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Unless otherwise indicated all photos © Richard McKie 2005 - 2015

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My Inheritance

It will by now be obvious that I have not received a large financial inheritance.  This is good as it has saved me from having to put my money where my mouth is. 

I have long argued to anyone who would listen that financial inheritance is the enemy of the egalitarian ideal.  Narrowing the gap between rich and poor is not just some high ideal, it is essential for a modern consumer economy to reach its optimum performance and give work to those who want it.

I don't favour punitive taxes on the successful because I can see merit in rewarding endeavour.  But can't see any social benefit in subsequently rewarding people in the next generation with the benefits of rewards allowed to their forebears. There's no incentive in financial inheritance, except perhaps, to murder.  If anything, windfall wealth is likely to be a brake on individual striving. Worse, inheritance can be cumulative, creating dynasties.

We need an inheritance tax to pay for universal education and health so that every child gets a fair start in life together with a universal value added tax rather than a hodgepodge of avoidable income and company taxes. 

But the inheritance of ideas; values; knowledge; and expectation is another matter.

Unless a child is expected to succeed, to overcome rather than succumb, they will have great difficulty in life.  Unless they learn that human knowledge is ever expanding, one grain on top of another, there is a risk that they will think that everything is already known.  Unless they know that all ideas are just human ideas and they are human and with application can possess any of them too, there is a risk that they will think that only geniuses can program a computer or understand Einstein or speak another language. 

Both my father and uncle became electrical engineers like their father and their uncle.  Both moved their families to Australia.  Margaret and Joan stayed and or went home to Newcastle upon Tyne where they each married and each had one daughter and each were soon widowed.  Jim also had girls ending the McKie name in that strand of the family - but not the genes or memes.  I also had girls and thought that my brother Peter's son Daniel would be the only one to carry the name forward.  But by a twist of fate my grandson is Leander McKie.

Stephen McKie's sons were encouraged to use tools and their brains as he had been by his father.  It wasn't so we could become inventors or mechanics or even engineers.  It was so we could experience the satisfaction of making things; of understanding how things work; and discovering something new. The joy of creation.

That was why, one very early Christmas, Santa Clause left a tent in the room with the tree and in it was a big black wooden tool box with RSM written on the top and real tools inside - not plastic toys.  Anyway we didn't have plastic then, except Bakelite.

I had those tools well into adulthood.  The Tool Box eventually became our combined Meccano box when Peter and I had stopped fighting over such things.

One thing I made with those tools was a put-put boat. Stephen made the first one to show me the principle.  You cut both ends off a can then cut the cylinder down the side seam to flatten out a bit of tinplate and you fashion it into a boat - I won't bore you with how to cut the metal.  Then you put a big copper soldering iron on the gas and with a brush paint the joints you will be soldering with Baker's Fluid (flux).  When the boat is soldered and tested for leaks you fit the engine - six inches of 1/8 inch OD soft copper tube...  That's all I'll tell you or it'll get boring.  The main point is that at a very early age both Peter and I were encouraged make such things out of sharp metal using adult tools like tinsnips, soldering irons and a hand brace and to burn methylated spirits to run them.

Another year Santa left an electric train set on wide gauge rails.  It stopped and started when the signal lights changed, thanks to a relay, signal lights and a switch that Santa had installed to automate it.  The train was the victor in the 'great train crash of 1954' with Colin Spencer's wind-up one and then with Peter's.  Somehow they got on the same track going in the opposite direction.

In due course the broken trains got relegated to a box somewhere and then the tip.  But the train had a variable-voltage transformer that lasted for years, it ran my Meccano motor and figured in lots of experiments, for example with my electro-magnet.

Daddy had bought me a spiral notebook like one for shorthand in which he would make wonderful sketches or simplified engineering drawings explaining how things worked and the basic laws I needed to understand radio components sufficiently well to build circuits or understand lenses or any other subject I wanted to know about or he though I might find interesting.  And we had a well thumbed 'Machinery's Handbook'.

Later at university I realised that a lot of what I had learned was 'rule of thumb' and lacked academic rigour.  But the thing was, it worked.  And the simple version was perfect for a little boy who just wanted to wind a coil or build a radio or to electrocute his teacher (a tale told elsewhere).

