Richard Torrens - a mini auto biography

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Introduction

This page is intended as a 'mini' autobiography of the author for whosoever it may interest - or bore!

Personal Details

Name: Richard John Torrens The inevitable mug shot if you must!

Date of Birth: 11 November 1943

Family:
My father, Robert George Torrens (4th August 1903 to 12th May 1981) was born in Youghall, Ireland and studied at Trinity College, Dublin. He later went to Bournemouth where he was a facial and dental surgeon and consultant. He was a very interesting person.

I have a brother who is a retired professor of paleontolgy at Keele University. See his list of published works. An internet search for H.S.Torrens is revealing.

Wife's name Mary, married November 1985
Children: Adam, born March 1988 (who has Downs syndrome), Rachel, born August 1991 and Michael, born December 1995. I also have an older son, Adrian, born November 1979 from my first marriage.

Education

At pre-prep school in Bournemouth my mother recalled that I astonished the teacher by my knowledge of the life in their pond!

At prep school I won a form prize at age 8. The prize wa a book "Life in Lakes and Rivers" by T.T.Macanh and E.B.Worthington. Pond life has always been an interest: see my writings on Ponds and Water Life - a section on the site which could be ongoing...

1955 to 1959: Sherborne School, Dorset
1956/7 (age 13) O level - Maths, Additional Maths, Physics, Chemistry, English language, English Literature, French, Geography, Latin
1958 (age 15) A level - Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics
1959 (age 16) S level - Chemistry

1961. Although I left Sherborne School after the exams in 1959 I was awarded, in 1961, the Turing Prize for physics. Apparently I was the first to gain this prize. However I only discovered this award some 55 years later! The school may have tried to inform me at the time, but I was so disenchanted with such a school system that (if they did so mail me) the letter must have ended up in the rubbish unopened!

1961/2 Imperial College of Science and Technology, London where I studied a BSC course in engineering (Electrical).

Personality

I have an unusual personality: in some ways it has been difficult to live with myself, and most of my employers have probably found me difficult! I am pedantic - not a fault: in technical writing one needs to be pedantic and to try and mis-understand one's own writing.

But I do not like to be told what to do without knowing why. So discipline at school was always a problem. To know why also means that I have to understand things. My electronics site (now sold with my business) earned several people PHDs in electronics. As one said to me "You have an unusual way of looking at things."

I am also a bit of a polymath: as a look around the www site will confirm, I have had lots of varied interests. But I tend to get in to a subject only so deep - beyond that it becomes too specialist! See my interests.

Employment

While still at Sherborne, I took an interest in electronics. At about 14 or 15 (I don't recall exactly!) I had some letterhead printed (simply R.J.Torrens - Electronics) and started doing odd electronic jobs. I also had an account with a local electrical wholesaler and bought and sold various bits and pieces. This was in 1958 when such 'schoolboy entrepreneurs' were not encouraged. I was also at a public school (Sherborne): the house master found out about my activities and did not approve. However - he could find no rules that I had broken so could do little more than disapprove.

When I left school (July 1959), I tried for several months to get a job in electronics in or near Bournemouth, without any success! Eventually I went to the employment exchange to see what they had on offer. As a result I became a bus conductor until I went to college. I actually enjoyed the job so much that I returned to it during the long summer vacations from college.

I did not enjoy college! The course I had chosen was Engineering (Electrical). I wanted to do electronics, but in 1961 there were no electronics courses being offered at any British university. True - I did get about 2 hours of electronics a week - but I was teaching the rest of the students! The mechanical engineering I found totally boring and I knew it was going to be of no use to me. So as a result I failed the second year exams. I was given the choice of repeating the second year - or leaving. So with some relief - I left.

Back to Bus conducting! But after several months of this, my parents were a bit concerned that I was wasting my life, so I started looking for a job. In, I believe, the Daily Express I read an article about one Clive Sinclair. He sounded interesting. So I wrote to him, enquiring about a job. Two weeks later he replied to come and meet him. That was in September 1964.

October 1964 to April 1975
Sinclair Radionics Ltd, London, Cambridge and St Ives.

