The King of Clockwork

I’m pitching this blog to you as a business piece on how even the best idea can have a fundamental problem that stops it being a market success.

It’s a story about my dad though, Colin, that I’ve never got around to writing down. It’s as much for my family as it is for you.

I’ve mentioned before that my father was a little eccentric. With the benefit of getting on a bit myself, I’ve come to some understanding of how he came to be what he was.

I’ve written about my paternal grandfather Philip, too. Philip was an unlucky genius. Blessed with perfect pitch, he could squeeze a tune out of anything although the violin was his weapon of choice. Latterly an Elder of the Free Church of Scotland Grandpa Campbell was a precentor who led the congregation in the singing of unaccompanied psalms in Gaelic, a haunting sound.  Brought up in Tain (where Glenmorangie whisky comes from), he went to the High School and was heading for a university scholarship when his father, the local draper, died suddenly. There being little in the way of financial support in 1902 he left school at 14 and became an apprentice telegraphist with the Post Office in Elgin. The Great War saw him win a medal and lose his first wife to the flu. He remarried, and in 1929 he and Kate produced Colin.

We have a few pictures of my dad from the 1930s — blond hair and an ever-present grin, sitting on his first bike.

Then we got Hitler.

Philip was sent around Scotland as a Postmaster and wound up in Montrose in 1942. Again as a sidebar, we think that the Postmaster roles were a cover for secret communications work. It only became public knowledge about 20 years ago that a site near Montrose had been not just a listening station for the Bletchley Park Ultra code breakers but had been a full on code-breaking site with computers. We think that Philip was a “project manager” a reliable and trusted man.

Like his dad, Colin was a bright boy. Despite the privations of war, he was advanced a year at Montrose Academy and aged 16 was accepted by Edinburgh University to study art.

Then the wheels fell off.

Six weeks into his course, he had a breakdown. Philip had to go down to Edinburgh to rescue him, and he spent a few weeks in a hospital. Dad had manic episodes for the rest of his life.

Philip used what influence he had to get Colin a job as an apprentice watchmaker with a local jeweller in 1947 and kept him out of National Service with a promise to volunteer for the Observer Corps.

Clock and watchmaking suited dad. On top of depression, he had what we now call autism, a side effect of which was the obsessive attention to detail required of a clockmaker.

Fast forward to 1961. Dad had formed the habit of taking his beloved bike on extended tours of the West of Scotland where he had spent some of his happiest childhood days. In the hamlet of Plockton, he met a cyclist coming the other way, her name was Hazel, and she was from Nottingham. They agreed to cycle to Loch Maree the next day and the following summer they were married in Edinburgh.

This is where today’s story starts.

Dad was a polymath. A skilled artisan, painter, naturalist and writer, if it hadn’t been for the Nazis and autism, he’d have been famous for much more than being the local eccentric.

By 1963 though dad was, a broke married polymath with a pregnant wife and sweaty feet.

If you live upstairs with your mum and dad, you might get away with smelly socks. If you marry a nurse with a hygiene fetish, you won’t

The fundamental problem was this. Dad knew that he had sweaty feet, so he bought leather soled shoes to let his feet breathe. Dad was also permanently short of money (the career opportunities for depressives with autism in small town jeweller’s shops being limited – he didn’t smoke or drink because he was abstemious but because he couldn’t afford to). Expensive leather soles wear out, however, if one glues rubber soles onto them they effectively last forever.

Unfortunately, rubber soles make your feet sweat. Trapped between a need to economise and developing trench foot, dad came up with a brilliant solution. Taking a vice and boring brace and bit, he drilled neat holes through to the cork inner sole of a trusty pair of well-worn brogues. It worked. His feet were fresh, especially on the bike, and he still had the longevity of rubber. Gradually “Colin Holes” were rolled out across his entire fleet of footwear. Patents were discussed. Fame and possibly a little bit of fortune were his for the taking.

This was all in the summer of 1963.

Then came October and the Scottish rainy season. Colin’s feet were no longer dry and comfortable. They were, in fact, permanently sodden. A desperate design work around using leather inserts from an old schoolbag failed. There was nothing for it but a trip to Mr Ogston the shoemaker to have five pairs of shoes resoled. Folding money changed hands. The sense of failure hung in the air.

Undaunted, Colin went on to invent the indestructible Hoover bag, the AGA mortar and the Meccano long case clock testing rig (which I still have).

So there we have it. Being brilliant doesn’t stop you from having terrible ideas.

Posted on: 3rd June 2019 by Ivor Campbell

Into his fourth decade of search Ivor has a voice with stories to tell, observations to make and the odd picture to share. Mostly related to the day job.

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