Around the time Aunty Joan was in Australia so I was eight or nine 'Santa' gave me 'My Amplifier'.   This was a box maybe eighteen inches wide and high and nine inches deep (500x500x250 in today's length).  Made out of pale wood and 3 ply and nicely clear lacquered to a golden colour.  Behind a grill at the top right was mounted a loud speaker and below to a volume knob that was also the off switch.  Down the left hand side was a long strip of spring loaded plastic terminals, of the kind that you can in clip a wire into.  The bottom pair were black and provided 6.3 V AC for valve heaters. Above them was a green earth terminal and then a yellow audio input.  The red terminals above provided a range of potentially dangerous DC voltages (a fortuitous pun) to drive one or more valves.  It had no back, or maybe I took it off, so I could watch the heaters in valves that drove it glow red, if the 'pop' the loudspeaker gave was not enough.  As my small hand approached the yellow terminal a slight hum got louder and louder.

On that Christmas day I plugged in my crystal set and instantly had my own radio.

Cars were another thing we needed to know about.  When he was twelve my father was told that if he learned to service his stepfather's car he could drive it. 

Long before I was old enough to drive my father asked me to stop an oil leak by removing the tappet covers from our car and replacing the gaskets.  Disappointingly, there was no promise that I might drive that car and I never did.  The job was simple: just unbolt the tappet covers from the side of the car's straight-eight side-valve engine block; clean the pressed steel covers in kerosene; cut-out new cork gaskets; gasket-glue them in place and re-bolt them.  A child could and did do it.

I received high praise from one and all, several adults being invited to look into the engine compartment, to view my handiwork, with appropriate oohs and ahs of approbation while privately thinking: 'at least the stupid kid I might make a motor mechanic'. 

When I was around ten or eleven, with more encouragement from my father, I began repairing old radios.

I have an early Marconi radio valve in which one can clearly see a series of grids between the cathode (the white bar at the centre) and anode (the outer metal drum-like component). There are three fine wire screens or grids each created by a spiral of wire supported on two vertical bars rising from the glass base (as in a light bulb). The outer suppressor grid is just inside the anode, followed by the screen grid and finally the control grid, close to the cathode. The little knob on the side is for connecting to the screen grid so the valve could directly plug-replace an earlier triode.  New screen circuitry would be added by a radio technician and connected to this side terminal.

Pentodes and even more complex multi-grid valves became the workhorses of the electronics industry and were the active component in amplifiers and radios, and then TV, for the next 50 years.  Some audiophiles still love them.

This one came from a very old radio that was beyond repair that I bought for parts with pocket money. The other valves had blown or been broken.  It is very early has a 4.0 volt heater (filament) so it was incompatible in circuits with later valves that soon standardised on 6.3V heaters, but it was beautiful and I've kept it ever since.

 

 

Marconi MTP4 Pentode-s

Marconi MTP4 Pentode-data1932
G Marconi data sheet from 1932
It's part of a new valve series specially for AC Mains (alternating current supply)
Note the modern data presentation style - this is ground-breaking technology
A cost of 25/- in 1932 is equivalent to $111 each at today's values
(Australian Reserve Bank Inflation Calculator)
Relatively, a whole radio receiver cost about the same as a wide-screen television receiver today

 

 

You may have noticed that the operating anode voltage is 250 volts. The supply rail voltage in later sets was often as high as 330V. My transceiver, mentioned elsewhere ran at 500V.  And of course TV voltages were very high.  Repairing these radios as a boy required working at these potentially lethal voltages.

After taking the chassis it out of its case and an inspection for things obviously burnt broken or loose my next fault-finding step was to turn it on to see if all the heaters were on and check that no grids or anodes were getting red hot.  I got very good at it.  I diagnosed the fault in a friends mom's radio and to her consternation had it working again in minutes - a brief moment of fame.  I've lost count of how many old radios and TV's in cheap hotel rooms I've temporally got going with a scrap of wire, foil or insulating tape.

Since being introduced to radios at a young age I've never paid much attention to warnings about opening an appliance.  I've a healthy respect for the danger but can perfectly well identify the dangerous areas and treat them accordingly.

