Ever since he was a boy, radio ham Mike Stott has been fascinated by electronics.
He’s even built his own Enigma machine.
YOU can normally spot where a radio ham lives because of all the aerials sticking out of the roof and Mike Stott’s house in Ovingham is no exception. But Mike’s not your average amateur radio fanatic and the wartime wireless in his porch and shelves in the front hall bulging under the weight of old Morse keys are evidence that his passion runs somewhat deeper than most of his fellow radio buffs.
Mike’s life has always been surrounded by circuit boards, coils, transistors, capacitors and the various other components that make up the electrical world we live in. Radios, televisions, computers and other pieces of electrical equipment in various states of repair fill his house and Mike’s in his element with a soldering iron and electrical tester in his hands.
He followed in his father’s footsteps and became an electrical engineer and likes nothing better than getting his hands on what most of us would class as a defunct piece of electrical equipment and sparking it back to life. He once got a free cruise after offering to repair the ship’s television sets, which had been damaged by a power surge.
Tell Mike that something’s beyond repair and he’ll soon have it working, but then again he’s had plenty of practice – he’s been at it since he was a schoolboy.
“My father was a radio engineer in the war – a captain in the Signals and when he came home he brought back five handmade cedar boxes from Japan,” he said. “When my mother opened them she found one box full of transmitters, another with receivers, another with microphones and by then she was getting a bit fed up, but the last box was full of silk and jade carvings. That was how I got interested and became a radio ham.
“After my father came out of the forces, he started working at a local radio shop – George Atkinson’s in Prudhoe. I used to go in after school and muck about. One of the first jobs I did was pulling radios to pieces for parts. George Atkinson was selling scrap bits just to keep things going because there was a shortage of parts after the war.”
After leaving school, Mike became an apprentice with the Co-op and when televisions first started to appear on the scene, he retrained to become one of the first TV engineers in the area.
Then came computers, which we all take for granted today. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the huge machines pumping out paper tape and now consigned to museums, were revolutionary and understandably caught Mike’s imagination.
“It was all punch paper tape in those days,” he said. “Then they brought in the new IBM 360 and I helped install it at Newcastle University and that was punch card.”
Mike then got a job with American computer firm Interdata, which saw him travelling all over the world, installing and servicing equipment. He remembers one visit in particular to a site in the middle of the desert in Egypt, which was experiencing problems with its computer system.
He flew to Cairo, and then had to make his way to Sidi Barrani where he picked up a Land Rover and stocked it full of bacon and eggs and water, before embarking on a two-day journey across the desert. Mike had to rely on his navigation skills because the track ahead of him would sometimes disappear, but the intrepid engineer eventually reached his location.
Fixing the fault, however, was the easiest job he’s ever done. “I travelled all the way to Egypt and the middle of the desert just to find out the plug had been taken out!” he said.
Another mission took him to a refinery on the edge of the Red Sea. When he got there he found the sea was literally boiling. “They had a problem with power being wasted and they were putting all this excess power into electrodes – like two big railway sleepers – which were lying in the sea. When we turned them off, all the fishermen turned up because of all the electrocuted fish.”
After seven years, Mike decided to put an end to the travelling and set up his own company, working from home in Ovingham. And his love of passing on his knowledge to others soon led him on the path to becoming a teacher – working for many years at Newcastle College, where he taught electrical engineering.
“It was very gratifying,” he said. “I used to do all sorts of daft things. I have had a marvellous career teaching. There is always that nice experience when that little face lights up and you know you have got through to them.”
Retirement now means Mike has even more time to spend on his hobbies and leisure interests – he was once a glider pilot and he and his wife Pat love going on cruises. But it’s hard to differentiate his main hobby from his working life. “I have always had a job as a hobby… always,” he said. “It has meant I have been able to dedicate 110 per cent to whatever project I have done.
I travelled all the way to Egypt and the middle of the desert just to find out the plug had been taken out!
“I am also interested in re-enactment and am a member of the Military Vehicle Group. Every year we go to Arnhem and set up a camp dressed in uniform. I’m a captain of the Royal Signals and we live for a week under canvas as 1944 soldiers.”
“I had a Land Rover ambulance which I used as a ham shack and I used to go to radio shows and military shows and get a lot of military equipment – tank transmitters, aircraft transmitters. A lot of things were not working or could not be made to work because they are part of a bigger piece of equipment.
“But I would move heaven and high water to make them work. There is most probably no circuit diagrams so you are working on first principles. It is challenging because you have got to sit there with no circuit diagram or operating instructions. You have to pull it to pieces and work out how it does work. When I do get it working, I lose interest and give it to somebody else.”
Mike’s prize possession though has got to be his Enigma machine – a modern version of the German cipher machine which he built himself from a kit, adding his own refinements, of course. Mike is fascinated by the history of the machine and the work of Alan Turing and his team, who famously cracked the code at Bletchley Park during the War.
“There are groups all over the world that talk to each other using this,” he said. “And there are groups who are more computer-geekish who are writing all sorts of programmes to try and crack it, but would you believe it – they can’t really.
“There are some who have some success, but not fully. The really interesting thing is how it was cracked. Turing and his team looked for patterns. Every language has to have certain rules, spaces, full stops, paragraphs. So it does not matter what you encode it in – you still have these patterns. It is all there. You still have the paragraphs the ends of words. These are the clues.
“The next clue relates to how we, for example, write a letter. You always start, ‘dear sir’ and end ‘yours faithfully’ – that is, it is bounded by starts and finishes. So these tops and tails were always the same, but always different because of the code… all sorts of variations of gobbledygook meaning the same thing. That is how we cracked it. That is how you always crack codes, because of repetition.
“For example, there is a start, there is an address, so you have certain clues to a letter straight away. Then you have got the lazy people who send something with the same code twice. And then the people who do not get something so it gets sent again. Or somebody sends something in plain language because it’s only an order for potatoes… that is a gift.”
“Everybody had one of these machines and they had a book with the codes for the day. It was German Teutonic thinking… they never sent a particular letter like an ‘h’ the same way and this meant it had what we would class as a conformal weakness because of the strict rules. If it had been slightly more flexible and bendy, it would have been harder to crack.
“We never told anyone we had cracked it. The Swiss and Japanese went on to use it for a good ten to 15 years, before someone said, ‘we cracked that 15 years ago and have been reading your encrypts and decrypts’.”
Mike’s wife Pat must have the patience of Job to live with Mike’s mountainous collection of electrical equipment. “She said she would divorce me two days after we got married!” he joked. “I have a loft full of radio gear and a workshop out the back. I say I’m just going to the workshop and my wife says, which one?”