Feedback: your letters

Air your views and thoughts in this latest issue - over to you...

A capital idea

The introduction of the new Routemaster ('Missing the Bus', Vol 4 #16) could be an opportunity for re-planning central London bus routes. Journey times are currently excessive, largely because too many nearly empty buses clog the routes. In Oxford Street, where only buses and taxis are allowed, the congestion is at its worst. More than a dozen bus routes compete for the same road space. It can take up to half an hour to go the full length of this street at an average speed of around 2mph.

Congestion could be significantly reduced by re-planning some of the central bus routes. Far fewer routes could service a central area, which would occupy most of the original congestion zone. Fewer buses travelling at a faster average speed would reduce journey times but also carry more passengers per bus. Hop-on hop-off buses of limited capacity would be well suited to this. The familiar suburban bus routes could terminate at about a dozen bus stations (Victoria Station, Marble Arch, Liverpool Street Station etc), where passengers would interchange with the new city centre buses.

Efficient traffic routing has long been of interest to communication engineers, where the capacity of the single channel per carrier systems can be greatly improved by using packet switching together with time division multiplexing. The current London bus routing strategy incorporates the worst features of both SCPC and packet switching, with different packet sizes (single-decker, double-decker and bendy buses travelling at different speeds, while competing for and blocking the same road space).

A fresh look at the bus route might reduce travel times significantly.

John R Norbury, London

Dragon 'was victim of its own success'

As the project leader of the team that developed the Dragon 32, I was very interested to read Kris Sangani's short article on its brief life ('Gadgets That Design Forgot' Vol 4 #16).

It is all too easy, as engineers, to cite technical shortcomings as the primary reasons for a product's demise (graphics and character rendition according to Sangani) but often the story is a lot more complex.

The Dragon 32 was conceived by its parent, Mettoy (makers of Corgi toys), as a means to halt rapidly declining sales in its 9 to 14-year-old age group. Although when the Dragon 32 was launched it was highly successful, it was unfortunately not enough to solve Mettoy's financial problems and Dragon Data was very quickly sold to shore up Mettoy's balance sheet.

Dragon Data then had to manage an incredible rate of growth in manufacturing, sales and development, including the recruitment of a complete development team, without the backup of an experienced parent company. In many ways, Dragon Data was a victim of its own success and was unable to create sufficient cash flow to support its tremendous rate of growth.

When Dragon Data collapsed, we were some months into the development of the successor to the Dragon 32, code-named Draconis (because it was to be light years away from the Dragon). This product was based on a Motorola 68K and an NEC uPD7220 graphics controller, a multi-tasking OS (OS/9), keyboard, mouse, built-in hard drives and external monitor. If the financial situation had been better then, who knows, perhaps today there would be three standard computing platforms.

Ian Thompson-Bell MIET, by email

Lift safety

JR Batts (Letters, Vol 4 #15) offers suggestions to improve safety in lifts by correcting 'deficiencies', which he alleges are overlooked. Most, if not all, elevators fairly bristle with fail-safe and normal safety devices to the extent that, as he correctly states, they are indeed the safest form of transport. Even so, if there were any area in which safety could be improved then the manufacturers would investigate it.

His concern is the plight of people's safety in the case of fire, but this situation has already been covered. In the event of fire breaking out, passenger lifts will close their doors, and return to the ground floor, including those in transit. This is done not only for safety's sake, but also to allow firemen to use the elevators in gaining speedy access to the seat of the fire.

It would be folly, not to mention extremely dangerous, for anyone to be placed on the roof of an elevator. It is far from a level surface, having many functional devices that would have to be negotiated, and always there is the possibility of falling through the gap provided for the balance weight to move in the shaft. Dealing with all of this in near darkness would be, to put it mildly, a nightmare, and then one has to bear in mind that most people suffer, to some degree, from vertigo.

Even if all of these hazards were overcome, would anyone know how to release the door-locking mechanism, having to stand on a narrow strip of sill and reaching up at least six feet? Not a very appetising situation!

Raymond Bloor, by email


I fail to understand Peter Lorton's claim (Letters, Vol 4 #16) that there is no need for lift passengers to be trapped if a fire occurs in a building. When an occupied lift is immobilised between floors by fire damage to the power supply, no amount of clever co-ordination between lift controls and fire alarms will move the lift to a place of safety. Sometimes, no doubt, the power will survive long enough after the alarm, but often the power supply is the first thing to go - quite often the actual cause of the fire.

JR Batts, Banbury, Oxon


Recent letters in E&T on the subject of lift safety reminded me of an article in 13 June 2001 issue of The Risks Digest ( [new window]) which discusses the drowning of a woman when a lift automatically moved to the ground floor of a flooded building. This website is a good general source of information for those with an interest in software safety and reliability.

