Exporting The Future - Importing The Past

Apart from the additional paperwork required when shipping high technology around the world, exporting MicroEyes was relatively straightforward. There was an arms embargo against South Africa, although some companies refused to sell to the country on moral grounds while the apartheid system was in place. Sales of technology to countries in the Eastern Bloc were restricted; the government had a list.

Only one South African company approached us and it was an application easy to turn away. A mine owner wanted an image database and video capture system to record the faces of all their workers and identify them as either Zulu or Ponodo. The intention was to prevent tribal warfare breaking out in the mine. This is a redacted version of the project specification, leaving out the expletives, racist remarks and accounts of people hacking each other to death two miles underground. Apparently, the loss of production was the primary concern. Our visitor handled rejection very badly; assuming from my name that I was South African, he started by insinuating I was some sort of traitor. Having pointed out the name was, in fact, German, I suddenly became a commie. Again, the generous sprinkling of expletives has been omitted. The whole incident was unpleasant and not made any easier by Matt and Dave singing Spitting Image’s ‘I’ve Never Met a Nice South African’ at the other end of the office.

Exporting to the Soviet Bloc was more complex, as CoCom (Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls) restrictions still limited most high technology exports (even today, CoCom rules limit the export of high specification GPS receivers). UK manufacturers complained that CoCom restrictions gave their US competitors an unfair advantage. In truth, Britain, like other countries, had become adept at gaming CoCom restrictions. IBM’s delay in launching the PC outside of the States provided UK-based PC manufacturers with a window of opportunity in Europe. Meanwhile, CoCom allowed companies beyond the reach of the US justice department a free run in markets that US companies couldn’t sell into. An example was Toshiba’s and Kongsberg’s sale of numerically controlled milling machines to the Soviet Union. The US was well aware of transgressions by other Western Bloc countries, and the state of the art in UK computer technology was set as the bar for equipment US companies were allowed to sell to the Eastern Bloc. The fact that companies such as Plessey, Ferranti and Inmos were able to operate in a market protected by this glass ceiling helped Britain retain a pool of semiconductor design expertise – one reason your mobile phone contains an ARM rather than an Intel processor.

Lax interpretation and enforcement of CoCom even encouraged some US companies to use Britain as a base for sales to the Eastern Bloc. It is highly likely that the GE camera, bought from us by the subsidiary of a US company just after we started trading, was heading East. This cynicism extended to the supply of satellite photographs to foreign states, along with a list of non-US manufacturers of equipment capable of analysing them.

The Department of Trade produced the ‘Industrial List’: a catalogue of prohibited technologies. Whether the MicroEye was included on the list was open to interpretation. The first sale of equipment knowingly destined for the Soviet Bloc came following a phone call received one Friday afternoon. In a thick Eastern European accent, the caller asked if he could visit us in Royston the next day. Apparently, he was unable to get away from his office during the week. His real reason for visiting on a Saturday was his mistaken belief that the security services didn’t follow Soviet Bloc embassy staff who travelled outside of London when Arsenal were playing at home. He introduced himself as the trade attaché from the Bulgarian Embassy and purchased a MicroEye I for cash. Hoping the sale wouldn’t go through the books, he was disappointed to discover I needed a name and address to put on the invoice.

The MicroEye I was hardly state of the art, but perhaps he wasn’t a very good trade attaché, or had never read Wireless World, or didn’t know anyone who could use a soldering iron. Most likely, he was less interested in the MicroEye than the company selling it.

- 01000010 -

Half my family lived in Communist East Germany; this was hardly a secret. So, no doubt it was assumed any strategic technology that Digithurst stumbled across, or developed, while working on defence-related applications eventually found its way onto a desk at Robotron in Berlin. We built high-powered framestores and wrote sophisticated software to extract features from images and track objects. Even so, no one asked us how to stop airborne radar systems losing low-flying aircraft amongst motorway traffic. We did get defence work, but very pedestrian. The specification would come via one of those people who everyone claimed was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Q.

Over lunch, they would pass on a piece of gossip about a fictional R&D project. In the wake of the Toshiba-Kongsberg sale – machine tools destined to be used to manufacture silent propellers for the Soviet navy – the gossip usually related to work on acoustics. Scientists had discovered that certain shaped objects acted as medium-range acoustic collectors and transmitters. These carefully crafted objects, looking rather like miniature Henry Moore statues, were being given to foreign leaders during state visits. The hope was that the recipients would inadvertently carry these passive monitoring devices back to their offices. Farfetched, but it might just see a handful of acoustics and radio engineers dragged off stealth ship and aircraft projects to waste two years bouncing sound and radio waves off rocks. All that was needed was for someone to retell the story on the other side of the Berlin Wall. There is only one thing worse than not being trusted, and that’s the feeling you are being used.

Only once did the Stasi openly question me about my work and, by then, the DDR was on the point of collapse. Until then, they relied on information passed on by my relatives and other people I had contact with in East Berlin. The video hairstyling system, as seen on banned West German TV, was always worth a mention. A clear example of an engineer who could have developed such useful technology, wasting their time selling toys to decadent West German housewives. Best not to mention that the ‘toy’ used an algorithm developed by their leading computer company and top technical college, either of which could have exploited the technology had they found a way of squeezing the code into a poor imitation of a Commodore 64 (see Deutschland 83, Episode 4).

- 00110101 -

Ben started his career as an electronics engineer and ended it directing a film in Siberia. Midway through, he ran an export agency from an office in Kensington. Born in Lithuania and arriving in London via Tel Aviv, Ben had impeccable contacts in Moscow; he told me this the first time we met. If you believe in coincidences, then both of us being at Royston Rotary Club that evening was a coincidence. Or perhaps not, because then he said he might be able to sell Digithurst equipment in the Soviet Union.

The best way to interpret anything Ben said was to write it down, then hold the paper in front of a mirror. Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to modernise the Soviet Union. Ben had a shopping list of must-have technologies and our products were on it.

A collection of demonstration equipment and a sales engineer were dispatched to Moscow. The presentation took place in a hotel and all went well until the second day, when the video monitor connected to the MicroEye IIR died. Having taken a keen interest in the video system, and no doubt already been given a printed selfie to take home to show his family, the hotel manager said he might be able to help. Taking the engineer to the top floor of the hotel and leading him to a room containing banks of monitors and video monitors, the manager said, ‘Take your pick, we won’t be needing them until this evening.’

The research establishment that purchased the MicroScale IIR system was in a town so remote that express trains from Moscow didn’t stop at the railway station. Rather than transfer post to a local train, the guard would open the door of the mail van; then, as the train passed through the station, he would throw parcels and bundles of letters on to the platform. It was hard to tell from the damage to the box containing the MicroEye whether it had struck a column or a waiting passenger. Whichever, the impact dislodged the software key and embedded it in the power supply. Rather than return the equipment to Ben, the customer shipped it to the address in the manual: our address.

Sue put the call through to my office, but the line went dead as soon as I spoke. Sixty seconds later, Mr Margolis and his colleague, both from the control section of Customs and Excise, were standing in reception. They had a long list of questions, most relating to our dealings with Ben …

... (An extract from The Ghost in the Labyrinth by Peter Kruger)

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