The Photon Connection—40 years on

Image of a red phone handset with light coming from the earpiece. With the text: The Photon Connection - The 1982/83 IEE Faraday Lecture presented by Standard Telephones and Cables PLC.
Promotional poster for The Photon Connection

Forty years ago today (5 October 1982), my father Keith Saunders presented the first of fifteen IEE Faraday lectures on behalf of Standard Telephones & Cables (STC) during a six-month UK tour.

It was during this tour that Dad collapsed having just delivered the lecture in his hometown of Nottingham. But that’s a whole other story.

The first lecture was at the Usher Hall, a not insignificant pile of bricks on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road. I was there, at the front of the circle having got special permission from my school to attend as it was for educational purposes.

I don’t have much that my dad wrote, but I have this. It is just one page of typed A4 which was clearly part of a longer piece.

Faraday lecture

Each year the Institution of Electrical Engineering (IEE) gives the honour of presenting a lecture on an aspect of development in electrical engineering—the Faraday lecture named after Michael Faraday.

I spent all of working life as a mechanical engineer working in the electronic industry. In 1982 I worked with Exacta Circuits, at the time a division of Standard Telephones and Cables (STC). The general manager Mr Peter Breen sent for me one day and told me that 1982/83 was the centenary of STC and they had been awarded the honour of giving the 1982/83 Faraday lecture.

Dad’s STC Exacta Ltd business card

Mr Breen said that he’d heard me speak at Exacta functions and felt that I would make an ideal presenter. I was recommended to attend an audition at STC House on the Strand in London. Some two to three weeks after the audition I received a letter from Dr Roger Bones the STC Faraday manager to say that I had been successfully accepted as an STC Faraday lecturer. There would be a team of eight lecturers delivering two lectures at each location—one morning and one evening. The early lecture mainly to colleges and schools; the evening lecture would be given to IEE members and university personnel followed by an annual Faraday dinner. When eating together, care should be made to avoid eating identical choice of menu due to tummy bugs!

The lecture for STC was titled The Photon Connection. Briefly, the developments in the use of light as a communications means with telephone traffic. Light was the star of the show. A London company called Theatre Projects was given the project to build an impressive set and transport it around the country.

The finished set took a power input of 130 Kilowatts to operate the set. Some halls required a special cable to enhance the power input.

The first lecture was given in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 5 October 1982.


Video of the opening lecture

Here is a video of my dad during that opening lecture. I got it converted from VHS to digital a few years ago, so the quality isn’t great, but the opening and closing sequences are still spectacular. They were even more so in person as the whole hall thobbed and resonated with the array of lights and stereo sound.

A fun fact is that when it came to the moment for demonstrating a heliograph, my father had worked out exactly where I would be sitting, so he shone the light directly at me, illuminating me for a moment. Thanks Dad!

The video description on YouTube states that unfortunately around 30 to 45 minutes of the video was damaged, missing out a huge chunk of the lecture in the middle.

What it doesn’t say is that the reason for this was that crucially the little write-tab hadn’t been snapped off and someone accidentally recorded an episode of The Fast Show over the top of some of this historic lecture. Pick a Fast Show punchline to sum up that faux pas: “Ain’t videos brilliant!” … “Oh! bugger!” … “I’m afraid I was very, very drunk!”

STC Road Show—The Making of The Photon Connection

There were leaflets produced that explained how they made The Photon Connection.

Brochure with sketches and text that explains Making The Photon Connection
Brochure (exterior)—Making the Photon Connection
Brochure with sketches and text that explains Making The Photon Connection
Brochure (interior)—Making the Photon Connection

And a professionally produced film (which I also had converted from VHS to digital) which takes a deep dive into how the lecture was pieced together.

It is remarkable watching it these days to realise just how much easier and quicker it is to produce presentations of this quality using even a cheap laptop and the World Wide Web.

Photons will connect us

But that is part of the point here—the subject of this lecture was how light would transform how we communicate. Read the following which was written around 1982. How much did they get right?


Photons, not electrons, will connect us.

When we master these techniques we shall have a resource limited only by our own imagination.

And our imagination is already at work.

We know that we shall not just talk on the phone, but talk and see each other, too.

Send pictures.

Give doctors notes on patients miles from home.

The latest information on their subject.

We’ll do this, too, for engineers. For scientists. Lawyers. Architects and artists. Farmers and financiers. For students, too!

Send data as far and as fast as we wish.

Run dangerous processes from a safe distance.

We’ll shop from home if we like.

Order our goods.

Pay for them.

Book our holiday.

Or an evening out.

Check our balance in the bank!

Vote on vital issues.

Receive our newspapers electronically.

