LIVES – JOHN ADOLPH SARGROVE

Researched and written by Jeremy Palmer.

Introduction

The village of Effingham is commonly associated with one giant of twentieth century engineering, Barnes Neville Wallis. However, we now know about a second man – John Sargrove – whose innovations in the science of circuit-building and automation included a period when he used the Village Hall in Effingham at the junction of The Street and Orestan Lane for his research.

John Sargrove pictured in The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Queensland), issue of January 24th 1948
By courtesy of the State Library of Queensland

(click to enlarge)

Background

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that John Adolph Sargrove was born in St. Pancras, London on May 23rd 1906, being the son of Arpad Szabadi, an electrician of Hungarian origin, and his wife Cissie Lily. He was baptized as John Adolph Szabadi but would anglicise his surname to Sargrove in 1938 (curiously it seems that his parents also took on the name Sargrove at the same time). His early education took place in his parents’ city of Budapest. after which he returned to London in 1920 for further study and apprenticeships with several London engineering firms.

By 1930 he was employed by Tungsram Electric Lamps Ltd. as a patent researcher. Three years later he had become the chief technical engineer of British Tungsram, holding this position until 1940.

During the War he worked for Electro-Physical Laboratories and Mervyn Sound and Vision Ltd., developing photo-electric devices. By 1945 he was engaged in research on electronic automation equipment for the armaments industry, which in turn led to his post-war project to automate the building of equipment for the radio industry.

The ECME Automation Project

This project took shape in a shed at Sir Richard’s Bridge, Walton-on-Thames. Sargrove had set up his own company Sargrove Electronics Ltd. in 1944. In Walton work began on his “Electronic Circuit Making Equipment” or ECME. Research may have begun much earlier but it is possible that this is where the production runs of Sargrove’s ECME machine began, and that the British Pathé films which show ECME were filmed at the Walton location in 1948.

 

John Sargrove (at right) discussing ECME

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes ECME thus:

“The basic idea of ECME was to eliminate the conventional assembly and wiring of a multitude of individual components mounted on a metal chassis, which was the common method of receiver construction at that time. Instead, Sargrove proposed to make the wiring and components an integral part of a moulded plastic panel, with only the valves, loudspeaker, and electrolytic capacitors inserted as plug-in elements. In this way he was to produce the complete radio receiver in a single production machine with very little assembly-line labour. It was the first modern approach to automatic operation in electronic manufacture and was acknowledged as “the first automatic factory” by the Stanford Research Institute in a leading article under this title in the magazine Fortune in 1948.”

One of the first articles to describe ECME and understand its revolutionary nature appeared in a 1947 issue of Radio-Craft magazine:

“A new and entirely mechanical process for producing radio receivers at a rate of 1 every 20 seconds has been developed and put into use by John Sargrove, Ltd., at Walton-on-Thames, near London, England. All components except tubes, large iron-cored transformers, electrolytic capacitors, and loudspeakers are “grown” on a Bakelite panel as it passes through a machine. The new process known as E.C.M.E., Electronic Circuit Making Equipment, differs in many ways from systems using printed, deposited, or sprayed conductors. The whole process is mechanical: One operator feeds Bakelite blanks to a conveyor belt at the input end of the 70-foot long machine (Fig. 1) and a second, at the output end, inspects the finished panels as they emerge. Every stage of the manufacture is electronically controlled; each part of the machine starts automatically when work comes in on a conveyor and stops automatically if it has nothing to work on. Automatic cutouts operate if a fault of any kind develops in any section.”

From “Electronic component making equipment may revolutionize the manufacture of receivers” by Major Ralph W. Hallows, article printed in full on the RF Café website.

ECME cost £100,000 to build but Sargrove had calculated that it would become profitable after a run of 20,000 wireless sets, and that ECME would be able to make 50,000 a year. Other articles were published in specialist magazines such as Wireless World, Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated.

The images on the left appeared in Popular Science in April 1948.

Sargrove’s utopianism had been fired by the idea of being able to produce cheap radio sets for the poor in India; Chiang Kai-Shek ordered 25,000 and the Indian government 20,000 sets. However the Indian order was cancelled after Partition, and the Chinese order was never fulfilled. ECME also suffered from unreliable components to the extent that maintenance became a never-ending task. It has also been suggested that there were electrical supply problems during the fierce winter of 1946-47, which hit ECME’s ability to do a long-running, continuous production. Geoffrey Dixon-Nuttall writing in Bulletin 16 of the British Vintage Wireless Society comments:

“Another problem was the slow rate of production. Only three panels a minute was the figure quoted, which is presumably the best rate, not allowing for down-time. I would guess they probably did 500 sets on a good day; this means that the 100,000 [a figure the author quotes for a February 1948 Indian order for broadcast receivers] would have taken seven months.”

