Wright's Aerials

The curious and ultimately sad tale of the man who re-invented the squarial

Take a look at this

OK, that's a squarial. It's just a flat panel SHF aerial. Under the plastic cover is a large number of tiny dipoles and a complex arrangement of waveguides. It’s like a whole lot of low-gain aerials all connected together with perfect phasing and matching to make one high gain array. In other words, it’s a fiendish thing to design and make. There was moment in the history of this great nation when it seemed that we would all have a squarial. The market would be immense. Fortunes would be made.

One day I got a call. I couldn't understand what the hell the bloke was gabbling on about, but he didn't live very far away so I thought I'd go and have a look at him. He turned out to be just about the most energetic, dynamic, enthusiastic, charismatic person I'd ever met. And also one of the biggest pains in the arse. When I looked in his workshop I couldn't believe my eyes. He had bought half a dozen squarials (and they were very expensive at the time) and took them to bits! He was measuring, and photographing, and drawing them. I warmed to him, even if he did seem a bit mad. He told me that he was going to make a squarial out of plastic. It would cost one tenth as much as the aluminium ones to produce, so he would be a millionaire by this time next week – well, you know, that sort of talk. The idea was to make the complicated waveguide assembly out of plastic, then coat it in some metal or other. The rest ‘would be simple’. A few weeks later I got another call. The prototype was ready. Would I help him test it?

I thought it would be light, since it was made out of plastic, but it weighed more than a normal squarial. It was bigger as well. I said, “That's cheating,” but the Man said the finished product would be the same size as a squarial “and a tenth the cost!” I installed a standard BSB dish, measured the signal levels, and then put the LNB on the prototype, securing it with gaffer tape. The device had no fixings, so all I could do was rest it in a baby bath that was to hand. I fiddled about for ages but I couldn't get any signal at all. The Man wasn't too concerned. “I know what's wrong!” he declared. “Can you come back tomorrow?”

The next day the thing did actually work, but it was about 3dB behind a dish that was half the size. I got paid and I more or less forgot about the whole business, until one day the Man called. Could I help with a demonstration? He assured me that the device had been much improved, so I agreed to help, mainly because curiosity got the better of my good sense.

A week later I turned up at his factory, where he made plastic garden furniture. The ‘much improved’ device was wheeled out. To my astonishment it even bigger than the first version, which made it far, far, bigger than the ‘official’ squarial. Other than that it looked the same as the first version, grey and messy, three inches thick, and it was as heavy as hell. This time though, there was at least a simple fixing bracket on the rear. I’d been told that the demonstration was to be at noon. I looked at my watch. Half past ten, so there was plenty of time to muck about with the thing and get the best out of it. The Man gave me a box which turned out to contain a strange LNB – a bulky thing of a type I'd never seen before, with a polariser bolted to the front. He told me that the people the demonstration was being held for had sent it, with instructions that it was to be used with the new device. I said, “Well OK, there’s time to try it at any rate.” The Man looked alarmed, and glancing at his watch said, “There’s only half an hour to go you know!” It turned out that he’d decided on noon and told me, then when he’d informed his visitors they’d wanted it at eleven, so he’d brought it forward and then forgotten to let me know. I hastily gaffer taped the strange LNB in place, and forgot about it.

I'd taken a portable mast stand, but the fixing bracket on the rear of the panel turned out to be virtually useless so I wrapped a lot of gaffer tape around it. I rigged the whole thing up in the factory yard, together with a BSB box and a telly. The device was no better than before – in fact it was worse! I looked with dismay at the D-mac pictures, which were extremely sparkly and wouldn’t keep in sync.

The demonstration was going to be a major event. There was a hospitality tent full of booze, grub, and rather amateurish publicity material for the device. A lot of people were milling about looking anxious. When they saw the terrible reception on the telly they looked even more anxious. One thin youth as good as accused me of not aligning the device properly. The Man himself came and made bleating noises. Everyone had a suggestion to make.

