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Welcome to The Lotus Position, an intermittent collection of extempore navel gazings, ponderings, whinges, whines, pontifications and diatribes.

Everything is based on a Sample of One: these are my views, my experiences... caveat lector... read the Disclaimer

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter
Ponder, Scribble, Ponder (Photo Erdotahi Aron)

Guest Nutter/Kindred Soul: Bill Bailey


Friday, 6 March 2009

Curate me gently...

Oh dear! - and yet, Oh my! How wonderful!

Once upon a time there was a great little company called Walton Radar Systems, a.k.a WRS. I joined Walton straight from university (having, I thought, learned some electronics and programming in the course of my 3rd year cosmic ray counting project - how wrong I was!) and stayed for just over twelve years, progressing slowly from "Test Engineer" to the useless position of Business Development Director (not my idea, that last step) at which point we finally parted company; I never did get on with the MD Mike Jones as well as I had with his father, who he succeeded.

So what's all this moist-eyed retrospective in aid of? Well, Walton did all sorts of wonderful Stuff - radar video recording systems, data storage and display systems for nuclear power, mag tape systems - some of which might even still be in use (we always did make Robust Stuff).

Alas there is one system that is clearly no longer required - the secondary radar data recording system designed and built for the UK CAA and previously residing at the London Air Traffic Control Centre (LATCC) at West Drayton, but it seems that part of it - and thus a little part of me - has ended up in The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC).

I spotted the news release about "IRIS" (Independent Radar Investigation System?) on The Register and thought - "Hey, I remember that! Where's the actual recording equipment that WRS supplied in 1990?" (the five racks of equipment in the picture left - three racks for recording, one for replay... and obviously another one whose purpose I can't recall at the moment).

Those were the days when the 2x 2.3GB tape drives in each rack were, like, y'know, Wow! Over two gigabytes? Nowadays of course I wouldn't even look at a memory stick with that little storage, but for its day this system was a marvel - multichannel, instant access, intelligent digital data recording with touch screen interfaces - that replaced a clumsy, analogue reel-reel tape recording setup. You could even do Instant Replays from disk - just in case something fell out of the sky and you couldn't recall exactly where it was last seen... for instance. [The recording systems we did for the Royal Navy recorded all sorts of interesting Whizz Bang Stuff - alas I would have to log all your IP addresses and come round and shoot you for reading this blog if I said any more]

But those were the days when I was genuinely a world expert in something (as opposed to being merely a Doer of Stuff now)... and whilst I might still aspire to be again, looking at Sun-Tzu's description("Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible") I think it's time to admit I am rarely inaudible and shall not pass that way again.

Anyway, I was put in touch with Ben and Peter at TNMOC and they said, Yes! they did in fact have the "RARE" system (RAdar Recording Equipment) we had developed for LATCC.

So, after all these years, time again to say - with Frank Admiration - well done to everyone who worked on that project. Poor little Walton - a marvel of a company for quality, competence and creativity. It is alas no more. It was one of those companies where everybody knew what they were good at and did it excellently, which is why, although I wasn't that bad as engineer (I could only really do digital Stuff, and Geoff Allan was a hardware wizard at analogue as well) I drifted off into other Stuff... [What happened to Walton? A sad tale for another time - but in short: sold, micro-mismanaged by the new US or Canadian owners, then dumped for not being allowed to do what it did well when it had been allowed to get on with it.]

RARE was my baby - I conceived the digital recording system, I bid it to the CAA (competitively) and we won... and then a pair of brilliant engineers turned the specs and concept into reality - with their usual verve. I was PM - and did all the documentation as well as far as I can recall, which makes it slightly embarrassing that I don't seem to have copies of any of it... though it could still be on the old Macintosh Quadra I still have (though not with me in Budapest). If I find anything when I get back to Blighty I'll pass it on to TNMOC. It was a great project - delivered on time, to budget, and worked first time.

Unfortunately, TNMOC only seems to have one set of tapes - and given that I wrote the tape handling procedures I can't help thinking that either the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (or someone else) still has some safely tucked away - or that someone wasn't following procedures...

But enough of that! I wonder what else WRS did is still out there somewhere?

Geoff Allan (that's Geoffrey "Chainsaw" Allan in case of confusion), Eddie Richardson, Andrew Beattie, Dave Williams, Dave Bunce... and the rest of the Walton crew where are you know?

Nostalgic Stuff.