‘Kaushik, it is all fine out here…..I am not a ‘full stop’ yet; just a ‘semi colon’. These were the words of John when I called him up, soon after he had returned from the hospital following a surgery to remove the malignant part of his colon (large intestine). Yes, I am talking of John Spensley Fielden (1921-2002), inventor and former research director at PRI Limited. Those who knew John need no further introduction; nor do they need any stories from me. If you knew John, you knew that stories grew around him naturally. Those who don’t know John, unfortunately, will only ever see a very small part of the big canvas that was JSF.
An ex-RAF World War II veteran, John was one of the few natural innovators I have come across in my life. Working from his laboratory, a converted caravan, in the garden of his home, ‘Metcombe Brake’ in Devon; John came out with some of the most interesting ideas that would inspire engineers of all age and experience. John was a technical Guru to me. When I first met him, he was a septuagenarian and yet had a childlike passion to do things differently. He kindled in me the courage to challenge the status quo; to find the right answer to a complex problem.
Often, I was intrigued by a large CAD layout of a complex integrated circuit in one of the loos at Metcombe Brake. I later learnt from John that it was the layout of a circuit that he had once designed – but one that did not work after it was made into a chip. With his usual passion he showed me the tracks that had the error. He said he had pasted it in his toilet to be reminded, every morning, of the expensive mistake in his design.
In the summer of 1999, the Liberty team was fighting against time to prove the concept of keypad meters to NIE. Until then, NIE were still using magnetic card pre-pay meters and were looking for a new generation of meters, that would significantly reduce the cost to serve their customers. John and Andrew had long proven that encrypted numerical tokens could be safely and economically used to transport vend information to the pre-payment meters; the technology had already been successfully deployed in South Africa. Neeraj, Atul, Kishan and Krishnan were burning the midnight oil to get the prototype going. I was on my way to Metcombe Brake to give the final shape to the prototype before delivery to the customer. On reaching Metcombe, I learnt that John had gone for a gliding holiday and would be away for a week. I was told that I could simply sneak into his palatial mansion and use one of the bedrooms to live in and start working in the lab. John never felt the need to lock his house even when on long holidays! Having come from India, being tucked away in one corner of a lonely house almost in the middle of nowhere in the Devonshire countryside, was an immense learning and an exercise in how to adapt for me. I worked with Dick Todd to get the prototype going – from ordering material from RS, to soldering the PCBs and assembling the boards – each meter was handcrafted with care – including, of course, the last minute software change to fix a bug on the penultimate midnight! Once John returned from his holiday, his guidance in adding attractive features to the product on the fly was immensely valuable. These were simple ideas that made so much sense for the customer.
At this time, John was being treated for cancer; periodically he would go for chemotherapy treatments. I have never seen anyone who could return back from a chemo treatment, take a power nap for 45 minutes and return to work with full vigour. That was John Fielden for you; nothing could deter him from his passion for technology. Perhaps he knew that time was running out for him and he wanted to change everything. He dreamt of a match box size meter that would have the entire electronics embedded on the LCD glass itself. He would talk passionately about meters that would run on Java and be connected to the web, or how bulbul signals over a power line could change the way India controls its agricultural loads.
After his second operation, John started to lose weight. On enquiry, he was told that he was left with only a small part of the intestine, which allowed very small quantities of the food to be absorbed into the body. At this critical juncture, only a John Fielden could have dared suggest that the food coming out of body be recycled back into the remaining part of the intestine by an external, battery operated pump. On much insistence, the doctor gave in to John’s idea. Lo and behold, like magic the experiment succeeded. John soon gained weight and was fighting fit again.
The greatest gift the man had was simplicity of thinking. He strove for more with less. I remember working with him on the design for the first Apex meter. Once again, we were fighting against time to deliver our first order, from Zimbabwe, for 600 Apex racks (yes those days we were allowed to sell products even before it hit the drawing board!). John’s simple ideas made it possible for us to turn around the product against a demanding schedule. Once again, these ideas were based on challenging the status quo– no different from asking, ‘Why can’t a battery operated motor be used to assist the digestive system?’
On 18th June 2002, John left this world for his heavenly abode. I met Valerie many years later. She looked old, but there was a twinkle in her eyes when she talked of John – ‘You know Kaushik, I still connect with John; he is always there for me, his spirit speaks to me.’ Yes, John still lives on in our hearts; he remains an inspiration, a dream for us to follow. His intellectual legacy still flows in the blood of Secure Meters. His dreams are still strewn around in our garden like gems to be picked and polished. I still remember his semi colon joke, but to me there are no full stops for him.