Did you know that the father of automated mass production was British? During World II, John Sargrove worked on the mass-production of electronic valves. He was sure he could automate the production of complete radio sets.

In 1944 he set up Sargrove Electronics in a village hall at Effingham in Surrey. Within two years, ECME, the Electronic Circuit Making Equipment was working. A 20 metre production line produced 1500 two-valve radio circuits in eight hours. The circuitry was printed onto an insulating board, with resistors deposited by spraying. Each PCB had 15 fixed-value capacitors, two variable capacitors and two valve sockets. All were automatically soldered into position by mechanical hands controlled by electromagnetic relays and valve circuitry. Humans were needed only to plug in the valves and “tweak” pre-sets.

Between 1947 and 1949, Sargrove’s factory designed “master brains” to automate other industrial processes. A “magic eye” monitored the output of an electric sewing machine, and counted screws, pins and buttons, as they fell into cartons. Other master brains shut down machinery in a cotton mill when a thread broke, matched the colour of rosary beads, sorted good from bad coffee beans, and checked the size of dough lumps on a conveyor leading to a baker’s oven.

In the early 1950s Sargrove tried to automate the production of TV receivers. “Don’t get the idea that we are out to rob people of their jobs,” he assured. “Our task is to liberate men and women from being slaves of machines… automation means redeployment not unemployment. It relieves people of monotonous jobs so that they can do more interesting work”.

But the unions were wary and government aid dried up. There was always at least one faulty valve or relay holding up the line. The factory closed and Sargrove died in 1974 just as the Japanese started to make automation a way of life.