, smoking was all the rage, and he immediately changed the machines so instead of producing 1800 cigarettes per minute they rolled out 2300, and ultimately 4000 over the following decade.

His thinking also led to the conception of System 24, the first ever automated factory which could continue operations day and night, and be manned by few people.

“The system was well ahead of its time,” says Prof McGeough. Indeed it’s still used, under licence, by a number of major manufacturers around the world, including the American car manufacturers General Motors and Ford.

“He invented an entire factory which made cigarettes by computer control from beginning to end,” marvels Prof McGeough. “It was totally revolutionary. It could run for 24 hours without human intervention. That’s what made him. It put him on the international stage as an engineer.

“He became a Fellow of the Royal Society even though he didn’t have a degree, which was unheard of. And both Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh universities realised they had made a huge mistake by failing this man and gave him honorary degrees. I think he was thrilled to get them.

“People talk about prophets not being respected in their own homes, and that was what had happened to him. So to get the recognition by the universities, well, it was justice done.”

Despite his revolutionary work with Molins, the company shut down work on the System 24 eight months before it was completed. At this point Williamson’s health broke down and he suffered a serious haemorrhage from an ulcer in his oesophagus.

By the time he returned to work there had been too many changes for his liking. In 1973 he walked out of a board meeting and resigned.

He became European director of Rank Xerox and was involved in the development of the first colour photocopier. But in 1979 the family moved to Umbria in Italy and he stayed there until he passed away in 1992.

“I visited him in Italy and he was a very humble man,” says Prof McGeough. “It’s not surprising that most people don’t know of him now as he was very self-effacing, but that’s often the way with very talented people.

“I think the setbacks he had at the start of his career made him get on with just sheer grit and determination, a real characteristic of Scots. But at the same time he really was a visionary and his contribution to modern life should be celebrated.”

gdavidson@edinburghnews.com