I joined Sinclair at age 21, straight from college. I joined him at his London office in Duncan Terrace. This was the period before Sir Clive started on computers. His main product was a wrist-watch radio but he also manufactured audio amplifiers and other kits for the home constructor. Initially I worked with his only other engineer, Jim Westwood, a young lad of similar age to myself. Clive soon found that I was good at writing, so I wrote manuals. I was working in the design lab, and had a hand in the layout of many of the early hi-fi products such as the Z12 amplifier, than the Stereo 25, a preamp for a pair of Z12 amplifiers.

I also seemed to have a gift for fault finding, so I tended to do all the customer servicing. Clive Sinclair also had a branch in Cambridge where the kits were put together and the general assembly and despatch was handled. Some time after I joined him, Clive decided to amalgamate the London and Cambridge branches. In February 1965, I went to Cambridge ahead of the general move to start setting up a new sub-contractor to manufacture te Z12, a 10w audio amplifier that I had been helping to design.

I was also to assist in tidying up at the Cambridge end. I found that customer services were in a dreadful state: piles of unanswered letters and returned equipment waiting for attention. Loose ends annoy me. So I set to sorting out the pile of queries and soon found myself in the position of service manager, organising service and handling technical enquiries from customers.

The London office duly closed and amalgamated with the Cambridge staff - who had been working from the village hall of a small village west of Cambridge. All were installed in new premises, together with several new employees including two new young engineers - one of whom was Chris Curry, the co-founder of Acorn Computers. But that is another story!

Clive's products were not the most reliable: the business was growing fast enough that the returns (which represented sales from an average of 3 months ago - though the delay was variable) seemed to be a smaller percentage that they were! The service department grew - before I left I managed about 30 staff. But I was also involved in production and quality control with the subcontractors - if I didn't 'cut the crap' the service department would get it back! I also did some (re)design work - much of which consisted of pointing out the shortcomings of existing design.

Clive, running a mail order business, got a huge mail-bag of technical enquiries. These fell to me to answer and in those days, long before computers, the type-writer ruled. I soon found that most of the enquiries really asked the same question - so I started writing a series of technical data sheets answering these. We bought a Roneo machine and ran off copies of these sheets, which we would send out. At one time the department ran to two secretaries as well as a technical assistant whose job it was to read this mail and tell the secretaries which duplicate to send.

Anyone who has read our FAQ sheet may recognise here the seeds of part of our present business: the FAQ sheet on this site started life as a computer file from which 'standard paragraphs' could be pulled to compile a 'boiler-plate' reply. I guess this technique is proving very successful: we have sent out quite a lot of reprints of the FAQ sheet and we now get very few letters asking technical assistance!

Eventually as Clive expanded the business he ventured into pocket calculators, digital watches and similar. At this stage, as the returns piled high, I began to realise that I had been fooling myself. I had thought that such poor product reliability was a necessary evil and that it would reduce as the company reached a suitable size. But it was becoming that as the organisation, grew, so would the pile of rubbish to be sorted. This was not to my liking! I could not, after all, take the pride I wanted in our products. Yes - they were technically innovative, but the real achievement was in successfully selling a product which no other manufacturer would consider ready to market!

During my time at Sinclairs I had also on occasion been in contact with reviewers and other members of the press. One of these was a freelance journalist who wrote for DIY magazines. He had borrowed Sinclair HiFi equipment on several occasions. He has now working with the American magazine Popular Science who were starting a British edition. Would I like to write a regular series of articles?

It so happened that, at that time, Sinclair Radionics had a lot of surplus stock: some 1,000,00 pounds worth. Remember - this was in 1974.

So I approached Clive Sinclair. I registered a trading name 'Scientronics' - a contraction of Popular Science and Electronics and started using Sinclair's surplus stock and designing and selling kits through the UK edition of Popular Science which ran for less than a year.

Elsewhere I have written up my much expanded expanded recollections of life at Sinclair Radionics Ltd.

April 1975 to October 1976
Self employed

Clive Sinclair was in trouble. I had left the Service department and was also doing my own thing whilst still working for Clive.

I was made redundant! Some few months later, Sinclair Radionics called in the receivers.