On paper it looks like a miracle that Peter and I were not injured in some way. There were a lot of dangerous things around.  But the thing was, we knew they were very dangerous so we were extra cautious. 

We grew up with cautionary tales.  Like the one when a fellow at CA Parsons research attempted to make some nitro-glycerine but unsure if he had succeeded dropped his test-tube-full out of the second storey window.  He blew-out all the downstairs windows and terminated his employment.  We were invited to consider what he should have done instead, like putting a drop on an anvil and remotely dropping a suspended weight on it.  It was assumed that at some point we might face this dilemma.   

So we never attempted to set-off suspected explosives, or a home made rocket, without a long wick or wire around the corner of the house. On more than one occasion this turned out to be very good practice.  Similar stories related to poisons (most of the chemicals in the house) and potential carcinogens (like any chemical with a benzene ring), high voltages, unstable loads and structures and shonky car supports (jacks, stands and so on).

I was recently telling someone of the cautionary experiment when Stephen put a little ether on a saucer on our kitchen floor to show it spontaneously catch fire - careful the flames are hard to see.  This was because we had a gas refrigerator in our kitchen then.  As soon as the vapour from the saucer rose high enough, the gas pilot light caused the fame to flash back to the saucer.  To this day I consider nearby flames when using solvents and was amused years later when a friend's petrol soaked overalls blew-up his parent's laundry.

As a result, we were generally more cautious than most when it came to these things.

And so one generation sets the scene for the next. But there are some traditions that do get broken.

Looking back over this partial list, I wonder why I've not followed directly in my father's footsteps.  Sure I've always wanted to know how things work and have enjoyed making my version of some of them.  After all they are made by other human beings and must be comprehensible, even, as Pooh would say: 'to a bear of very little brain'. 

But my brother Peter has been more like our father and perhaps his grandfather.  He's always designed and built and invented. 

Peter has half a dozen patents in the US and has successfully defended at least one patent there, where there is a much more rigorous examination process but then the onus is on the infringer to prove their innocence. It probably helps that someone called Steven Spielberg is cited as co-inventor on several to do with the film industry - for example have a look at: Dolly track switch (US D401951 S)

I too have had a couple of tilts at a patent. The last was over two decades ago. I made the application then I thought better of it.  The potential cost was high and the lousy Australian protection, with the onus on the patent holder to prove validity, means that they are effectively indefensible if infringed by someone with deeper pockets.  It was for an intelligent learning system using bar-coded multiple choice booklets (WO1993017407 A1).  The hardware is a smart bar-code reader designed by Leon Dearden.  I designed the rest, including the functional design and the firmware specification, the barcodes, their encryption and the coding protocols.   Like all patents there was a brief window of opportunity that has closed now.

I've probably been closer to emulating my Uncle Jim. Mind you, I did once see him down a manhole in a Sydney street examining a cable joint and I briefly thought that he worked on the cable joints himself. 

Apart from a brief time at the British Iron and Steel Research Association and British Steel laboratories at Battersea in London or as a cadet in BHP steelworks then visiting customers, I've generally had a desk job.  Like Jim I had daughters who, I think, are not as easy to enthuse about physics and related engineering as the boys in out family seem to have been. 

 

image032
Me  - almost two - learning about currents and voltage

 

I was encouraged to think about electricity from a very early age.

The photograph of me playing with water was taken when I was two years old in Newcastle upon Tyne in England, in the summer of 1947 before we came to Australia. 

I don't know when the flow of electricity was first likened to water but when I was not much older we had a wonderful demonstration of water-power in our laundry in Thornleigh on the, then semi-rural, outskirts of Sydney.  

The clothes were first washed in hot soapy water in a gas heated 'Copper' then transferred to the 'spinner' before the first rinse in the large double laundry tubs.  They were then spun again before the second rinse; and again before being hung out.

Beneath the spinning drum was a water turbine.  Thus the spinner worked entirely from water pressure (and flow).  No electricity was involved.  The water used for spinning the drum was then saved in the tubs for rinsing - but it wasn't a huge amount.    Here was a demonstration both of how water from a dam could spin an alternator and simultaneously of pressure and flow - voltage and current.

Later we got a washing machine, with an electric motor driven wringer. But my mother still liked the 'spinner' for delicate things.

