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Born to an era that saw the birth of radio, television and modern communications, Joshua Sieger, the founder of the gas detection brand J&S Sieger (known today as Honeywell Analytics), was not only the father of modern gas detection but a pioneer of diverse communications technologies. He impacted on a variety of industries, helping to catalyse technological advancement in a number of fields including television, radar and gas detection.
Born on 5 January 1907 in Shepherd's Bush, London, England, Sieger showed a keen interest in science from very early in his life. A formative experience that would shape the young boy and spark this great passion within him came from a simple electricity bulb. In 1914, shortly after the integration of electricity into homes to replace gas lighting, a seven-year-old Sieger found a certain fascination with switching the light on and off repeatedly. He received an impromptu lesson in rudimentary electrics, after a neighbour visiting the house advised the young boy to desist in his activity because it was consuming more electricity than simply leaving the light on. As the man explained in basic terms the principle of how a light bulb worked, the small child was wide eyed with wonder at the marvel of electricity and its use. This brief conversation would lead to a lifetime devoted to electrical engineering.
Over the next few years, Sieger focused academically on science and engineering, supplementing his studies with trips to a large library situated near to the Latymer Foundation School he was attending in Hammersmith, London.
Passion for wireless
In particular, electrical engineering and wireless (radio) technologies interested him and he read everything he could obtain on these subjects. This interest was starting to nurture within him the beginnings of a keen and talented engineer. When he was 10 years old, Sieger obtained a copy of a publication called Wireless World, which featured an advertisement for a supplier of glass tubes, iron filings, germanium and silicon crystals—the raw constituents of a coherer. This type of device is sensitive to high-frequency currents, consisting of a glass tube, filled with iron filings and a contact at each end of the glass tube. High-frequency currents would make the iron filings adhere and therefore conduct electricity. Sieger made a number of these sets and sold some back to the supplier he had bought the components from in order to buy more parts.
By the age of 13 Sieger had erected an aerial on his parents' house. The young boy waited tentatively for a signal, and received his first Morse Code transmission from Gibraltar on the device in 1920.
Sieger's first notable innovation was the development of a single triode circuit for a three-valve radio set in 1923. His inspiration for the device came from an avant-garde belief that portable radios would be the future. To create such a device would require a lightweight system and an evolution of the current setup. His new invention featured enhanced clarity and was so impressive that one customer even offered to provide the money needed to obtain a patent for the device and manufacturing funds—on the condition that he could have his name in the application and share the sales.
Towards the end of 1924, the 17-year-old Sieger had not only turned his bedroom into a laboratory of sorts for his portable radio project, but also planned to wire up local houses with devices so he could rent music to them. A veritable newbie in the world of business, Sieger was beginning to show an interest in another skill set that would become a big part of his future success: an entrepreneurial spirit backed up by commercial instinct.
This activity coincided with him completing his studies, and Sieger took on a position working for Amateur Wireless, a popular radio enthusiasts' magazine. In his new role, he would work closely with the technical editor, producing two wireless devices per week and explaining their construction.
In 1925, whilst working for the magazine, a patent for his innovative new portable radio was officially applied for and a company, Portadyne Radio, was formed to sell the set called the Olympus. Sieger had to apply for a license to sell radios, and obtained this from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), making him a founding licensee of this world-renowned organisation.
The work required by Amateur Wireless was very time consuming, prompting Sieger to move away from becoming a manufacturer. In his autobiography, I Was There, Sieger talks of this decision and the impact it may potentially have had. "My work was so time consuming that I gave up the idea of being a manufacturer, although it was possible that this could have been one of the very first portable sets in the World".
Optical excellence and impact in radar
In 1930 Sieger made the transition into another emerging communication medium: the use of optical technology to create visual platforms and projectors. He joined an organisation called Scophony, developing projection-based television systems.
The outbreak of World War II halted development of the projection systems at Scophony, and the employees in their laboratories were seconded into developing secret signalling systems based on television techniques. Sieger moved to the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Worth Matravers in Dorset on the south coast of England and applied his optical knowledge to assist the AMRE (Air Ministry Research Establishment), in its development of technology capable of detecting German planes. It was during this period that Sieger was instrumental in the development of radar technology. In fact, the history of radar cites the two years research work conducted at Worth Matravers as the most valuable in radar development. During this time, Sieger applied his optical knowledge to design large-screen displays of radar signals, using an ultrasonic light cell and cylindrical lenses. These components were arranged in such a way to create a triangulation on the screen to pinpoint a target, and the principle was well received and used to successfully detect German bombers.
