The British are inventive, but can't do mass production. An old cliché, but sadly still trueby Richard Lambert / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
The story of British business over the past 100 years is littered with missed opportunities. World-class technology has been casually abandoned, and the innovations of British scientists have lain unexploited at home. There is no more spectacular example than the case of Godfrey Hounsfield, the man who came up with one of the most important advances in medical diagnostics of the past 100 years, who died in August.
Hounsfield was the archetypal British boffin. He became a fellow of the Royal Society and won a Nobel prize for science without having taken a university degree. A radar mechanic in the war, he was by the 1950s working in the laboratories of EMI. It was, he wrote later, “a very relaxed place to do original thinking.”
The company seldom made much money out of the stream of innovations which came out of these laboratories: high-resolution televisions in the 1930s, airborne radar during the war, a motorised bicycle wheel in 1950, computers and robotics in the following two decades. Hounsfield himself had worked on Britain’s first solid-state business computer, and it was on a country ramble in 1967 that he hit on the idea of the computerised tomography X-ray scanner, using sophisticated computer analysis to generate three-dimensional X-ray scans.
EMI was slow to recognise the possibilities: Hounsfield had to scrounge bits of discarded machinery for the first prototypes, and the project might have been abandoned if the department of health had not come up with £5,000 at a crucial moment. But as excitement about the possibilities spread through the medical community, the company turned full circle and proceeded on a reckless path to the marketplace.
EMI had no experience of the medical equipment business and by far the biggest market for the scanner was in the US. Rather than seeking a strong local partner, it decided to go full blast into the most competitive marketplace in the world, building a full-scale manufacturing operation.
It seems that this fatal decision was never approved by EMI’s directors. But then, in the words of a company historian, “Given the background and experience of the board, and the diversity of EMI’s activities, it is debatable whether they were in any position to make an informed decision.”
So it came as a surprise to EMI to find, after great initial success, that America was very ungentlemanly when it came to patent protection, and that the US…