When we moved from that house we got an automatic machine but we all missed the 'Copper'.  My mother thought there was no substitute for actually boiling the sheets and nightclothes if there was a childish infection in the house. It was also great for all sorts of boyhood experiments; as well as for dying fabrics; cooking hams and Christmas puddings and sterilising bottles for jam.  The high volume gas outlet was great for filling big balloons; with the aid of the garden hose and a pump.

Thanks to Stephen, and things like this, I understood water power perfectly well; as an analogy for electricity, certainly well before the age of seven.  

I knew the pressure was due to the height of the water in the local header reservoir (relative to the height of our tap); in turn due to the energy supplied by the pumping station.  

The main pumping station was coal-fired and a local point of interest as we drove past. It was on Victoria Road near West Ryde Station.  Today water (and sewerage) is pumped using electric motors.

Family outings, with my Uncle's family, or with the Spencer's next door, were often to the various dams around Sydney.  My uncle was an expert in high voltage gas-filled cables.  John Spencer was an engineer with Sydney Tramways.

Conversations ran to dams and bridges and high voltage transmission and generation as well as the stupidity, born of ignorance, of several other professions.

By the age of nine I had graduated past crystal sets and the addition of a simple triode amplifier and was on the way to repairing and modifying five and six-valve superheterodyne (superhet) radios.  

These had only around two dozen important components to be checked with a multimeter (my most prized possession); and usually the fault was immediately obvious. But because there is a local oscillator and at least two intermediate frequency (IF) filters they could easily get out of alignment; and fixing this could take me many happy hours to get just right. 

There was also the matter of the high tension 'rail' that typically ran at between 200 and 400 volts DC; delivering a very nasty shock. Retribution for a silly mistake also took the form of sparks, smoke, or red-hot anodes. 

A little while later, when in high school, I ran my bedside light in series with a large oil filled non-polar capacitor that I had picked-up in a disposals store for a few shillings.  As current builds before voltage this had a negative phase angle of close to 90o and thus failed to register more than a few watts on the electricity meter.  It was dimmed but hundred watt bulb still gave more than 30 watts of free light; not that I paid the bill. I did it just because I could.  Another valuable lesson about electricity.  But I suspect that it's not legal.

At University I initially enrolled in Electrical Engineering but the challenge of advanced mathematics, combined with a new and exciting social environment following my release from an all-boys school, soon caused me to opt for Philosophy (for wisdom) and Economics (for economics - a future job) instead.  So I graduated in Arts with contributions from some unusual engineering and science units.  But technical things still occupied me.  I built my own sound systems and to those tinkering I soon added computers.

After jobs in Government and the Steel industry in Australia Brenda and I moved to London where I got a job as a Research Officer at the British Iron and Steel Research Association (BISRA) in the Battersea research laboratories.  Industrial action by coal miners and the first oil crisis, resulting in a three day week in the UK to conserve electricity, were still fresh in our minds.  So energy was an urgent subject for analysis - resulting in a forward looking report examining energy futures for the steel industry. 

Returning to Sydney several years later my new employer, the State Government, was putting together a 'NSW Economy Study Group'. I was seconded to write the Iron and Steel report.  The group, that included some of the most prominent names in future government, looked at everything from transport to land use and of course, electricity.  After months of work a foot-and-a-half thick pile of reports was proudly presented to then Premier Neville Wran.  He took one look at the far-reaching recommendations and ordered the entire thing to be shredded.  The Study Group was quietly dispersed.

I was off to the State's office in New York as Industrial Adviser, talking to US and Canadian firms to encourage them to consider investment in NSW industry.

Soon I would become a father and everything would be richer. The following forty or so years are far too rich and complex to report here. Suffice it to say that my career has been largely chosen to satisfy my particular interests and has always retained a technical and increasingly a computing element. 

By the time my children were old enough for their first crystal set the world had moved on and they had a much more reliable and simple germanium diode to replace the cat's whisker.  But it was hard to get the commitment required to string up aerials and make a good earth, when they'd grown up with radio on demand; their own VHS tapes; and colour TV.

Emily had early video games and a very primitive computer that used an audio tape to load and save programs and data.  At one stage a similar computer drove an early robot arm.