The magazine articles for Popular Science brought in some business. I also did some freelance design work of audio and video equipment, burglar alarms and other items and I had published a book of original circuits - 28 Tested Transistor Circuits - Babani Press. I also ran an electronics sub-contracting service, mainly building some of the audio amplifiers I had designed. But the business did not thrive: Popular Science failed in their attempt to start a UK edition. Remember the great mid 70s depression? Not the best time to start a business!

I was also sub-contracting design and manufacturing for Bi-Pre-Pak of Southend. As well as selling components (many of them sub-standard or surplus) they also sold amplifiers - very similar to the audio Sinclair Radionics had sold. It was at this time I designed the low distortion amplifier card which, although I say it myself, gave excellent results using very poor quality components!

October 1976 to June 1980
PA:CE Ltd, (Parmee Acoustics: Collins Electromagnetics) and MM Electronics Ltd. Cambridge and Royston

So I found a job with PA:CE Ltd (Parmee Acoustics: Collins Electromagnetics). My duties were a little variable and sometimes indeterminate but they included design work on audio mixing equipment, as well as all technical backup for production, including test management, quality control, component specification, computerised parts control, change control, assembly data, drawings and circuit board control. I also handled technical liaison with customers as well as some design work.

PA:CE used outworkers and my first wife still did some assembly on the old designs: she also started working for PA:CE. First in Cambridge then, when PA:CE moved to Royston, she worked from home. This was on MM ELectronics mixing desks and other products. Dick Parmee had decide that business success lay in producing cheap products, so he registered the names Michael Mouse Electronics and MM Elcetronics.

Gradually we expanded the production side and we found other workers whom my first wife trained to do the work. At the end we had about 30 women working for us building 1,000 circuit boards per week on homework. I was also training someone to test the boards.

I have said that my duties were at times indeterminate. The owner of the company once likened managers to flies on a wall. 'In a good company' he said ' the flies all crawl in the same direction up the wall. How is it that, in this company the flies all crawl in different directions at random?'

It seems he had missed an important point: company directors give the managers a direction. It the managers are undirected - then who else is to blame but the directors?

I decided to look for alternative employment.

Some few months later PA:CE Ltd also called in the receivers!

June 1980 to July 1989
Welding Alloys Ltd. Fowlmere

Welding Alloys Ltd. is an International company having 5 manufacturing subsidiaries and several sales offices worldwide. Total employees numbered over 200. The company's head office is at Fowlmere, near Royson and it is here that all the machinery design and production is done.

I was employed as the only electronics engineer. They had this machine for hard facing the chain links on track-laying vehicles. It was a very primitive (and crude) numerically controlled machine. My job was to assist in getting it working!

As always happens, a good idea proved not so viable. Possibly something to do with the fact that Caterpillar Inc dropped the price of new chains, so re-surfacing was far less attractive. I was asked to design a new welding machine control system. Now I was fairly new to the company so I assumed that my employer knew what he wanted when he asked for a design, But I soon found that I was off-target. The target I was aimed at was shifting! So I looked at all the machines the company made and designed a sort of 'lego' system of modules which could be assembled to make all the machines we did.

This system proved very practical: we expanded it and (of course) modified it as new demands occurred. I learned a lot about machinery control systems! It also speeded up production. Before the new system was in use, a typical machine would take the two electricians about two (or even three) days to wire. And the technical director would then take a further two days to test is and get the faults put right. Before I left, by electronics technician could assemble a control box in a morning and the two electricians could wire the machine in the afternoon. My technician would then test the machine the next morning!

We also controlled our own departmental stock, stores and production making extensive use of computers in design and management: Parts inventory control was computerised, using a program which I wrote for the purpose. I arranged the department's work so that it could for the most part be done by relatively inexperienced labour, or cheaply subcontracted out to - you've guessed, my wife!

Then, in 1983 my wife decided it was time for a divorce! This hit me like a bolt from the blue. I was 40 (why does the mid-life crisis occur so regularly at this age?) and had a son of three. When we married (14 Oct 1972) I had acquired a family of three step-daughters. Now, some 12 years later, the marriage was dead. I could not understand how it had survived the strain of three step-daughters yet it should disintegrate three years after the birth of our son - something which should strengthen relationships - not shatter them.