Eventually the funding ran out and ECME was sold to the radio manufacturer AC Cosser, who having no interest in the machine had it cut into several pieces and carted away.

Sargrove in Effingham

It is possible that by 1949 Sargrove was moving on to new projects, and that this coincided with his move to Effingham. The earliest mention of Sargrove in Effingham we have found is from the Power & Works Engineering magazine, Volumes 43-44 (1948), Page 321:

“Electronic Counter and Batcher intended mainly for factories requiring to count and batch small articles at high speed, Sargrove Electronics Limited, of Effingham, Surrey …”

This was followed in 1949 with adverts in Wireless World and other magazines advising that Sargrove Electronics’ new address was the Village Hall in Effingham, Surrey.

The Village Hall has a long and interesting history but a probable reason why Sargrove took it over is that it had already been used by an engineering company assembling Morse code transmitters in World War 2. The engineering company producing these was headed by a man named Albert Edward “Teddy” Jackson. ELHG has been told by the former Effingham resident Richard Selley that Edward Jackson married his (Richard’s) aunt Frances née Curtis in 1944. Richard Selley’s nanny Eva Goring, who joined the Curtis family in Effingham in 1939, also worked for this company, making keyboards for the transmitters. Edward and Frances lived next door at Middle Farm, converting it back from three cottages to one house, which they sold in 1948-49 prior to moving to the West Country.

The telephone contact number in the industry brochure adverts – Bookham 2707 – had previously appeared in personal ads for Middle Farm, so possibly Sargrove was at least initially using the line for the house.

It was in July 1949 that this article appeared in The Daily Mirror, authored by its science editor Ronald Bedford, newly presented to the paper’s readers as their Atom Reporter, who would “bring to readers from time to time a glimpse of the world we are building for our grandchildren”.

Ronald Bedford

Use this button to read the full article.

From the British Newspaper Archive :
reproduced by kind permission of Reach Plc / Mirrorpix

Here is his description of what he found going on in the Village Hall:

“Putting the clock forward ten years to the time when all the dreary jobs in British factories will be done by electronic brains cost me one hour in time and 4 shillings and sixpence in cash.

The money went on a third-class railway ticket, the time on the 21 miles journey and the two-miles walk from the station across the lonely common – from London to this tiny (population 605) old-world village.

I took a peep into 1959 through the half open door of the large green-painted wooden hut that was once the village hall. On the wooden floor where the local boys and girls used to dance at sixpenny Saturday-night bops, I watched young men (average age 29) of the Atomic Age making electronic brains that see, hear, taste, feel, remember and act upon the impressions they receive.

The locals call these young men Sargrove’s Primitive Methodists. There are twenty of them. The youngest is 18. The oldest is chubby, small (5ft 3 inch) inventor John Sargrove himself. A forty-three year old Londoner with silver streaks in his dark hair Sargrove has the blood of 6 nationalities in his veins. He also has the Frenchman’s habit of expressing himself with his hands.

His hand-made electronic brains make you scratch your head and wonder.
          :
Coatless, shirt-sleeves rolled up above his elbows, Sargrove works side by side with his team at workbenches littered with the tools of their trade – miniature microphones, photo-electric cells, electro-magnets and electronic storage circuits, which enable their brains to remember orders.

Sargrove is the only man in the world to design a completely automatic factory and make it work. His 70 foot long electronic circuit-making machine turns out 1500 complete two-valve radio circuits in 8 hours. Twenty electronic brains handle eighteen processes involving thirty-three components. The result is four-fifths of a complete wireless set.

To achieve the same result in the same time would need 600 technicicans. Sargrove’s automatic factory needs only 10 maintenance men.

Even the Americans marvel. ‘We’ve nothing like this over here,’ they say, ‘except on paper.’ “

Ronald Bedford’s reference to ECME in the article’s final paragraph suggests that perhaps Sargrove had not entirely given up hope of making it work but that he had spun out of this project the “electronic brains” which are described more fully in the article. Judging by the photographs of ECME in what we believe were the Walton premises, we do not think it could have been accommodated in Effingham’s smaller Village Hall.

Sargrove’s electronic brains were described in the industry press as an “Electronic Batching Counter”:

Electronic Batching Counter
A valve-operated instrument for counting and batching small articles at high speed has just been placed on the market by Sargrove Electronics, Ltd., Effingham, Surrey. It will count and batch in quantities.”