 

 Programming robot
From the DIDD Staff Newsletter  - July 1985 - a different robot is pictured on the right
The small demonstration robot fascinated the general public
All it did was sit in the window and move blocks around from one pile to another all day
But it had a shielding flaw - sometimes when a cab pulled up outside and used the radio the robot got epilepsy
Blocks could go flying - then a human had to put the blocks back in their starting places and reset it

 

The demonstration robot came as a kit - in a hundred or so pieces. After delegating its assembly to an engineer on my team with no result except some broken components, I took it home and built it myself.  Repairing the damage then devising an amusing sequence of block piles and swaps for a continuous program loop, repeating every ten minutes or so, kept me amused for quite a few evenings.  Emily loved it too.

Julia grew up with quite sophisticated computers and the older children playing computer games.  She could boot up and open the games she liked not long after she could talk.  The supervisors at after-school-care, when she was in kindergarten, relied on her to boot-up the machine.  She liked to optimise virtual racing cars, and later, populate her own zoo before moving on to Sim City then The Sims, controlling the lives of computer generated people. 

Nevertheless they both, somewhat reluctantly, helped make a crystal set and used them long enough to confirm that they worked.  They both had electronics kits as well and learnt to solder.  Julia, also somewhat reluctantly, inserted components and did most of the soldering for a kit robot that used light sensors and simple electronic switches on a microchip, emulating neurons, to follow a trail of black tape stuck to the floor.

Later Julia and I built her first computer by replacing the mother board and CPU in an old case; adding a used hard drive; a video card and so on, before configuring the whole thing.  She then maintained it until she got a better offer.

I never expected them to have to afford a good HiFi system by building it themselves, as my father and I both did.  I fear that the whole field of radio and TV as a hobby has gone the way of the Dodo. I don't even repair things with an obvious fault now because it will very likely cost more than a new one.  I've even thrown away a printer rather than buy new ink for it. The new one cost less.

But my children and step-children know their way around contemporary technology, particularly their phones that seem to be repaired and patched up regularly.  An inventive streak has been passed on.

So we come to the nature or nurture debate.  Perhaps engineering aptitude something on that McKie Y chromosome.  For example, Peter's son Daniel McKie is also an industrial designer and manufacturing manager, despite being separated from his father during much of his upbringing.

If it is a Y chromosome thing it doesn't account for the girls' technical aptitude.  Likewise, my father's sister Joan originally worked in the office at CA Parsons before becoming a nurse during the War and my cousin Pamela, Jim's daughter, became a radiographer.

My daughter Emily is now an Engineer and Julia has graduated in Medical Science but is not quite sure what to do with it.  At the time of writing she is about to undertake a post-graduate studies in computer science.  Her half-brother Lachlan, with no genetic link to me, has a PhD in Marine Science but I might claim some influence as far as High School.

As Julia would no doubt tell me there is a lot to our genetic inheritance beyond the Y chromosome.  It carries a mere handful of our genes. And as we all know, family resemblance goes well beyond the sex of a child.

It's possible that my father was mildly dyslexic. My father, my brother and I all had great difficulty learning to spell.  On the other hand we had little or no difficulty with grammar, comprehension or vocabulary - just don't ask us to spell it.  I can handwrite, equally poorly, almost as fast backwards (mirror writing) with my left as forwards with my right - it's a party trick.

In compensation for poor spelling, at least the last two generations of McKie males were born with excellent mechanical comprehension and spatial perception.  We have all conceived of and build entirely novel devices and novel solutions to a range of practical problems.  I would go so far as to say that my father was, and my brother is, exceptional in this area.

Likewise Jim, Stephen's brother was inventive and is cited in at least one patent, for a cable connector, as a co-inventor.  He was naturally left handed but, like me, he could use right handed tools, like scissors, with dexterity and most other tools in either hand. I don't know if he could do my mirror-writing party trick.

I once thought that everyone could do this, I have a hand preference for most tasks but I just change hands if that one gets tired or if you want to do the other side, like when drawing a picture, cleaning your teeth or shaving.  I have since discovered that some people can't even use a screwdriver or a spanner or turn a tap with the other hand.  That inability could be environmental but, like left-handedness, its probably genetic.

