A History of Vintage Electronics: Pye Telecommunications Cambridge

Pye Ltd was an English electronics company founded in 1896 in Cambridge, England by William Pye. Its advances in radio, television, and telecommunications revolutionized the past influencing current electronics manufacturers.
Susan Fourtané
Cambridge Museum of Technology: The Pye Exhibition ©Susan Fourtané

Technological change represents innovation, growth, and development of the local and global economy. Technological change also represents the evolution and adaptation of the human species. Technological evolution results from the willingness of improving the existing knowledge on a subject triggered by the desire to help solve problems, to make life better, to advance, to impact society at different points in time.  

Today, we enjoy the Internet, computers, and mobile phones. They represent an integral part of our daily life. We are unable to imagine life without them. Yet, generations before us lived all their life offline. 

New and emerging digital technologies are always a source of awe. They get people excited; early adopters cannot wait to have their hands on the latest electronics devices. As time goes by, all technology that once kept everyone excited takes a back seat. Some migrate to the dark and dusty zone of all that belongs to the past. Some get forgotten. Some become part of important collections in museums around the world. 

Old technology --also known as vintage technology-- keeps collectors, historians, and enthusiasts around the world searching for the roots, the fascinating beginnings of the technology that was a crucial part in their lives years before. Some enthusiasts have simply developed a passion and curiosity for the creation and evolution of electronics. 

Electronics engineers fall into one or more of these categories. They are the ones who will know more --or will want to find out more-- than anyone else about the important components that made those old devices work. Some will even have their own personal collection, something like a mini-museum.

Younger generations are currently having an increasingly curious interest in past technologies and artifacts that existed before their time, long before the emergence of the digital society into which they were born. 

As part of a series on looking back into the history of electronics, here I pay tribute to one of the British companies that made history: W.G. Pye & Co. Ltd and some of its revolutionary consumer electronics products.

Company evolution and rebranding, 1896 - 2020: 

W.G. Pye & Co. Ltd - Pye Ltd - Pye Radio Ltd - Pye of Cambridge - Philips Radio Communications - Philips Electronics - Simoco - Sepura

Cambridge Museum of technology
Cambridge Museum of Technology: The Pye Exhibition, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

Pye Ltd was an English electronics company founded in 1896 in Cambridge, England by William Pye. Pye Ltd was the biggest private sector company in Cambridge, employing around 8,000 employees locally, and more than 25,000 across the United Kingdom.

The company grew with ramifications into different sectors, to the point that there were 24 different Pye companies in and around Cambridge designing and manufacturing a diverse range of electronic and scientific products, in addition to components.

The history of Pye spans from 1896 to the present day. The Pye Group of Companies made scientific and analytical instruments, radio and line communication, broadcasting, consumer radio and TV, and industrial electronics. They contributed not only to Britain but also to the world's scientific and industrial heritage. 

In 1896, William George Pye, a scientific instrument maker who was previously employed at Cavendish Laboratories of the University of Cambridge as superintendent of the Cavendish Laboratory workshop, founded W.G. Pye & Co. Ltd in Cambridge, England. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Pye's company employed 40 people manufacturing instruments used for teaching and research. At the start, they specialized in optical instruments, expanding into radio in the 1920s. 

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William Pye gained technical knowledge and production experience during the war. Over the two decades following the war, Pye created many innovative electronics for consumers. Back then, and after the war, people wanted better home entertainment. And so, the color TV and transistor radios were born.

According to the Story of Pye, during the 1920s, W.G. Pye & Co. made and sold radio sets. But in 1928, Pye sold the radio business to C.O. Stanley. Stanley set up Pye Radio Ltd, which later became Pye Ltd. The instrument business continued as a separate business from Pye Ltd until it was acquired by Pye Ltd in 1946. In the same year, Pye Ltd also acquired W.G. Pye Company Ltd. 

Charles Orr Stanley (a.k.a. CO) was Pye's Chair when he predicted a large post-war TV market. Pye secretly worked on TVs during the war; after the war ended, the company was first to release new television set models leaving other companies behind. Pye was ready when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) resumed transmissions in 1946. On June 2, 1953, the BBC broadcast the Coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

It was then when for the first time ever the ordinary people of Great Britain were able to watch a monarch’s coronation in their own homes. Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation was watched all over the world. Earlier that year, it was announced that the crowning of the Queen would be televised, and the sales of TV sets skyrocketed. 

Technology, electronics, and television had greatly advanced since the BBC filmed the Coronation Procession of HM King George VI -- Queen Elizabeth II's father-- in June 1937. 

Both Coronations of 1937 and 1953 are part of the historical fabric of British national tradition and ceremony. Pye Television and the coverage given to both by the BBC allowed millions of listeners and viewers to experience the most intimate arrangements of the state, an important part of the history of Great Britain. 

This is how television looked like in 1937: Coronation of King George VI

The BBC's pioneering television broadcast of the 1937 Coronation Procession led the way for the biggest outside broadcast yet attempted: The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

This is how television looked like in 1953: Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

Pye continued to be at the forefront of TV development. In 1949, Pye first demonstrated color television, long before it was broadcast to people's homes in 1967. Pye also introduced black screens in the 1950s in order to give a better daytime picture. In the early 1960s, Pye made TVs that could use the new clearer image 625-line system ahead of it being broadcast to the public. 

At the same time, Pye continued developing radios, record players, and home sound systems. It also had its own music label, Pye Records, which featured artists such as The Kinks and Petula Clark. 

The company had realized that using transistors instead of valves would transform electronics by making products smaller and cheaper. In 1956, Pye made the first British transistor radio. It was released under the trademark, Pam. The reason for this was that Pye did not want to risk its own reputation if the product failed. After the transistor radio proved to be a success, it was launched under the Pye brand. In 1962, the company renamed itself Pye of Cambridge.  

