“I like to spot a latent enthusiasm and try to build a market out of it….. there usually is one.”
Christopher Curry was born in Cambridge in 1946 where he lived and work throughout his life. His father worked in farming and his mother was a housewife. He had always been fascinated by computing and automation. He used to build amplifiers and radios out of old valves found in televisions at the local dump.
Chris went to Cedar House School for his primary education and then moved on to Kimbolton. He took A’ Levels in Maths, Physics and Further Maths, intending to take up a place at Southampton University to read Maths. Instead he decided to avoid “being poverty-stricken for the next three years at university” and chose to go on a Dip Tech course, enabling him to start working earlier.
Chris began his IT career at Pye, the principle supplier or car radio systems for police forces around the world. He decided not to go to university because he found the Diploma of Technology more appealing due to the sandwich course. He describes his student apprenticeship there as a “quite extraordinary experience”.
The first thing he was taught at Pye was how to solder. He worked on a production line with about 500 women and 4 men. He became an expert solderer. He wrapped the wire round, through the hole, snipped it off at the right point and put a blob of solder over it. That is how Pye of Cambridge radio sets were made. His next job was on electrical testing. A “vast sack” of relays would arrive next to you and you would “plonk ‘em in a slot”, click a button and read the resistance and put it in there. Chris decided he did not want to carry on.
He left after only a few months to join the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern as a lab assistant. He lived the “Geraldine Staff Club” along with everyone else, and describes it as being like a boarding school. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there. The nose cone of TSR-2 was in the lab next to him – the most advanced radar in the world. He was working on superconductivity, making superconducting junctions. He was given a warning as he had been missing his college afternoons, but filling in the register as if he had been there – a serious offence. They also found out that he and his friends had stolen a bottle of ethanol absolute to put in the petrol tank for a journey to Liverpool. He was given the choice of leaving without a stain, or facing a disciplinary procedure – he left. He then worked briefly at WR Grace a cling film manufacturer before moving on to Sinclair Radionics in 1966
In 1966 Chris applied for a job as an engineer, having bought one of Clive Sinclair’s early products, an X-10 PWM amplifier, which he says didn’t work very well. At Sinclair he developed the matchbox radio Micromatic. He says it was “very hectic”. Clive Sinclair was an “irascible person, who was always charging up an down shouting and throwing his slide rule around”. They worked till late every night, then go to the pub together around 8pm and home afterwards. There was always a new product to be developed. Sinclair came up with the idea, and Chris would take the new product right from that through, building the circuit board, testing the components and putting it all together. Sinclair did the marketing and advertising.
Chris went to America to collect three early chips. His job was to build a prototype around the chip. They didn’t have keyboards or anything to work with, so thy built one out of bits of wire and tin and a clock. After a couple of days they had an LED display and on pressing a key, “a whole lot of flutterings went across the screen”. Eventually a number appeared in seven-segment form and they put in 22 over 7 (Pi) as the test. When the figure came up on the screen everybody gathered round and cheered. Chris says it was magic. The first pocket calculator was called the Executive; the case was designed to be very sleek, the thing for a wealthy businessman to be seen with. They cost £11 to make and retailed at £79. There was no management hierarchy at Sinclair, everyone was responsible from ordering their own components right through to production. You learned every part of the process.
In 1976 the National Enterprise Board took a share in Sinclair because of a cash flow problem. They need to redesign their television, the Microvision. They fixed it but it never got to mass production. Their other product of that time was the Black Watch – a black plastic digital watch with a red LED display watch – which did reach mass production but was unreliable and Chris believes it was damaging to the company’s reputation. He says Sinclair had a tendency to go for the lowest possible cost of assembly often at a sacrifice to quality. Their first kit product was a wrist calculator called Sinclair Instrument. They sold 100,000 to the American market, because in the UK they were constrained by NEB regulations. Many were sent back. Chris says the kits were a good way of “concealing what could have been a slightly more professional design in the first place”.
Later on Chris wanted to use one of the programmable calculator chips to make an early programmable microcomputer. He had seen adverts in the United States for a computer in a book – a printed circuit board, some components and some instructions. He was approached by a sales engineer from National Semiconductors, who offered to design it – the MK14. They had no storage and 256 bytes of memory, so were pretty limited and the keyboards were unreliable. They sold 90,000 for £39. Chris was kept in the office over Christmas as sometimes they were late delivering “and Christmas presents when they don’t arrive, that’s pretty serious”. On Christmas day in the afternoon customers would have assembled it, and wanted to know why it didn’t work. Chris sat in the office answering these questions all through the Christmas holiday two years running. Most of the customers were understanding and started sending back little programmes they had made with it. They had not yet foreseen the importance of the microcomputer as a personal computer.