And our mail.

We’ll work, perhaps, from home.

We shall have as many television channels as there are human interests.

The disadvantages of distance will diminish.

And those of time.

We will communicate anything to anyone, anywhere.

With all the speed of light.


At the time that all sounded like science fiction from the future.

Well, now is the future.

Here is a photo of my front door in my wee house.

Photograph of front door. Poster on wall to left, fibre-optic cable box on right.
The Photon Connection—not just science fiction

On the left is The Photon Connection poster. On the right is the fibre-optics box that brings me the speed-of-light communications that this spectacular lecture from 1982/83 promised us.

I can make video calls and speak with my friends and family. I work from home thanks to this photon connection. I check my bank balance, order shopping and pay for it. I have access to as many TV channels as there are human interests.

It is extraordinary how much this lecture got right.

LEGO

A child lying behind a LEGO model of the Faraday lecture set, holding a leaflet.

After I had attended the lecture in Edinburgh, complete with behind-the-scenes tour of the set which took up to 12 hours to build or dismantle, I built my own interpretation of it in LEGO which Dad photographed and showed his colleagues the next time he was on tour with the lecture.

Photographs

Finally, a few photographs from my father’s collection.

Two men standing on stage. Above is a giant mirror, behind them an oblong screen with rounded corners with the title THE PHOTON CONNECTION.
David Brown and Keith Saunders on the set of The Photon Connection
Focus on lecturer standing behind a clear, perspex lectern.
STC’s Keith Saunders, presenting the company’s Faraday Lecture on the purpose-built transportable set, which incorporates an elaborate lighting system, together with multiple slide projection, 35mm film and stereo sound.
Two men looking down at the camera. Above them is a huge mirror, reflected on which is a matrix of lights.
David Brown and Keith Saunders beneath the large mirror that was a central aspect of the set
Group of workers helping to upright a long pole while they build the set of the Faraday Lecture.
“Up to 12 hours are needed to put up the set for the 1982/83 IEE Faraday Lecture, presented by Standard Telephone and Cables (STC) in 15 towns and cities during a six-month tour to celebrate the company’s centenary.
Man on ladder helping to connect two large metal poles.
“Equipment for Standard Telephones and Cables presentations of the 1982/83 IEE Faraday Lecture is taken from town to town in a 40-foot trailer during a six-month, 15-venue UK tour that celebrates the company’s centenary. Here part of the set is seen during assembly, which takes up to 12 hours.”

Thank you…

Dad was fiercely proud of being involved in this lecture.

He was also deeply honoured many years later, not long before he died, to be invited back to an IEE Faraday lecturers’ dinner in Glasgow when his co-lecturer now Sir David Brown presented the lecture again but this time when he was chairman of Motorola UK. It was about cellphones.

My Mum and I went with him. We were picked up in a black car and driven from Selkirk to Glasgow. We attended the lecture and the dinner and then were driven back home to Selkirk.

By that time, Dad was a shadow of the man he had been when he had strode confidently onto that Faraday stage in Edinburgh. Three brain haemorrhages on the Ides of March 1983 and the resultant brain scarring, polycystic kidney disease, and early signs of dementia had robbed him of a lot of his health and cognitive ability. He was in and out of respite facilities to give him a change of pace and to give my mum a break as she was his primary carer. A lot of his friends had drifted away. He felt quite isolated and alone. He had lost his job a few years after the brain haemorrhages and he was feeling a bit useless, a bit forgotten.

But here he was an honoured guest at this prestigious dinner. I think it was really the last moment in his life when he felt that he still shone a little. For that gracious and kind act of inclusion I will always be thankful to Sir David and I will always feel a sense of appreciation and gratitude to the IEE Faraday lecture.

That poster that is on the wall behind my front door is the only object from my parents’ estate that I wanted after they died. That’s how much it means to me.

So, David Robertson, Roger Bones, Sir David Brown, Dad’s other fellow lecturers and everyone else who was a part of this extraordinary experience—a very sincere thank you. Your kindness, professionalism and vision made an enormous impact then and they still have an impact today, forty years to the day after this remarkable tour kicked off in the city of my birth … even if it came to an abrupt halt five months later for Dad in the city of his birth.

But today, I give thanks and celebrate. And as the lecture closes, “Michael Faraday would be proud of us.”

Script

Here’s the full script for The Faraday Lecture 1982/83: “The Photon Connection” (PDF 76 KB)

Handbook for Teachers

Many thanks to Dr Dan Jones for sending me The Photon Connection Handbook for Teachers. I have scanned this to PDF, which you can download, below. (PDF, 2.6 MB)

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

One thought on “The Photon Connection—40 years on”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.