Feedback: your letters

Les Paul fans write in with personal insights, we hear from an injured occupant of the Tower Bridge lift accident, the case for regulations on electroconvulsive therapy in the NHS and we have a new taker for the coiner of mechatronics.

For the record

I was working with Les Paul in 1963/4 on the day he took delivery of the 'Octopus' Ampex eight-track 1in recorder ('The Original Circuit Bender', Vol 4 #15). We were doing record/play frequency curves and noticed that the so-called 'bass bump' was an octave higher than usual at 15 ips. In spite of this, we completely dismissed Mary Ford's comment that "the machine was running faster than normal" with our reply that it was probably an optical illusion due to the wider than normal tape.

How embarrassed we were to find that the machine was delivered as 15/30 ips and not a 7.5/15 ips as had been ordered. There was in fact, as mentioned in your article, a sleeve over the capstan for speed change. I believe that the eight track was returned to Redwood City in California for re-working.

I think that Les Paul fans would like to know about his clever method for doing sound on sound with a single mono quarter-inch machine. He liked to make recordings while on the road using an Ampex 300 put into so-called 'portable boxes', which were very heavy, ergo one machine. He fixed an extra play-head between the feed reel and the erase head. Picking off the first sound laid down and mixing it with the second sound, and then feeding both to the record head, made it possible. Needless to say, one mistake would render all previous work useless.

John L Mack, Laguna Beach California


I read your article about Les Paul with great interest as both my wife and I have been fans of his for many years. In 1943, as a young electrical engineer, I joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. It was a fascinating time as captured German equipment arrived almost daily for examination.

On one occasion a Luftwaffe voice recorder appeared which, as I recall, was manufactured by Magnetophon. This attracted a great deal of attention as most of us had never heard our own voices before!

However, the device was a magnetic wire recorder, not a magnetic tape recorder. I have always understood that the magnetic tape was a post-war invention. The early 1950s is usually quoted. Can readers of E&T shed any light on this?

EurIng TRH Sizer, Farnborough, Hants

Crash impact

I feel compelled to comment on a throwaway line in your article about lift safety ('Safer Than Houses', Vol 4 #13) about the incident in May this year when a lift in London's Tower Bridge dropped several feet to the ground: "Thankfully, in terms of actual injuries, the accident was comparatively minor - a few broken limbs and some bruising among the 15 or so passengers. However, it generated national - and in some quarters rather dramatic - media coverage."

Please do not underestimate the impact of this accident on the lives of those involved. I am one of the recipients of the "relatively minor injuries". These injuries include multiple fractures in both ankles and an ongoing reluctance to use lifts which is very difficult as I am unable to use stairs. I am still undergoing rehabilitation therapy and will require further surgery. My husband also sustained a fractured ankle; this is going to affect our lives for some time and possibly permanently.

Perhaps you think that it was only worthy of mention in the press if we had been killed? I am sorry that we caused a major disruption to traffic but I was glad for all the emergency services that arrived to get me to the hospital quickly to get some much needed pain relief and assessment of a possible spinal injury.

Your article would have been better directed to emphasising the lessons learned from this albeit uncommon occurrence, regardless of the passenger outcomes and your statistical analysis of lift accident frequency. Surely one of the lessons learned is that no system is 100 per cent safe despite the "veritable scaffold of regulations and standards taking in their design and installation to inspection, certification and maintenance". In this instance the holes in the Swiss cheese lined up, resulting in an accident significant at least to the occupants of the lift. Is the next one just around the corner, or will you just play this one down because it doesn't happen very often?

Bronwyn Cowan, by email

Selfish profession?

After reading recent letters on outsourcing in E&T, it's little wonder why engineers are held in such low esteem in the UK. So outsourcing is OK because it means more jobs for engineers. How many? What's an acceptable ratio? Let's negotiate, how about, for every thousand (or should that be ten thousand) manufacturing jobs lost, there's one more job for an engineer. In the interests of democracy we would then hold a ballot, but only engineers could vote of course. When the newly unemployed find out about our deal, we will be as popular as an MP's expense claim.

I don't know how much longer I want to be part of a profession where being self-centred and smug has replaced working to make a (beneficial) difference to the communities we live in.

Alan Leary, Hereford

Shock treatment

As far as I can gather, electroconvulsive therapy is a method used by the National Health Service to subdue and control troublesome mental patients. Its usage is straight out of the dark ages. Surprisingly, the practice has yet to be proscribed.

While it is true that the technique is essentially a medical one, it is also an obvious fact that electrical expertise is necessary to design, build and maintain the equipment. The engineering profession cannot disclaim all responsibility for its existence. Like it or not, we must bear some responsibility for the continued use of this practice.