Yet I knew that marriage was good for me. But clearly I had made a mistake. So I was driven to find out what had happened and why. I read and studied people and gradually learned what it was that had driven us apart. I learned a lot about relationships and psychology during that period. Maybe I'll write a section of the www site in it one day!

I also discovered that the personality trait in my wife that had caused the split was also present in abundance in my employer. I could not help but study him/it - and thereby hangs many a tale! But. if you have ever had a painful divorce, imagine the pain of being employed by a boss with the same trait as your ex! I knew that I would never get over the divorce until I found new employment - and a new wife!

I remarried in November 1985, but new employment? At 40? In Cambridge? In high tech, ageist Cambridge, you're over the hill at 30, unemployable at 40. I wrote hundreds of applications, over many years.

July 1989 - 1991

I was offered a job as Senior Design Engineer in a newly formed security division of Freeman contracts. They had not made it clear exactly what they expected of me but I simply had to get away from an intolerable situation! It did not work out. 2 months later I was unemployed - but free of a great burden. My wife was a nurse, still working.

When I had been at Welding Alloys one of the managers had approached me. Did I want to leave WA and join him in his new venture? I hadn't seen anything at all worth going for, desperate though I was. But now, I had nothing to lose. I contacted him and did some jobs for him.

At Welding Alloys a rep for an American Company had asked me if I knew of any dc-dc motor controllers. I happened to mention this to my new 'boss'. 'Yes' he said 'I have a garden railway and I think we could sell a controller.

So I started designing one. It took me (between other work) about a year (1991). In late 1991 I had a design which appeared to work. My associate took a holiday - without telling anyone. I suddenly found out that things he was meant to organise had not been done. When he returned I told him that any joint venture was over. He had not been prepared to discuss any plans, he hadn't let me know what he was doing, and - as he had no experience at all of electronic production, I could see nothing he could do for me.

1991 - 2014. 4QD (Motor Control)

So I started trading as 4QD, with mu wife. We sold our first controllers around October 1991. From a penniless start the business slowly grew until November 2014 when we sold the business to new owners: the 4QD Ltd www site was written by myself, as was its sister site, 4QD TEC, an electronics site. Both sites will presumably evolve with time, they are now out of my control.

4QD went global in 1996 when we did a web site. The world wide web was young. Most of our existing customers were retired and knew nothing of computers or the www. So I asked myself, what could I put on the www to get 4QD known and to attract people who might know someone who wanted a motor controller. Thus was born 4QDTEC. When the TV program Robot Wars came out, the BBC robots all used 4QD controllers, and the program gave us a large boost.

2014 et seq. Retirement

On 10th November 2014 we sold the business 4QD to its current owners (Steve Smith and Erica Richardson), The transfer occurred on the day before my 71st birthday. So now I am free to do other things: photography, www site etc. But I am also available for electronic work on anything that interests me! So if you have any Sinclair audio equipment that needs attention, please contact me! I can also help with PA:CE and MM Electronics equipment - or even Welding Alloys machines of suitable vintage!

Interests

I have very varied interest: a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades! Many of my interests are attested to on this www site. I tend to get bored with any one thing and to find self-motivation difficult to sustain, so I need others with the same interests, to motivate me. That usually proves difficult!

I tend to like organising and cataloguing data - which should be evident from the www site: the genealogy section of the www site was started by organising and keying in my father's collection of data on the Torrens families: this data has been added to over the years by others.

I am a keen photographer: there are many photos in the Cats section of the www site, including many walks with our cats. There are more walks with photos in the Green Bottom section of the www site and elsewhere!

I have had a life-long interst in water life: both flora and fauna. See the Natural History section.

I am also interested in edible and medicinal plants - though it becomes difficult to define "edible" as there are relatively few plants that will do you any harm if you do eat them.

Fungi... very interesting and photogenic. But I found with advancing years that I forgot Latin names almost as fast as I learnt them. And Cambridgeshire, where I live, is not a good area for fungi - far too dry! Nevertheless I have lots of fungus photos.


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Page's Author: Richard Torrens
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Last modified: 2017