Life at a sub-contractor (Dowland Electrics Ltd)

This account was emailed to me in January 2019 by David Ford.

In 1971, my late father, Don Ford, owned a sub-contract electronics business (Downland Electrics Ltd, Church Road, Hayling Island, Hampshire) which did MoD work on guidance systems, communications, OTH radar and avionics. They also built all kinds of things for other people including you guys at Sinclair. They made PCB's, sourced components and then did the final assembly and testing. I think there was one other UK company also doing the same.

My father's business appears to have been an unusual subcontractor though because he got to make limited run prototypes of many items from Hi-Fi components, the black watch, clear case models, promo items, and a wide range of other Sinclair items which included most models of the calculators and I think some of the first (uncased) ZX prototypes too.

It was my father who had input into the redesign of the Executive (case 1 to case 2) - since the first one was also very fiddly to assemble with the side decimal point switch, and the display mounting was fairly fragile too.

Sir Clive (then just plain Clive) and my father appeared to have a very good working relationship - they both enjoyed a beer - and I remember as a boy (I was about 10 years old) Clive visiting our house as well as being at the factory.

He often used to stay locally at the Sinah Warren Hotel but come over to our house for an evening meal.

I also seem to remember meeting Chris Curry? but can't be sure - as I was only young..

I have the very first Executive (Type 2 casing) off the production line at Downland - it was also the 10,000th Executive Calculator made by Downland for Sinclair - and was made in July 1972.

Rather obviously - it has no serial number (I seem to remember these were engraved on the back), but does have one of the rare original wallets that Clive brought down for the prototypes.

I also have the 10,000th Cambridge built by Downland (also 1972 - but later in the year - sadly the sticker is missing).

These items are shown below in the first picture.

There are a number of photos I found too:

Sinclair Executive<br>advertising model
Sinclair Executive
advertising model
These include a picture of a working scale mock up made in 1972 for Sinclair - that they used at exhibitions.

Being 1972 - that photo would not be complete without a pretty girl and so one of the assembly girls at the factory did the honours.

Very un-PC - I also have some similar promo pics taken at the same time of her wearing rather less... I understand Clive may have taken her to dinner in exchange.. (hmm)

Sinclair Scientific calculator
Sinclair Scientific calculator
Another full scale working promo mockup of the Sinclair Scientific (1973?) used at exhibitions. This one I saw live when I went to an electronics show in Hamburg with my father - and it was there on the Sinclair stand.

It was very impressive for a little geeky boy.

Don Ford (1976)
Don Ford (1976)
A picture of my father (he's uncharacteristically in the loud check suit) pictured at a defence exhibition (Navy) in Boston, USA at around the same time. Some of the microwave components he made are in the foreground - and many were used on British Navy ships of that era. The designs by another of his companies (Southern Microwave Ltd) were used extensively in NATO alliance ships and aircraft by Ferranti, Marconi and Fairchild. His company also designed and manufactured most of the Ptarmigan Man-Sat portable satellite communications system, and the guidance systems for Stingray torpedoes.

My father was a fascinating man, a brilliant engineer, and a loving father - he sadly passed away last November aged 84 - which is why I now have all this stuff to remember him by.

An interesting anecdote is that the gold plated copper alloy spring contacts used in the Sinclair Executive calculator keyboards used to come on a big A0 size sheet and had to be cut out individually by hand from the frame and transport supports (also made of the same material). My father asked Clive what he wanted to do with all the gold plated waste, and Clive said "chuck it".

Instead, my father collected it (and many similar off cuts/waste all throughout the 10 years that he was making items for Clive) and then regularly took it to have the metals reclaimed.

One total in October 1979 for one of the scrap collections of the gold plated stuff (because I have the receipt) is valued at £11,000!

My father always said that Clive's calculators paid for my (private) education - and it was only later in life he revealed that this scrap recovery was the regular source of many of my school fees..!!

At school I had one of very nearly every model of calculator made, and the hi-fi components too. Sadly almost none of these remain. Oh, and so with all that as I grew up I reckon formed the direction of my career - as a trained electronics engineer (HNC) - who then went into making medical devices for global companies. I now have two very successful startups of my own.

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First published Saturday the 26th of January, 2019
Last modified: December 29 2019 10:13:04.
Written by Richard Torrens.
© 2019 - 2024 Richard Torrens.