The image that we like to promote is of a highly responsible body with impeccable ethical standards. We have assigned to ourselves a very wide remit, as any reading of E&T magazine confirms. We have invested a great deal of time and effort in specifying the emission requirements for mobile phones to ensure that electromagnetic radiation in close proximity to the ear is harmless to any user. Comparing this threat to that of electroconvulsive therapy is akin to assessing the relative impacts of a feather and a sledgehammer.

We formulate wiring regulations that every electrician in the country is legally obliged to follow. Yet there is no regulation in existence in the UK for equipment used in electroconvulsive therapy.

It may be that a convincing case can be made that such treatment is both beneficial and therapeutic to patients. Even so, we still have a duty to ensure that the risk of an accidental overdose is minimal.

What cannot be denied (or ignored indefinitely) are the twin facts that electric shock treatment involves the use of electrical equipment and can be lethal. Hence, if we are to sustain our image of being responsible professionals, we have two options: we advise all members to refuse to design, manufacture or maintain such equipment, or we define a clear set of requirements for its design, manufacture, and maintenance.

Ian Darney, Bristol

Light work

The end of the incandescent lightbulb may create an engineering problem. When a compact fluorescent bulb is used in a closed luminaire, such as the type required in bathrooms, its life can become quite short compared with the previous incumbent. My limited experience has been gained by replacing a 60W incandescent with an 11W CFL bulb made for a well known, long established company as well as a globe bulb from a retail electronics shop. A quick and effective solution would help the image of the engineering profession.

Experiments with the 11W CFL bulb (now in a bedside lamp) suggest that the discharge tube characteristics may have changed since partial failure of the electronics seems less likely. Switching it on and off gives it the opportunity to strike on the second or third time from cold as well as if it fails when it has been working for some time. The change in colour of the white plastic at the base of the discharge tube suggests overheating.

This is also a good time to change ES and bayonet light sockets to make them safer, especially for blind people. It is easy to make this a safe and cheap DIY task.

Kristen Cadman, Marlow, Bucks

Roots of mechatronics

In her article 'Multidisciplinary Machine Building' (Vol 3, #12), Sarah Brady writes that "the term mechatronics is nearly 40 years old. It was first used in 1969 by Tetsuro Mori, an engineer at the Yaskawa Company".

An alternative history suggests that the word was invented by Professor Takashi Kenjo in 1960. Professor Kenjo, an internationally recognised expert on electric motors and their controls, has written more than 20 books on the subject which altogether have sold over half a million copies.

I first met Professor Kenjo in 1985 when I had the privilege of six weeks' study in Japan on a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship looking at the Japanese approach to educating, training and managing engineers and technicians. I subsequently returned to Japan in 1987 on an international comparison research project with the London School of Economics.

Soon after this second visit I was asked to speak at a conference on education and training at Cambridge University and I mentioned this word 'mechatronics'. In the audience was a senior staff member of the Business and Technician Education Council who asked me afterwards if I would help them devise technician courses in this new subject, which he had not heard of previously.

In 1984 Oxford University Press had published the first book in English by Professor Kenjo on stepping motors, but the next year when they published his second, on DC motors, his editor advised him against using the word 'mechatronics' for the title since he argued that there was no such word in the English language! (Professor Kenjo did, however, introduce the word in the preface referring to the title of the Japanese edition.)

To the best of my knowledge it was subsequent to BTEC developing technician courses in mechatronics that the subject was taken up at degree level - and professors and conferences on mechatronics suddenly became one of the international hot topics.

Professor Kenjo and I wrote a book together for Oxford University Press in 1994, entitled 'Japan's Winning Margins: The Secrets of Japan's Success', which was subsequently translated into Chinese and published by Science Press in Beijing.

Now we have collaborated on a new paper for the IET in which Professor Kenjo explains more about how he came to devise the word 'mechatronics' and associated matters, including some very interesting contextual details about Japanese technology both before and after World War Two.

In 'Creating a New Paradigm - Mechatronics and Future Challenges' we show how some modern developments in mechatronics have their basis in post-war Japanese technological developments in which Professor Kenjo was closely involved. In particular, these were generated by the close technological links between Japan, the UK, Germany and the USA both before and after the war. We also show interlinking connections between some scientific and technological historical aspects underpinning mechatronics and suggest some ways in which these link into modern issues such as global warming.

 John Lorriman FIET, by email


'Creating a New Paradigm - Mechatronics and Future Challenges' by Professor Takashi Kenjo and John Lorriman can be found at [new window]

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