In the years following the war, Sieger worked in both the UK and US as a consultant for a number of companies in various industries. But upon returning to the UK in 1956, Sieger realised that his time would be better spent focusing on developing his own ideas and innovations, and selling them to companies with manufacturing capabilities.
During his time on the south coast working on radar, Sieger had developed an interest in boating and had acquired a number of friends with yachts and vessels. It was this interest that would catalyse the next chapter in his life story.
After introducing an Australian naval architect to a friend who had a 45-foot yacht requiring some modifications, a conversation arose around the lack of a reliable and sensitive gas detector designed for use on small boats. In fact there had been a number of fires and explosions on board small boats, because the detectors on the market were not reliable and were not always able to detect a leak if one occurred. The absence of such a device in the marketplace interested Sieger greatly and he decided to make the design of a suitable gas detection device his first consultancy project on his own behalf.
Developing gas detection
After conducting some research into market potential for such a device, Sieger set about developing a new product. At the time, most gas detection seemed to be focused towards mining applications, creating a nice niche for a suitable boat-focused solution. It was decided that such a product should feature remote sensor mounting capabilities (so the sensing element could be placed in the most suitable area), with a supporting controller situated somewhere else for easy access. It would need to run on a low power supply and it would also need to be selective to flammable gas only, with no cross interference from factors such as humidity or temperature.
During the early part of 1957, Sieger set up test rigs to fully evaluate the sensitivity of his new catalytic bead driven device. After 12 months of intensive testing, sufficient facts were available to apply for a patent for the device. It had always been Sieger’s intention to disengage from this project once a designed model was finalised and ready for manufacture. After meeting with the Managing Director of a boat manufacturer in Portsmouth called Vosper Ltd, six initial devices were built. By the end of 1958 some notable interest and publicity had been generated for the new device, after a unit fitted on board a vessel moored in Poole successfully alarmed, detecting a dangerous leak. In total 100 boats based in Poole Harbour featured the new device, with many more expressing an interest in buying one.
Fate stepped in once more for Joshua Sieger, when Vosper Ltd decided to halt their entry into the gas detection market, choosing to concentrate on building motor torpedo boats instead of the new device. Although it caused a setback for Sieger, it also allowed him the opportunity to look at the complicated design Vosper Ltd used, with a view to making a less expensive device that was more commercially viable.
Incorporation of IEC-Sieger
After refining the device in partnership with a new manufacturer, International Engineering Concessionaires (IEC), the new and improved device, called Mark 9, was ready to be marketed. On 31 July 1959, IEC-Sieger Ltd. was incorporated.
IEC-Sieger Ltd would position itself as a global player very early on; it was decided from the outset that the new company would focus primarily on export markets rather than domestic opportunities, and local distributors were set up in major countries, using IEC's infrastructure.
The success of Mark 9 was impressive, and the device's superior sensitivity impressed its purchasers, so much so that a senior director from Unilever, who had purchased a device for his own boat, asked whether a variant could be made to detect ammonia. This catalysed the company's transition into more sophisticated markets and industries that required Intrinsically Safe (IS) devices, with the release of Mark 7; a modified variant of Mark 9 designed to meet Unilever’s specific requirements.
By June 1961, a decision was made to manufacture in-house, and a new building was purchased in Poole, Dorset. IEC still carried out the sales and marketing of the products initially, but as the months passed, Sieger decided that the products being produced required more technical, engineering-based selling techniques to maximise market potential. With this in mind, Sieger informed IEC of his wish to undertake product sales and marketing in-house and disengaged from IEC after a deal was finally struck. A new company called J&S Sieger was established towards the end of 1961.
The Mark 9 marine unit, which had catalysed the emergence of what would later become one of the world's premier gas detection providers, was in fact the first in a long line of ground-breaking product innovations. In the years leading up to the company's sale to Zellweger in 1979, J&S Sieger Ltd continued to set the benchmark for gas detection solutions.
From his first efforts creating crystal sets in a home laboratory at 14 through to his research work in radar and the subsequent design of unrivalled gas detection solutions, Sieger not only succeeded at most endeavours he undertook but pushed the boundaries. A true innovator, entrepreneur and charismatic, Sieger was a rare commodity who touched the lives of all those who met him.
Today, it is recognised that Joshua Sieger was the father of modern gas detection, but in reality, this pioneering engineer had a hand in some of the most notable inventions of the 20th century including the birth of radio, television and radar.
- The information originally provided in this article was taken from Joshua Sieger’s autobiography, I Was There, published by the Poole Historical Trust, 2003.