The movement of my career from DCA Design Draftsman to CSIRO Technical Officer, and then to University Lecturer was most definitely orchestrated by God.
Shortly before my 13 years with DCA ended I was becoming bored and in need of a new challenge. I had worked on some interesting projects, such as the Public Flight Information System still in use today, and Interscan, the world’s first automatic aircraft landing system. But it was time for a change. I looked with little enthusiasm at a couple of job advertisements, but someone showed me an advertisement for a Technical Officer at a new Division of Manufacturing Technology being established by CSIRO. In particular, the Integrated Engineering and Manufacture Group needed someone to handle the installation of electronic systems for two robots, a computer vision system and a numerically controlled milling machine. I had no experience with any of these. In fact I had little practical experience with any electronic hardware – I was a draftsman with a ham licence and half a maths degree!
I was short-listed (I have a suspicion that it might have been a VERY short list – perhaps one entry!) and interviewed. At the interview with the head of the division, the personel officer, and two research scientists, I sat and listened while they outlined all of their ambitious hopes and plans for the new group. It sounded like science fiction. Then I was asked two questions. The first was “Did I like the sound of what they were doing?” I said, “Yes, it sounds very exciting.” Then they asked whether I understood the employment conditions and was happy with them. Again I said “Yes.” I got the job! This has to be God!
My introduction to life at a lab was interesting. On my first day I walked into the staff tea room to find a crowd there and one of the younger scientists standing in the middle of the conference table with his hands out and exclaiming, “What, what, what, what, what!”. Well there can only be one response to that so I said, “Only five whats. You’re not very bright are you?” He immediately went into raptures and shouted, “At last! At last!” Another Goon Show fan had arrived. Everyone else was standing around completely mystified about what had just transpired, but I knew I had at least one friend for life!
The learning curve was pretty steep – not least because soon I discovered that I was completely on my own as far as the electronics was concerned. The whole group consisted of a senior research scientist from Bell Labs who had experience in microprocessors, a research scientist trained in mechanical systems, a production engineer, a mechanical technical officer and myself. Later we were joined by a metallurgist whom I will mention again further down. We had a ball! This was the time when Dr. Barry Jones was Minister for Science and Technology. He was talking about the ‘Knowledge Country’, and the ‘Sunrise Industries’. Well, the Sunrise Industries he was referring to consisted of we five enthusiasts at CSIRO Man. Tech. We had plenty of money, and the world was watching.
Apart from wiring up Australia’s first flexible manufacturing cell, I was handed the task of learning how automatic vision systems worked, and then programming one to control the robots interacting with the milling machine. It had to be able to recognise parts, check if they were faulty, and instruct a robot to place them in appropriate bins. And in its spare time between these actions it controlled another small robot that the other Tech and I had renovated and taught to play the drums and write its name on a piece of paper. When we demonstrated the whole system to the politicians and the press the noise was horrendous. There were only two of these very $300,000 Automatix vision systems in Australia. I had one and a guy at Kodak Research labs had the other. We were able to help each other out on occasion. Almost no-one else had robots at the time – this was quarter of a century ago. The IBM PC had not even been invented yet. Lot’s of fun! And I got paid as well!
Scientific research is not always serious. On the day before we were to open the first flexible manufacturing cell I had to wire up a small box with a button. The then minister, John Button, would hold the box while he made his speech and then press the button to start the robots. The only suitable box I could find at short notice was a plastic jiffy box. It looked fine, but was so light that it didn’t have enough ‘presence’ to be given such an important role. So I wrapped a large ring bolt in foam plastic and placed it in the almost empty box. The minister was suitably impressed as he hefted this solid piece of ‘technology’ that was to herald a new age of technical innovation into Australian industry.
I was priveleged to work on some exciting projects, such as banknote recognition for the Reserve Bank of Australia, and construction of some computerised test equitpment for the Cochlea Bionic Ear project. But the one that gives me the most satisfaction began one day when a scientist from another group stopped me in the tea room and asked me what a NAND gate was. Miles apparently knew nothing about electronics – his PhD was in metallurgy. I explained how the logic functions used to construct the building blocks of computers worked. He then went away and read the standard microcircuit text of the time by Mead and Conway, Introduction to VLSI Systems, and before I knew it he was in Adelaide working on a chip to carry out vision processing. He eventually developed a single chip that replaced my quarter ton vision system – TV signal in one end and a description of the scene out the other! One of these was used in the Hubble Space Telescope. This process, from tea room conversation to finished chip took about a year – he was one smart cookie! But there is also a part of me out there in space, and that was only the first time, as I will relate later.