Burgh man was wireless pioneer

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MENTION Neilson Gray and Carisbrooke in Helensburgh — and thoughts immediately turn to a noted World War One war artist.

But Norah Neilson Gray’s big brother Andrew (below right) also played a significant role in wartime, and he is regarded as one of the pioneers of wireless telegraphy.

Norah Neilson Gray was born at the 108 West King Street mansion on June 16 1882 and began her artistic career at “The Studio”, a private drawing establishment at Craigendoran.

She moved to Glasgow about 1901 with her family and that year began years of study at Glasgow School of Art under Fra Newberry and the Belgian Symbolist painter Jean Delville.

She was a member of the famous artists group the “Glasgow Girls”, and the war years inspired some of her most powerful paintings, many of which were acquired by public collections.

While working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at the Royaumont Hospital near Paris she used her limited spare time to draw soldiers and staff and the lofty vaulted cloisters of the Abbaye.

These later resulted in the masterful group portrait “Hôpital Auxilaire D’Armée 30, Abbaye de Royaumont” — which was gifted to the people of Helensburgh by the artist’s sister, Dr Tina Gray, on her death in 1984.

Their parents, shipowner George William Gray and his wife Norah Neilson, were married in Falkirk on February 28 1971 and made their home at Fitzroy Place in Kelvingrove, Glasgow. Andrew was born there on March 3 1873, the first of seven children.

A few months later they moved to what was then spelt Carisbrook, where their second son, James Neilson Gray, was born on August 10 1874. Later he became a solicitor and lived at North Stanley Lodge, Cove.

Norah (left) was born on June 16 1882, to be followed by Tina on March 20 1884.

When World War One broke out Tina volunteered as a nurse and was based at the 25th stationary hospital in Rouen, a British military hospital for infectious diseases, where she was given the award of one scarlet stripe.

In 1925, she graduated from the University of Glasgow at the age of 41 with a medical degree, and she is considered a medical pioneer and trailblazer.

She became the assistant surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and during World World War Two she was appointed as a surgeon at Dunfermline and Stonehouse hospitals — one of only two female senior surgeons in Scotland.

She retired from Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1946, but she remained at Stonehouse until late 1947. In retirement she lived on Loch Longside.

She was elected a member of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Lady Artists Society in 1939, and died in Newington, Edinburgh, in 1984, aged 100.

Andrew studied at Glasgow University then took a diploma in electrical engineering at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College. After that he served as assistant to a Royal Technical College professor.

In 1895 he joined the staff of the West India and Panama Telegraph Company Ltd. as an assistant electrician, and he was promoted to chief electrician. Later, as telegraph engineer, he was responsible for the condition of 7,000 miles of cable.

He joined the Marconi Company in 1899 two years after its formation, and started immediately as personal assistant to Guglielmo Marconi.

He was particularly active in tests between the Isle of Wight and the mainland in the tuning of wireless circuits whereby multiplex and duplex working were made possible.

At the turn of the century he introduced the Marconi system of wireless intercommunication — the world’s first public telegraph service — in the Hawaiian group of islands, organising and training local operators.

In 1901 he was appointed chief of staff at the company and, because of his cable and telegraph experience, he was put in charge of the training of new engineers and the organisation of ship and shore wireless communication of the Marconi International Marine Communication Company Ltd.

This company took over its own telegraph operating in 1906, but until the end of World War One Andrew continued to supervise the testing and installation of wireless on ships.

As chief of staff, he was also responsible for design, testing, installation and working of all the wireless company’s stations and also development of patents for the parent and associated companies.

He was appointed chief engineer to the company in 1910, joint general manager in 1923, and technical general manager in 1928. He retired in 1932 and settled in West London.

He is particularly remembered for his important communications role in World War One.

On the first day of the war, a British ship dragged up Germany’s transatlantic telegraph cables and cut them.

From that time on, the Germans had to use radio links or telegrams sent through neutral nations, and both of these methods left them open to interception.

As the Germans had advanced into Belgian and French territory where telegraph lines had been cut, it also forced them to rely on wireless. The French and British, in contrast, only absolutely needed to use wireless to communicate with ships at sea.

Britain had no formal code breaking operation. But as the British Admiralty’s intelligence service began to intercept German wireless messages it was quickly recognised that a formal organisation for cryptanalysis was needed.