“They'll be here soon!” whimpered the Man. "Would it work better if you put it higher? Shall we lift the stand onto a tea chest?

“Who are ‘they’?” I asked. It turned out that he'd managed to interest a major US satellite dish manufacturer. ‘They’ were executives from Chicago, come especially all the way to this dirty little backstreet factory in South Yorkshire to see the new miracle flat panel antenna. I was the bloke who was going to demonstrate the said new miracle flat panel antenna. The only slight problem was, the damn thing didn't work.

“Did you not think it would have been a good idea for us to test it properly before today?” I asked the man.

“No time, no time!” he whimpered.

“Why doesn't it work, anyway?” I asked.

“Oh, it's the shrinkage in the plastic when it cools. It goes beyond the tolerance of the waveguides. All I need to do is shave a bit off the mould here and there and it will be perfect. To be honest, I thought it was perfect now. I can’t understand why it isn’t working very well.”

“Huh! Well it's a pity you didn't do it properly before you set this farce up!” He walked away, and I felt a bit cruel.

At that moment five scruffy Doncaster cabs chugged into the oily car park. As the doors opened I could hear American voices with the characteristic whine that US citizens often adopt when they are in Britain. Something about 'Goddam crappy train service -- and they call that First Class goddamit!' and 'Goddam dirty train station covered in crap' and 'They don't know what service is in this goddam country, Hiram!'

As the besuited executives took in their new surroundings the subject of the whines changed and their tenor became even more acerbic. I heard the expression ‘shit tip’ as they disappeared into the marquee to dodge the drizzle. My instinct to leg it become very strong, but the gates had been closed now the cabs had gone. I turned in some panic to my technical responsibilities. As I tried to make a minute adjustment to the panel alignment I somehow managed to shove the damned great heavy thing right round and a signal of some sort appeared. The picture wouldn't lock but to my astonishment when I fiddled about it came up much better, and I could discern a swarthy gentleman with what appeared to be a tea towel on his head, apparently reading the news. I never thought I'd be so pleased to see an Arab. Now, the only thing that a BSB squarial or dish would receive was BSB. It was all to do with polarity. BSB signals were right-hand-circular polarisation, and this, we were assured, ensured that reception in the UK was ‘isolated’ from foreign signals. Don’t want good British chaps and chapesses seeing Johnnie Foreigner on the telly, do we? But the signal with the exotic looking newsreader looked pretty good to me. I peered quizzically at the LNB, and then I had a brainy thought. As it happened I had a very good satellite receiver in the van, an NEC that had cost £400, with variable video bandwidth and all sorts of other gimmicks. Of course it was a standard PAL (as opposed to D-mac) receiver. I whipped it out and put it in place of the BSB box. I now had a picture that was sparkly, but at least it would stand up. It wasn’t as good as it would have been if I’d used a dish two-thirds the size of the panel though. To my delight I realised that I had found 13deg E. The receiver was programmed for that satellite, the LNB was plane polarised and even without any drive the mechanical polariser had reverted to the mid-position, which I optimised by twisting the whole thing round. Just what was happening inside the panel regarding polarity I had no idea. All I knew was that I had now got far better reception, even if there wasn't an English voice to be heard. I turned down the sound, but the scenes were mostly palm trees and sand. The LNB had a standard 10GHz LO, and I could get about five channels, but they were all foreign. I considered refitting my BSB circularly polarised LNB and trying again for 31deg W, but I only considered it for a millisecond or two. There just wasn’t time, and anyway, sod it! I could hear the Man's voice coming from the tent, extolling the virtues of his invention, though with a little less confidence than was customary. Any minute now I would be surrounded by quizzical, abrasive, argumentative, hard-nosed, rude, Americans. No, Tea Towel Television would have to do.