Dave Rogerson CEng MIET, Tewkesbury

ECT in the UK

Ian Darney (Letters, Vol 4 #17) claims that "electroconvulsive therapy is a method used by the National Health Service to subdue and control troublesome mental patients". I am neither a medical nor psychiatric practitioner, however I am writing on behalf of my wife who, as a qualified NHS practitioner, would like to highlight that this view is factually incorrect.

Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, is a treatment which is applied to a small number of mental illnesses. ECT is never used to "subdue" nor "control" troublesome patients, it is only given to those who have consented to receive the treatment. Such patients would typically be suffering from psychiatric conditions such as severe depression, severe mania or catatonia, which have not responded to the usual psychological and/or drug treatments.

Under very exceptional circumstances in England and Wales, ECT can be given without patient consent under the Mental Health Act. This requires the agreement of two doctors and another professional who is usually a social worker, and then there must be a second opinion from an independent specialist who is not directly involved in the patient's care. The clinical team also speak to family and other carers, to consider their views and any views the patient may have expressed before.

During the course of an ECT treatment an anaesthetic and muscle relaxant are given so that the patient is not conscious when ECT is applied, the result being that the muscle spasms that would normally be part of a fit - and which could produce serious injuries - are reduced to small, rhythmic movements in the arms, legs and body.

In practice there is a lack of hard empirical evidence to support the efficacy of ECT as a treatment. However, there are standards (BS 5724-2.14:1989/IEC 60601-2-14:1989) which govern the specification of the equipment used to conduct ECT treatments within the UK.

Eur Ing Andrew Bouch CEng MIET, Cheadle, Cheshire

Bad vibrations

'A Quiet Revolution' (Vol 4 #17) reports on concerns over the effect on health of noise from wind farms, but ignores the far more serious potential problem of operating/structural mechanical vibrations.

My discussion paper 'Wind Turbine Mechanical Vibrations: Potential Environmental Threat', which was published in the journal Energy & Environment (Vol 19 #2) shows the potential for such vibrations to destroy the structure of surrounding peat bogs and the possibility of killing all biota in any supporting terrain other than bare rock. In worst-case scenario, should these effects develop, as already seen at Derrybrian in Ireland and possibly evidenced in Thurso in Scotland, all life would be eliminated over an unknown radius. Taxpayer and business interests such as tourism, whisky and fisheries would be wiped out by collapse and decay of the peat bog together with its organic content, which would run off down waterways as sludge increasing flooding.

The Scottish government told me it is aware of wind turbine mechanical vibrations but has no information on possible effects and no intention of investigating them. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage take similar positions, as do turbine manufacturers and wind energy umbrella bodies. This amounts to irresponsibly playing Russian roulette with the environment and life itself.

Dixie Dean (Prof Emeritus), Forres, Highlands, Scotland

Recorded delivery

EurIng TRH Sizer (Letters, Vol 4 #17) recalls examining a Magnetophon voice recorder that had been recovered from a Luftwaffe aircraft when he was with the Royal Aircraft Establishment during the Second World War, and asks about early magnetic recording devices.

From 1969 to 1974 I had the pleasure of working with John T Mullin, better known as Jack, at the 3M Mincom Division in Camarillo, California, where we designed a new series of multi-track studio recorders.

Jack had served in the US Signal Corps during the war and, while in England in 1943, had heard, inexplicably, what sounded like live classical music coming 24-hours a day from a German radio station. After the war ended he was sent to Paris where he discovered the German Magnetophon, a high-fidelity tape recorder. Recognising its immense significance, he sent two recording mechanisms home as souvenirs of war. Once home, Jack went straight to work building the electronics, using American parts.

While using the machines for master recording in the film studios of WA Palmer, an old school chum and colleague in San Francisco, the technical producer of the Bing Crosby radio show heard of their superb performance and requested a demonstration in Hollywood. The two Magnetophons were immediately put to work for Bing's 1947-48 season.

After three years, Jack convinced Bing that they should jointly open a small laboratory for the development of magnetic video tape recording, the predecessor to today's VCR. Although never released commercially, first demonstrations were given in 1951. The Crosby lab was sold to 3M Company in 1956, when Jack became chief engineer of the new 3M Mincom Division.

Clive Ross MIET, Axminster, Devon

Elegant design

Your design issue (Vol 4 #16) brought to mind my many attempts to stimulate discussion on the best designed items in regular use. I always create raised eyebrows by my own first suggestion - the wire cage on a bottle of champagne. Think about it - a simple object made in its billions, from only two lengths of wire, costing a few pence at most, beautiful to the eye, and essential to the maintenance of life as we know it. Beats a Routemaster bus.

Anthony F Bainbridge CEng FIET, Codford, Wiltshire

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