Memory chips were hard to get hold of. They had to estimate their requirements a year in advance which was tricky. They had to make many more than they expected to make, because of demand. Customers gave feedback of ideas and suggestions, which created a demand for applications with microprocessors built into them. They were approached by a company who wanted to build a microprocessor controlled fruit machine. They set up a consultancy on the side called Cambridge Processor Unit, which handled special builds for people. The first custom build that made money was the twin processor Hart for a gaming machine. One processor switched all the lights and flashing bits and buttons and things, and the other one did the calculations and controlled where the wheel stopped – the results were fixed.
By the late 1970s Clive Sinclair could see that a microcomputer had consumer appeal and started development, but it got taken away as an unnecessary expense by the NEB. It was taken away to Newbury Electronics and became the NewBrain, which became the basis for the BBC microcomputer.
At Cambridge Processor Unit they had a policy of building to order and aimed at the industrial market. Christopher felt they needed to have a brand suitable for the consumer market. Acorn was formed as a company. They used the basic designs of the modular card system for the industrial market, in a single board computer called the Atom. It had a local area network built in. It was designed so that with a second processor plugged in, it could be 16-bit.
When the BBC were planning a computer programme, Chris got in touch and arranged a meeting. He offered them a 16-bit processor with properly structured BASIC and showed them how they could be properly linked together in the classroom, with the teacher able to directly write on the pupil’s screen – something you can’t do with modern local area networks. The BBC offered them the contract on the condition they were able to build it in time.
Their main competition was Apple in the United States. There was also Atari but that was sold as games machine. The Apple was similar in design to the BBC machine, but didn’t have what the BBC wanted. At the time they had six full-time software coders and Cambridge students and post-grads who wanted to be involved in the development for “a few quid on the side”. The purpose of the BBC microcomputer was to teach programming rather than the use of computers. Christopher says they felt they would lead to each other, but it didn’t. The first problem he observes, was the arrival of the Amstrad machine with a built-in printer. It was just a word processor, but became extremely popular.
Chris and Clive Sinclair fell out over the BBC Micro because of the Micros in Schools scheme. The scheme was supported by the DTI which offered a 50 per cent grant and the schools perceived that they would get £300 pounds with the Atom and only £120 with the Sinclair. So they went for the Atom. New entrants into the computer market bought Sinclair’s product because it was “the cheapest model with the flashiest advertising”.
Chris wanted to build a cut down BBC computer that ran all the software but lacked some features, so they built the Electron, made as cheap as possible in order to compete with the Sinclair products. They put a ULA (uncommitted logic array) built by Ferranti who had previously made a radio chip for them. They were delayed by a year and a half, due to the ULA overheating, which caused them to miss a vital market place. Sinclair got the business that WH Smith and other clients had booked with them as they were unable to deliver. In light of this, Chris had an article published in Which? magazine, showing the failure rates of Sinclair in comparison to the BBC computer.
The BBC Micro was launched in 1980 and within three years, they had sold a million. Originally the plan was to sell it by mail order only, but because retailers wanted to stock it, they had to find a way of putting a margin in for retail and for the BBC, so it became a bit less profitable. At one point they had a huge stock in the warehouse, when they had an enquiry from Russia, wanting to buy 100,000. They wanted 1,000 immediately, and were offering to pay just £40 per unit. They had been selling them at £70 to retail and they cost £38 to build. They agreed the deal on the condition that they were only sold in the Soviet Union. The Russians put a bank draft of half a million pounds in front of them and walked away. The next day all of their customers had been contacted by these people who were offering to sell them Electrons at £65. They were were experts in stretched and over-stocked organisations. They ended up having to pay the Russians £120,000.
In 1984 they reported an £11 million loss. Chris explains that sales were going down and deliveries weren’t being made. They had placed orders with subcontractors, that they were liable to take, and accepting orders from retailers who retained the ability to cancel without any come-back. The stock was devalued as unsellable. They started selling through reps, who insisted on being paid a retainer. Then the American FCC said they failed RFI emissions tests even though the contents were the same as Apple. They were forced to rebuild the internals in a steel case, which stopped them from selling the States for almost a year. Chris says they should have had proper contracts and sales agreements. He agrees that they were technologists who were inexperienced in business. They did not do enough work on strategy.
Acorn was structured with Chris and Hermann Hauser as joint managing directors. Later, during the Olivetti deal, Alex Reid was appointed as chairman. He was an experienced businessman with an architect’s training and had been working for British Telecom.