So to what degree are my ideas inherited from my father and in turn handed on to those I helped to bring up?   After summarising his technical and artistic accomplishments my mother said of him in her eulogy to him:

All of this was shared with Richard and Peter as they grew up, together with his broad philosophy of life, love of animals, music and art and huge enjoyment of debate on almost any subject. It was said of the McKies that what in other families would be a knock- down argument was to them a friendly discussion!!

As I have said elsewhere my mother was also a great influence. She too was always very handy. The daughter of a plumber.  As I said in my eulogy to her:

She could cook and sew very well and we once timed her knitting and found that she was faster than the Australian champion (as published). She had a special technique, learned on the ship returning from Canada. At first she knitted, crocheted and sewed out of necessity, later she added needle point and did it out of love.

She was always an avid reader, getting through a book every few days, and I have an image of her on the couch feet curled under her reading and occasionally letting out a laugh. My father would say ‘someone’s just fallen off a cliff’. He claimed she only laughed at disasters. But in fact she had a fine sense of humour, even if the joke was a little off colour. I would never dare tell my father the sort of joke that I would tell my mother. She had read Miller; and Lawrence; and Roth. She was difficult to shock.

She was always interested in music and drama. She acted in amateur productions and subscribed to seats either for the orchestra or ballet for most of her life, introducing both my daughters to plays and ballet at an early age.

She claimed that her beloved father was her greatest influence but then, why was she so like her mother? 

Similarly, my father said his step-father was a great influence, yet he followed in his natural-father's footsteps.  He was seven when his father died.  As the Jesuit motto says: 'Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man' (attributed to Francis Xavier).

Elsewhere I have said that the family religion is most often handed down by one's mother.  My mother, like most mothers, was the font of religion in the family and so we were initially High Church Anglican.  But she fell out with the local Low Church minister, stopped going to Church and then fell out with religion altogether.   She read too much and had seen too much during the War to be an avid believer in an all-loving God. My epiphany, when I realised all religion was just  man-made myths was hers too.

My father wasn't a regular churchgoer and seemed not to know what to do in Church, he mumbled hymns and always wanted to avoid giving offence.  He would tell us that he believed that death is final - there is nothing after - everything goes black.  But he would add that no one can really know and you should have whatever religion suits you best.  His brother Jim, a vocal unbeliever, had somehow become one of my Godfathers. The other was killed in heroic circumstances.  At my confirmation he gave me a Bible that I still have and have since used as a reference on numerous occasions. It's inscribed 'To Richard from Uncle Jim 5th October 1961'. Their sister Margaret married a clergyman and I think Joan may have gone to church in Australia, but Jane might correct me.

 

Comments  

# Cynth 2015-12-21 00:47
Hello, A really interesting and thoughtful account of the McKie Family in Northumberland, thank you. I have been trying to see if there is any family/friend/o ccupation connection with my line. I have Ann Watson wife of William Finlay occupation groom with a death registration in 1871 in Bath Road. They are registered in Darlington in the 1871 census, and Newcastle in 1861. Any snippets that you think maybe useful would be gratefully appreciated. I did find a George McKie bap Newcastle 1829 to William McKie and Margaret Davison. Any information would be gratefully appreciate Kind Regards, Cynth.
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# Susan Stone 2016-10-19 09:11
Hello,
I inherited a stuffed toy from my long deceased step-grand mother. It is a siamese cat, name of Oddy McKie. he wears a collar with an address tag attached:
Oddy McKie
May 1959
Coplin, 2 The Rise,
Old Hartley - which I see is now part of Newcastle
I would love to find out more about my step grandmother, name of Elisabeth 'Bettie' Stone
and I assume née McKie

Richard's Reply:
Hi Susan
I've looked through my documents and can find no lead to Bettie or her toy cat Oddy.
Maybe one of my cousins can shed some light on this?
My mother's family always called the principal cat 'Jiggers' so maybe 'Oddy' is a family name?
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# Trish Taylor 2017-01-30 18:23
Hi Richard

It's me, your English cousin, Patricia. I'm amazed at what I've just come across whilst messing around on the internet, as one does! Seeing our family history and photos pop up on the screen out of the blue is surreal!
Will be in touch again when I've had a chance to digest all the information. Trish.
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