Audrey Wood: Oxford Instruments

Martin and Audrey Wood recall the early days of the Oxford Instruments company.

MW: Gosh, it’s terribly different. [laughs] It’s very much bigger, full of machines, a lot of it was hand worked. Well I don’t have to bow my head under the beams of the workshop we used to work in. It’s fantastic. And not only just the space, but all the machinery and the equipment here.

AW: We used to have second hand lathes and about six people working there. And here you’ve got hundreds, well not in this particular factory, but all over the place, there are hundreds.

MW: And the equipment is so much better. In the old days we required – the first really good employee was an old elderly man who had worked in the physics department in Oxford and was used to using old equipment and old lathes, doing a lot of our hand, and he made the most fantastic things now, which takes a lifetime of work in a laboratory to do. Young people coming along, they go through school, they’re very good, but they’re more used to modern machines, and it’s very nice, very pleasing, but it’s very different to what it used to be.

AW: At the beginning, which was ’59, it was just you and me and this retired technician, in our garden shed. And that was even smaller.

MW: And that was all very secondhand equipment.

AW: The first fulltime employee only came in ’63. ’63, a long way back. But the first few years were just us. But after ’63 of course we were into superconductors by then, and into cryogenics, and so this equipment here, all this cryogenic equipment you can see around, is more familiar, although it was much smaller then. These big magnets, although we could turn them out in the garden shed, because they things that you could wind on – well we borrowed the winding machine from the university, ‘cause they weren’t using it then, to wind these magnets. And then, you know, it was quite big equipment. We made the cases out of fibreglass, ‘cause those were easier to do and you could, I could lay out fibreglass.

MW: I think we make it – got more attention to how it looks, it’s not much that they really feel they want to make it look good, but they’re brought up with apprenticeships and all that, everything they make does look good, whereas in the early days, how the equipment’s going to look was just – didn’t figure in, as long at it worked.

AW: But there did come a point where we learnt that physicists liked their equipment to look good as well as to work [laughs]. And I think maybe they’re part of the same thing.

MW: It’s easier to sell too. Yes. If your equipment looks good, somehow, whatever the selling processes is, is much easier. Whereas before the scientist who was going to use it used to come along and when we mentioned a price he said, ‘Oh my God,’ you know, ‘can’t we make it a bit cheaper,’ everything was to making things cheaper and simple. Looks really didn’t come into it.

AW: The differences are most marked because of course when we started it was just the two of us, and a shed at the bottom of the garden, and this old technician who came in occasionally. But now there are, well you can see, there are hundreds of people in a large factory, and this is only one of quite a lot of different places in the world, about thirty I think, isn’t it?  Well I think the people are all as friendly as they used to be. I think the – we started with a certain ethos in the company and I think it’s kept it all along. It’s a very inclusive company now, and although it’s got much, much bigger, it’s still got the same spirit it used to have. And people are full enthusiasm, and they’re very intelligent people. I think the whole – all along we have depended on people being very intelligent and innovative.

MW: In many ways it’s much the same, I think. It may not look the same, but the thinking of the people behind the benches, the relationship they have with the user, who many come in from Australia or Moscow or somewhere, and see the equipment being made, all that is the same.

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