They floated in 1982, with Lazards as their banker. When the share price doubled a year later, the bank sold all their shares as they had doubled in value. The sale knocked down the share price colossally. Olivetti took a share in the company to help with refinancing and provide a sales force. Olivetti had just sold equity to AT&T so had cash to put into Acorn. The plan was to put the BBC computer through all their sales regions regions, worldwide. After a year they had failed to sell any. It turned out that there was a conflict with the deal they had with IBM and so should never have done the deal. They had some help from Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who offered to finesse a licence deal if they continued to help Acorn. Olivetti were not happy and “just trying to destroy everything [Acorn] stood for”. It was time to part ways.
They built a “hatchery” – a small innovation park – where they could send people who wanted to be part of their own businesses. A small team would put a project together, Acorn would provide the seed funding and they would work on it in the hatchery. The first of these projects was called the Acorn Communicator, a network computer based on the BBC’s hardware and with the best modem chip available. It plugged in to the phone line and had its own phone built in. It could download data via Teletext. Olivetti wanted to cancel it, so Chris bought it out of the company and put it in a business called GIS, whilst remaining a non-executive director of Acorn. They began to wonder how to build the network into something viable. They had set up Redwood Publishing, an electronic publisher which was used to supply data from databases to the network computers. Chris says the trouble with it was that it was before its time. There was no Internet yet. They had deals with Kingston Communication and Energis who supplied trunk wires and join the local loop through BT. It was a packet switch network without Internet Protocol. They shrank the communicator down to consumer level, calling it Keyline terminal. Mail order companies, food retailers and other big retailers joined. Customers had a terminal at home and would ask questions such as, “Where do I buy my grandmother a present?”. It would come up with a list from its internal database and the customer could go online to talk to them. It was a stepping stone towards the internet.
Chris says his biggest regret is that he was unable to maintain the cost of that operation, as he tried to finance everything himself. He says Hauser was “much better at knowing how to use other people’s money”.
In GIS, Chris created a system for cashless money. The Transactor was a smart card on to which you loaded money, they teamed with an organisation called Mondex who enlisted MasterCard to get global coverage. MasterCard bought 51% and then closed it down completely three months later as it was in conflict with their business model.
Chris continues to be involved with electronic currencies. GIS has created an ID card with medical history called Bluefish for retirees. He believes there is a wasted resource in the elderly who get written off because of their age but are still capable. His idea is that there is a “pseudo-currency” outside of taxation used to incentivise people to do good things for each other. He believes that by getting people to look after themselves better, we could save the National Health Service. He believes people need to become more accountable for their own wellbeing. He is using social impact investment (funding which does not generate a dividend, but has a long-term beneficial effect).
Chris’s significant mentors were individuals who created game changers. from Malvern created the classic tone control circuits that were used in every system until signal processors came along. Another, called Hinsdale, invented push-pull transistor amplifiers. Curry had been building these things, and found it an extraordinary experience to be working alongside the people who had created them.
Chris describes Clive Sinclair as a “can-do” person and an inventor. He had amazing determination to get things done and would use first principles as he was not a professionally trained electronics engineer. Curry says Sinclair also invented the concept of crowd funding through mail order. It worked like this: you agreed 30 days grace with suppliers and advertisers (usually stretched to 60 or 90 days), then the cheques came in. In those days they were allowed to give 28 days for delivery, so that gave them time to build the products. Working with Clive there was always a new challenge and it was exciting and fun.
Chris remains very proud of the Sinclair Executive calculator, as it was his project from beginning to end. The next thing he was proud of was the MK14 as it was the first of its kind. He realised that if you can give an existing market something that takes it in to a slightly new area, you create another market.
The BBC Micro was a team-based project. It was the accumulation of important features that came from a lot of different arenas. They were able to adapt other things they had, like the twin processor system, to provide exactly what the BBC wanted.
Chris’s biggest regret is not having better management controls over the processes of ordering and taking bookings. Acorn was hurt by being caught between suppliers who wouldn’t halt the supply and buyers who would halt the demand – creating a critical cash-flow shortfall.
He is also upset about other projects which should have continued but were stopped for financial pressure reasons. His teleshopping project with the Keyline would have been the most important presage of the teleshopping that now exists with the Internet.
In retrospect relying on financing the projects personally was a mistake. Curry believes it would have been more successful if there had been people alongside him with the same interest in making the investment work – sharing the responsibility. He became personally bankrupt, losing his house which he had used as collateral for the E2S venture, intending it to be a bridging loan.
Christopher Curry believes it is important to build a business based around a fundamental need, not just something you are interested in yourself. He also advises against risking everything on something that might make you rich… because it might make you very poor. He believes consumer markets in health are a very interesting area.
Interviewed by: Alan Cane on the 26th April 2016 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Annabel Davies