(From The Electrical Review (1949) – Volume 145, Part 1 – Page 353)

An article in New Scientist magazine published on April 24th 1980 described these as follows:

“At Effingham Sargrove’s workers produced a ‘magic eye’ to monitor the output of an electric sewing machine. They built an optical system to count screws, pins and buttons and put them in cartons. Another machine monitored the threads in a cotton mill and shut down the machinery whenever a thread broke. Sargrove’s company designed opto-electronic equipment which would match the colour of rosary beads, sort good from bad coffee beans, and ensure that lumps of dough fed on a conveyor to a baker’s oven were the correct weight.”

The fact that Ronald Bedford had tramped down to Effingham also indicates that Sargrove was now embracing promoting his inventions. He would become an indefatigable publicist for automation. He toured the country tirelessly, lecturing on how automation would relieve men and women of monotonous jobs and free them to do tasks that were more interesting. Ronald Bedford again reported on him from a lecture in Luton, shown here in this article on the right from The Daily Mirror dated February 1st 1950:

From the British Newspaper Archive :
reproduced by kind permission of Reach Plc / Mirrorpix
(click to enlarge)

After Effingham

Sargrove Electronics’ Effingham factory did not last beyond 1951, as by then they had relocated to The Industrial Research Laboratories in Alexandra Road, Hounslow (cited in Machinery magazine, Volume 78, March 29th 1951). They would remain there through the 1950s and 1960s. However Sargrove and his team had lost none of their zeal for promoting automation, as shown in this article on the right published in the Norwood News on August 10th 1956.

In another article from the Brechin Advertiser (Tuesday November 25th 1958) it was reported that Sargrove, only recently returned from the United States, now had a busy schedule in Scotland lined up, as follows:

The meeting is one of five in three days involving some 1200 miles of travel by air and road which local Productivity Committees in Scotland have drawn up.

However the concept of automation faced powerful opposition. Although Sargrove saw automation as the answer to post-war labour shortages, the unions viewed it as a threat to workers’ jobs rather than, as Sargrove argued, liberation from dull, repetitive tasks. That he was still protesting this view in this article below from 1956 suggests that little had changed in these entrenched opinions:

(click to enlarge)

Above and left: from the British Newspaper Archive :
reproduced by kind permission of Reach Plc / Mirrorpix

Sargrove moved on to new employment, and founded many more companies, still focused on introducing automation in other industries. He is regarded today as one of the pioneers of automation in the UK, as his entry in the ODNB makes clear:

“Sargrove can justifiably be considered as one of the pioneers of automation in the United Kingdom. He foresaw the immense advantages that the application of electronics would give to machine control and applied his ideas successfully to a number of automatic production processes. Many of his ideas found common acceptance, particularly in the automatic production of electronic equipment, such as computer systems, which became an essential part of twentieth-century technological infrastructure.”

Right – a valve radio receiver made on the E.C.M.E. machine (1947/48)
From a colour transparency in the Science Museum Group Collection

Copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
This image is released under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence

Sargrove and ECME on film

Three movies about John Sargrove are presented here. The first is a very short introduction by Pathé. The second is longer and more detailed – note that only the first 1.30 minutes are silent, before the narrative begins; this one was probably shot in the Sargrove Electronics factory in Walton-on-Thames. The third is twice as long again with much technical detail.

“Robot Radios” – Pathé Film (1948), 1.44 minutes

“First Automatic Factory” – British Institution of Radio Engineers (1947), 16.20 minutes

“John Sargrove and his Marvellous ECME” – Robert Lozier film , duration 29.35 minutes

Sargrove’s Personal Life

Sargrove married Mildred Rose Green in the Hackney registration district, in the second quarter of 1930. They lived around North London through the 1930s, before moving to locations on the Thames in an area known either as Dumsey Eyot or Dockett Eddy. There were two children, Stephen Thomas Szabadi born on January 19th 1932 and Viki Enid Szabadi registered in the third quarter of 1933.

John Sargrove died of cancer on January 9th 1975, at the Nuffield Home in Woking, his wife Mildred surviving him by 14 years until her death on September 5th 1989. Today there seem to be only two surviving Sargrove radios, one found in South Africa in 2012, and the other in the Science Museum in London.

Further Reading

This article has used, as a primary source of information on John Sargrove, Ross Hamilton’s Doctor of Philosophy thesis submitted to the University of Warwick and entitled “Continuous Path: The Evolution of Process Control Technologies in Post-War Britain” (page 27 onwards). The thesis may be read here.