A true story of how an exploding capacitor delayed the development of part of the British computer industry by at least six months.
Recently on EETimes.com, Max the Magnificent considered what was described as The Great Capacitor Plague of the Early 21st Century. This prompted several readers to comment reporting various levels of experience with recent capacitor problems. However, a few smudges on printed circuit boards, some smoke, and the occasional flame all pale into insignificance with regard to the experiences of capacitor users in times past.
In the middle and latter part of the 20th century, it was almost a rite-of-passage for anybody making claims on the electronic engineering profession to have sat through a storm of aluminium flakes, paper, fluffy chemicals, and heaven knows what else that rained down following the explosion of an electrolytic capacitor.
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What follows is a true story of how an exploding capacitor delayed the development of part of the British computer industry by at least six months. The name of the individual involved has been withheld to avoid embarrassment. We will call him "The Young Man," or TYM for short.
Setting the scene
This exploding capacitor story starts long ago in a distant place, when transistors made of germanium were in their infancy and magnetic cores were the memory of choice for the latest embryo electronic computers. The distant place is Croydon, England, now a part of greater London, once famous as the site of the first London airport, perhaps now more celebrated for a ladies' hair style named "The Croydon Face Lift."
The airport had spawned number of light engineering electronics companies, including Philips/Mullard (radios and televisions), ICT/ICL by their earlier name of Powers-Samas (tabulators and computers), Creed (teleprinters), Dictaphone and Muirhead (fax machines), Aeronautical and General Instruments (AGI) (aviation instruments), and many more, all moving by various degrees into electronics.
Now visualize a bespectacled school leaver -- TYM, who is central to this story as a very young man -- who had bicycled around all these companies to find out what they were about. TYM finally ended up knocking on the door of Powers-Samas -- which was to evolve into International Computer & Tabulators (ICT), then International Computers Limited (ICL), and eventually Fujitsu -- asking if there were any jobs working on electronic computers. He had an interest in electronics, he'd built a few vacuum tube and germanium transistor radios, and he had also won the Physics prize as his most significant grammar school academic achievement. He was directed to the training school. In those days, large engineering companies in the UK ran training schools, offered formal engineering apprenticeships, and paid for employees to attend college and/or university. Here TYM met a kindly Mr Wood who managed the training school and who listened sympathetically to TYM's electronic engineering dreams and employment requests.
Continue reading on EE Times' sister site, Embedded.com.