The below photo was shared on Twitter. It shows the Ferranti electronics factory at Crewe Toll in East Pilton, it’s probably the mid-to-late 1950s.
For the best part of 60 years the modernist, brick, utilitarian clocktower was a local landmark.
When the factory was rebuilt in the late 1990s, the WW2 part to the east of Crewe Road North was demolished and rebuilt and the post-war part to the west was remodelled and refurbished. A clock face (perhaps the same?) was installed in the corner tower over the road.
This factory was constructed and opened in the midst of WW2, in 1943, specifically to manufacture a secret war weapon; something called a “Gyro gunsight”.
The “Gyro” gunsight was the invention of Edinburgh statistician, physicist and aeronautics expert Dr Leslie Bennet Craigie (“LBC”) Cunningham. LBC was working on the problem of how to accurately aim the guns of a fighter aircraft; as aircraft got faster and faster, the time a pilot had to manually aim his guns and fire them was being reduced to fractions of a second. He had worked out back in 1936 that you could use a spinning gyroscope to compensate for the movement of an aircraft to help better aim the guns.
The mathematics of aerial gunnery are incredibly complex, but basically when you are firing a gun at a moving target (i.e. an aeroplane) you have to “lead” the target (i.e. shoot in front of it), so that your bullets arrive where the target will be in the future in the time it takes them to reach it. To make matters more complicated, you also have to compensate for the movement of your own aircraft relative to the target. This second part of the problem is the clever trick that the Gyro gunsight performs.
With a miniature gyroscope inside, the gunsight projected a reticule inside the eyepiece which corrected for the aircraft’s speed and rate of turn, bank and climb. The Mark I model however was not successful as the pilot had to stare down a tiny telescope, not an easy thing at high speed and when you need to be constantly observing your surroundings in case it is you that is about to get shot down..
The Mark II corrected these faults by using a reflector display, the targeting reticule was projected on to a flat plate of glass that the pilot looked through. It also had a dial to correct for the target range. It was revolutionary as it did away with much of the guesswork of aiming, leaving the pilot to concentrate on compensating for the movement of his target. In tests it was estimated that it accuracy by 400%. A wartime memo described the Gyro gunsight as “the single most important equipment” introduced during the war. The Daily Express reported that the Gyro gunsight was “one of Britain’s great scientific achievements“.
The task of industrialising and mass producing the Mark II gunsight was given to English electronics company Ferranti, named for its founder Sebastian Pietro Innocenzo Adhemar Ziani de Ferranti, a Liverpool-born son of Italian immigrants.
Ferranti had run out of manufacturing capacity at their base in Manchester, and with an urgent demand for the new gunsights, they set about rapidly constructing a new factory in Edinburgh specifically to mass produce the Mark II. The designs were also given to the US who had it built by the Sperry Gyroscope Company.
The very first gunsights were ready for delivery from Pilton on December 5th 1943, and 26 more had been completed by the end of the year. After this, production was ramped up, reaching 1,000 units per month. 9,500 were completed during the war, with the bulk being earmarked for the primary RAF fighter and bomber aircraft; the Spitfire and the Lancaster respectively. There was a ready supply of labour at East Pilton, as the factory had been built in the middle of brand new council housing schemes. The majority of the workforce who were recruited are reported to have been women.
LBC Cunningham served as Superintendent of Air Warfare Analysis during the war, being awarded the honorary rank of RAF Squadron Leader and an OBE for his contributions. In 1945 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, but died the following year at home in London following a long illness. His obituary noted that he had continued to work until the last few weeks of his life “to evince the keenest interest in the research problems of air armaments to which his life’s work was devoted.” He was buried alongside his family in their plot in the New Calton Burial Ground back home in Edinburgh.
After the war, Ferranti (a Manchester-based company) made Edinburgh a centre of radar and flight electronics development, as such it was one of the earliest bits of “Silicon Glen” (although it predated the silicon chip by some time!). They expanded the Pilton site in the early 1950s.
They also grew across the city, with further factories in Gorgie and at South Gyle, and to train up apprentices to meet the demand for employees, they opened their own technical training school, first in the former Dean Village Public School and when they outgrew that they moved to the former Couper Street Public School in Leith.
This was the sort of thing that Ferranti became known for in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. An aviation microelectronics industry grew around its expertise in Edinburgh and West Lothian. (My own Dad spent most of his career working in it, it literally paid for my shoes! Although he was with a direct competitor of Ferrantsi!).
Ferranti obviously had a bit of a thing for towers; they erected three sinister constructions, which until recently loomed over the cycle path at Crewe Toll. They looked more like they belonged to the Berlin Wall at the peak of 1980s Cold War tensions. They were actually calibration test towers for lasers used in a gyroscopic inertial navigation and weapons targeting systems, from a time before GPS.
To test airborne equipment, Ferranti kept their own hangar and aircraft – the Ferranti Flying Unit – at Turnhouse airfield where all sorts of weird and wacky planes were based over the years on a variety of research and testing work. Ferranti’s own planes were painted white with a red stripe, and such were known as the Mentadents after the brand of toothpaste of the same colour.
In 1962, one of Ferranti’s aeroplanes, a De Havilland Dove (appropriately for me registered G-ANDY) suffered an engine failure on take off, hit power cables and came down in a field in Baberton to the southwest of the city. The crew were luckily not seriously hurt.
The Edinburgh operations of Ferranti became Ferranti Defence Systems, a profitable part of an otherwise troubled group. The Government allowed the General Electric Company (GEC, the British one and nothing to do with the American giant of the same name) to buy them in the 1990s and agreed to underwrite their work on radar for the Eurofighter project, something that caused a scandal at the time. Ferranti thus became GEC Ferranti. GEC and rivals Marconi Electronic Systems (named after another Italian immigrant) merged to become GEC-Marconi, and this parent to GEC Ferranti was bought by British Aerospace in 1999, forming the vast BAE Systems. BAE shut down everything in Edinburgh apart from the Crewe Toll site.
Perhaps appropriate for the Italian roots of both Ferranti and Marconi, BAE Systems sold the Edinburgh business in 2007 to Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica and it became known as Selex Gallileo, now part Selex ES. The last Gyro gunsights were completed in Edinburgh as late as 2018, after more than 50,000 were complete across 75 years of production.
While the Ferranti name has disappeared from the factory and it no longer produces Gyro gunsights, its legacy lives on in the sporting arena – of course none other than the Ferranti Bowling Club (ha! did you think I was going to say Football?!)
OK, to Football, for those of you who understand such things. The Ferranti works team was entered in the amateur leagues as Ferranti Thistle in 1948. It joined the senior leagues in 1953. They played next to the factory at City Park (now a housing estate). In 1972 they joined the Scottish Football Association and in 1974 they took the spot vacated by Third Lanark in the Scottish Football League. At the same time, they moved across town to a permanent home at the new Meadowbank Stadium, becoming Meadowbank Thistle in the process.
After an initial period of success, the club began to struggle, financially and on the field. Anyway, long story short they moved out to West Lothian in 1995 to be reborn and took a new name – and are still going a few bankruptcies later as Livingston FC. The team colours are still thegold and black of Ferranti and Meadowbank Thistles, and the badge still sports the thistle.
So that was the story of how a factory came to the middle of a council estate in Edinburgh to help win the war with a top secret invention and stayed behind afterwards, leaving a sporting and electronics legacy that lives on to this day.
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[…] stood down again in 1948. The last known use was for testing Bloodhound anti-aircraft missiles by Ferrantis at East Pilton in the 1950s, seen here at […]