 The herd of suits spilt out of the tent and headed my way. They gathered round, now unconcerned by the drizzle. The Man hurried across ashen faced. But when he caught a glimpse of the TV picture he did a classic double-take, just like someone on a corny old film, and his colour started to return. I stood there quietly, maintaining a low profile. The drizzle seemed all-pervasive, and despite the fairly clear pictures of the Arab I found myself wishing very fervently that I was somewhere else -- say at the dentist's having a tooth pulled, or in the arse doctor's office having 24 inches of stainless steel camera shoved — but I closed down that chain of thought quickly. The suits surrounded me and my equipment, and a few questions started to come. The Man stood just behind the suits, his mouth half open, his eyes wide open, his expression one of disbelief mixed with cautious rapture. At that moment I decided what to do. You know that moment? The instant when events have reached a momentous cusp; when it's do or die; pull the rip cord or . . . err . . . don't pull the rip cord? I knew at that instant that I would have to tell a lie.

 I tapped the mast with my spanner to quieten the mob. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” I said in a loud clear voice, which I heard through a sort of aural mist. “You are privileged to be present at the world’s first demonstration of the Acme Plastics Company’s latest innovation: the Mark One ABS flat plate SHF antenna!” Internally I noted with wonder that I'd said ‘antenna’ instead of ‘aerial’. I was talking with staggering confidence about this heap of shite, and actually quite enjoying it. I was in fact working myself up for the Biggest Lie in the History of Porkies, that's what I was doing. It would be a big lie. A massive stupendous lie. Perhaps the biggest lie of All Time. OK, I’m, exaggerating, but you know what I mean. You must at some time have been there, done that, and afterwards marvelled.

I came to my Dr Goebbells moment. “As you will see, we are not demonstrating the Mark One on a British Satellite Broadcasting signal. The reason is that, as you will have noticed, the Mark One is very slightly bigger” (four times the surface area, a little devil on my shoulder whispered, so I swatted it) “than the standard BSB product. This fact, together with the extraordinary sensitivity of the Mark One, means that the Mark One actually overloads the receiver by a margin of . . . (I consulted the shopping list that Hil had given me that morning) err . . . 6.31dB.” There was a silence; quite a long one by US standards.

"Whaddya mean, you sayin' it makes the signal TOO strong?"

“Err yes,” I said with British diffidence. “It, err, overloads a normal BSB receiver. They're only intended for normal signal levels of course. This is, err, quite a bit better than normal.”

“Didya say six point something dB?”

“Err . . . isotropic of course.” This was, in that context, meaningless.

“Isotreptic huh?” asked a short man with a cigar.

“Err . . . yes. Isotreptical gain. It varies a little with frequency of course.”

“Yeah, ’course” nodded Mr Cigar wisely. The others took their cue and nodded wisely too.

“So what broadcast is that?” asked the one with the most impressive teeth.

“I looked around the sky this morning and just found a weak one,” I said. “To be honest, we haven't had time to make a proper mount” (I gestured at the mass of gaffer tape on the rear of the panel) “so it's really hard to align it.” In a moment of inspiration I added, “The panel is a precision product so the beamwidth is tiny — much less than that for a comparative dish — so please don't ask me to re-align it on a different satellite,” (I inserted a fairly realistic laugh at this point) “because I probably couldn't do it in the time allowed!” They chuckled, sharing the joke. Internally I marvelled that the US company had sent a party of non-technical executives on the mission. It was obvious that none of them knew anything about what was presumably the company’s core technology.

 Afterwards, as I packed the gear away, the Man came up and said, “Phew, I’m glad you got it to work, finally. What were you doing wrong then, at first?”

I spent some weeks afterwards wondering whether my little subterfuge would cause the Americans to invest huge sums in something that was great deal less promising than they thought. Or maybe, with the right LNB, the thing would have worked reasonably well on BSB, and could have been refined to the point where it would have been saleable. As it happens I never found out, because very sadly the Man had a sudden unexpected heart attack and died a few weeks later. I don’t think anyone at the factory carried on his work with the flat panel aerial.

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