Volunteer code breakers were found in the country’s naval colleges and universities.

Marconi engineer Maurice Wright took the first batch of received German messages to his works manager, Andrew, who happened to be a personal friend of Captain Reggie Hall, the head of the Naval Intelligence Department.

Captain Hall was the dominant figure in British Intelligence during the war and was responsible for cracking German ciphers working in the famous Admiralty Room 40.

He arranged for Wright to travel up to London’s Liverpool Street Station on the footplate of a specially chartered locomotive.

Hall realised the intelligence bonanza in his hands, and he and Andrew put Wright to work building a chain of wireless intercept stations for the Admiralty.

British radio operators were organised as the basis of the Royal Navy radio intercept service, feeding traffic to Admiralty Room 40 for cryptanalysis.

The intercept stations set up in this effort were known as the ‘Y’ stations. Marconi receiving stations, British Post Office stations and even an Admiralty ‘police’ station all provided intercepts to Hall’s Room 40 code breakers.

These stations were soon joined by enthusiastic amateurs and new intercept stations soon went up on the coast. Within weeks practically all German naval wireless traffic found its way to Room 40.

The German high power long wave station at Norddeich provided huge volumes of fodder for the code breakers through the Y stations, which also soon turned to higher frequency interception as well.

In 1915 these intercepts helped the British to win the naval battle at Dogger Bank and played vital roles in later naval engagements.

In the end the system was so successful that every single wireless message transmitted by the Germans throughout the war, in all some eighty million words, was intercepted by Marconi operators and passed on to the appropriate Government authorities.

After Andrew’s death at Brentford Hospital on March 27 1953 at the age of 80, the then Marconi engineer-in-chief, G.M Wright, wrote: “One of his major contributions was the design of a steel mast which could be pressed in sections, easily transported and erected, under supervision, by local labour.

“These masts were erected in all parts of the world and became the familiar landmark of a Marconi station. When the new Marconi works was built at Chelmsford, two Gray masts 450 feet high were erected on the site and gave invaluable help to the company’s research work.

“Andrew Gray had that rare combination of qualities which goes to make the great engineer. He had a deep knowledge of his specialised branch of engineering, supported by a wide general technical background.

“Above all, he possessed the virtue of common-sense. He took deep interest in research and experiment and encouraged research engineers by his personal advice in discussions of their problems.

“In the period from the end of the first war until his retirement in 1932 he paid a visit at least once a week to the company’s research department in order to keep in close touch with all that was going on, and to discuss problems.

“He was a man of a most lovable character and his staff always took their personal troubles to him and never left without advice and help.

“Those who knew and worked with him will learn of his death with a deep sense of personal loss and regret that he is no longer with us.”

Another pioneer from Helensburgh, TV inventor John Logie Baird, who grew up nearby at The Lodge in West Argyle Street, mentioned him in his memoirs, written in 1941 and published as “Television and Me”.

Baird looked back to 1923 when he was living in Hastings and starting to experiment on television. Clearly there was no meeting of minds when the former neighbours met!

He wrote: “Mr Gray, the General Manager of the Marconi Company, had once lived near to us at a house called ‘Carisbrooke’ in Helensburgh. So one day I thought I would call and see if I could get him to take an interest in what I was doing.

“I called at Marconi House, sent in my name, ‘Mr. Baird from Helensburgh’ and after half an hour in the waiting room was shown into a large office where an elderly man sat behind a large, important looking desk.

“I said, ‘Good morning’, ‘Good morning,’ said Mr. Gray. ‘Are you interested in television?’ said I. ‘Not in the very slightest degree, no interest whatsoever,’ said Mr. Gray.

“His disclaimer was as emphatic and disapproving as if I had asked him if he was interested in brothels. ‘I am sorry to have wasted your time. Good-morning,’ I said and immediately walked out in high dudgeon.

“This episode shows the general attitude to television in 1925. It was regarded as a wildcat myth, something on a par with the Perpetual Motion Machine.

“Television could never be realised unless some hitherto undreamt of discoveries were made, and nothing of the sort was in sight. That was the view held by the Marconi experts and the experts and men of science generally.”

Baird’s son, Helensburgh Heritage Trust president Professor Malcolm Baird, commented: “Soon after Andrew’s retirement, the Marconi Company became heavily involved in television through the Marconi-EMI group. It is ironic that he lived to see television become a mass medium.”