The Pye Group was taken over by Philips Electronics in 1967. Many parts of the Pye Group were absorbed into Philips companies. But Pye Telecommunications continued doing business under the Pye name until 1986. After that, it became Philips Radio Communications Systems. From 1996, it traded as Simoco International. Today, the former Radio Systems division of Pye Telecom trades as Simoco Wireless Solutions, and the Tetra digital portable business as Sepura Plc. 

Pye Radio 

According to the Pye Museum Organization and the Pye History Trust, the story of Pye’s entry into the radio market began right after the First World War. Pye's first radio was built in a week; and it worked. During the war, there had been a large demand for precision instruments; and after the war, there was a short boom in scientific instruments. By 1921, the market had virtually collapsed and the Company, which by then had 100 employees, was obliged to diversify into other equipment.

Pye expanded into many different fields, however, the company remained particularly famous for its radios. In 1926, W.G. Pye & Co manufactured the model 222 radio. It was a two-valve, battery receiver with plug-in coils and porcelain holders. The 222 didn't have an integral loudspeaker; it was designed to be used with an external horn speaker. The original price of £6,18 was lowered in 1927, and the model became known as the Popular Two

The fascination that some people find in vintage radios can go far from just an initial hobby. For some, it may become something more, such is the came of Allen Chiang, known as the vintage radio repairman who embraces the art of the analog world. 

Allen Chiang, a serious collector of retro radios, collects, restores, and sells vintage tube radios manufactured before 1980. He is a Retro Radio Farmer. Despite living in a digital world, Retro Radio Farmers love the warm, analog sound of yesteryear, and the comforting, nostalgic tones of good old-fashioned radio waves, those which once were used to transmit human voices and music through vacuum tubes. 

Pye television 

Cambridge Museum of Technology
Pye television set, Pye Exhibition at Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

The Pye television set model B16T was manufactured from 1946, and it was the first television people could buy after the war. The set came out in time with the start of the BBC television service after the war, on June 7, 1946.

The Pye model B16T was significantly superior to pre-war models. It had a brighter, clearer picture, and considerably smaller cabinet. The Pye B16T television set was a 17 valve, 1 channel TRF receiver still using the EF50 valve.

Pye audio amplifier 

Cambridge Museum of Technology
Pye audio amplifier launched in 1956, part of the Pye Exhibition at Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

Audio amplifiers were designed to work with a record player, a radio, and a loudspeaker. The Pye audio amplifier pictured above was launched in 1956. The audio amplifier augmented the inner power audio signals from the record player and radio further to a level that was high enough to power the loudspeaker.

If you are an electronics engineer, or you just love to see how electronics look and work on the inside, you will love this four-part video series below on the restoration of a 1968 Pye stereo hi-fi amplifier. A real treat for electronics lovers. 

Pye Records

Cambridge Museum of technology
A 7" single record on the left, and a 12" long play (LP) record on the right at the Pye Exhibition at Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané 

Founded in 1953, Pye Records was a British record label under its parent company, Pye Ltd, then ATV. The Pye company entered the record business after buying Nixa Records in 1953. Then in 1955, Pye also acquired Polygon Records, a label established by Petula Clark's father and Alan A. Freeman. The company became Pye Nixa Records. In 1958, Pye International Records was established. The label became PRT Records in 1980. In 2006, Pye Records was briefly reactivated as Sanctuary Records as an indie alternative label. 

Some of Pye Records' best known artists were Petula Clark, The Kinks, Status Quo, Lonnie Donegan, The Searchers, Sandie Shaw, Brotherhood of Man. Artists who recorded on Pye for a brief period of their career include The Beatles, David Bowie, Olivia Newton-John, 

Pye was a sister company of ATV Music Publishing. ATV owned The Beatles publisher Northern Songs. In 1985, Michael Jackson bought ATV, and later merged with Sony to form Sony/ATV Music Publishing.  

Pye magnetic disc and record maker

Cambridge Museum of technology
Pye Magnetic Disc and Record Maker at the Pye Exhibition at Cambridge Museum of Technology, Source: ©Susan Fourtané

Today, music is synonymous with iTunes, iPod, iPhone, and the cloud. The cloud. Music is not lost forever any longer. Today, we can have entire collections, the entire world of music of all times at our fingertips. We can take the entire world of music with us when we travel. No space used; totally weightless. Yet, you can't touch music. 

Earlier forms of reproducing music had physical components such as magnetic discs and record makers. Before magnetic discs were used for computers, rigid and floppy magnetic discs were used for audio recording. In the late 1950s, Pye invented a record player which played records and also recorded on blank discs. 

Pye sold record players and radiograms with the Record Maker electronics and interchangeable pickup head. This allowed the home user to record on a pre-grooved disc coated with a magnetic compound.  

Pocketfone receiver, 1967: Pye Telecommunications, Cambridge 

Cambridge University was a center for the development of the industry of electronics. Pye Telecommunication Ltd, based in Cambridge, launched the Pocketfone receiver in 1967, a device that was smaller and more efficient than anything on the market. The Pocketfone worked on the ultra-high frequency wave band and the batteries were rechargeable without being removed from the pack. 

The Pocketfone was marketed mainly to policemen, fire services, doctors and midwives, taxi and truck drivers, and commercial travelers 

Cambridge Stereo Comparator 

Cambridge stereo comparator at Cambridge Museum of Technology, photo by Susan Fourtané
Cambridge Stereo Comparator made in 1940, on loan from the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, Source: ©Susan Fourtané at Cambridge Museum of Technology

The company developed this instrument in 1937 to compare aerial photographs and give a 3D effect to any objects that had changed positions. It was used by Ordnance Survey and the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War to determine the locations of strategic points.