Jimmy Savile: My Part In His Edification: The Arm

I was usually pleased when Sir Jimmy appeared on the screen because he projected the grimy gritty workshop of my workplace to the nation, or he did for a while. Attached to the right arm of his Jim’ll Fix It chair, was, about halfway through the series, a robotic arm. It’s hard to find a picture of it fixed to the chair. I think it’s because it stopped being used before the internet got going properly, and also, once the BBC took it off the chair, they obviously stopped releasing pictures of it. But there is this one from kentonline:

Another not-actually-very-mysterious thing was the way it has always been misattributed: repeatedly and completely airbrushing its talented designer, modest though the arm was itself.

The robot arm RTX designed by the late Roy Levell at Universal Machine Intelligence (UMI) in Wandsworth common in the mid 1980’s, and attached for a while to the “Jim’ll Fix It” chair.

(Pic to the right from the university of Amsterdam.)

You only ever heard mention of Kevin Warwick of Reading University’s contribution. The arm was, and still is described on Prof. Warwick’s Wikipedia page, as his “brainchild”. In fact, he arranged for the fixed instructions to be typed in for its fixed performance in handing a medal to Sir Jim, and he might have directed the screwing of it to the armchair and its connection to the power supply. Programming it will have required a little bit of head-scratching to be sure. Sam Wane, in a webpage he had on the Uni. of Staffs site described them as quirky robots. (My italics.) I mentioned this to him and he got rid of the “quirky”, though I thought it was quite a nice observation. If it was quirky it was not just because it was fairly early compared to today, but also because it was designed from scratch from the ground up, by someone accustomed to ranging widely across science and engineering.

After the mega-embarassment of the Cambridge spies, the UK government decided to make an effort to keep their top recruits, including scientists, well away from the Oxbridge they considered hopelessly treacherous, and indeed all the universities. They ran a maths competition for schoolboys, and recruited the winner straight into their top secret engineering operations. One year, this was Roy Levell, a big Dorset lad with a proper pirate’s accent. Over his lifetime he worked on a variety of projects, most exciting, most secret, and therefore impossible to put on his CV! He was involved in growing one of the first (the first, I think he said), large silicon crystals. He designed the control system for the Chieftain tank turret. He worked on the Chevaline nuclear warhead delivery system enhancement to Polaris, incorporating decoy warheads inside balloons. The one that chilled me most was his work developing the liquid sodium cooling system for nuclear reactors. His progress continued its descent into the robot company Universal Machine Intelligence, based in the gothic glory of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building in Wandsworth, originally built as an orphanage for the children of Crimean War soldiers. Some scenes for the Colditz TV series were filmed there. Roy and the lad who did the Pascal and other essential stuff for him in the research department were unceremoniously dumped as soon as arm and company were ready for selling. As he left, he was told by the new manager that he’d “bury him” if he ever worked on robots again. Despite that and the secrecy constraints, he was at least able to find work as a contract documenter of computer systems in his last years. His final ignominy, which he fulfilled nobly, was writing references for me. Kim Philby had a pretty miserable time after he retired but the Russians treated him better than Roy was treated by his country.

Roy Levell was again airbrushed from another account of the arm’s development, this time in this otherwise rather good account, explaining the history of the arm and the full mobile robot it came off, and the company Oxim that supported it until 2005/6 (maybe this is more convenient). That source notes that in 1989 “…38% of all workstation-based rehabilitation robotics projects worldwide were using the RTX arms.” Once off its mobile platform, it was indeed intended as an aid for the disabled. It found its niche by being less accurate and less strong but cheaper than other industrial robots, yet more robust and useful than more “toy-like” designs. The name RTX came from R-theta, which was the name of its original mobile version, and referred to the radius length compounded with its angle, that you encounter with arms. My role was to produce the AI for it, but no-one outside the department ever asked me what I was doing (which I thought was rather interesting – my work and their non-interest) before I became the first of the research department to get sacked. I therefore contributed no eventual input into the arm, but I still felt a strong connection. Since I resented the constant sniffing of an engineer in my lab, I had been moved to the room where the arm was being put through its endurance testing. It reminded me of the Queen waving. I was told they had tried a more demanding regime but it just broke so they gave it something easier.

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3 Responses to Jimmy Savile: My Part In His Edification: The Arm

  1. john walsj says:

    if you’d like to know anything about the robotic Jim’ll Fix It chair, just ask – I’m the guy that built it.

  2. John Power says:

    What a blast from the past. As a young Engineer I was the first team member Tim Jones and Geoff Henny (the founders of UMI) hired once they got initial funding. This was because I’d just finished a course in robotics at the time and was available. It was a crazy but great place to work and I feel privileged to have worked with so many brilliant engineers and pioneers of robotics. If any of the original team are still out there I’d be happy to catch-up. – John Power

    • Hi John! Nice to hear from you! Ah yes – I remember now! You got me to drive the arm one time, in some kind of coffin, off to some place of safety or something in my Cortina estate! Can’t quite remember the details 🙂 . Seeing your picture on your Aerogen webpage confirmed instantly who you were, though when I noticed the number of clicks from Ireland I’d already guessed! Roy died suddenly whilst gardening, maybe five years after I left. I’ve been trying to remember the name of the bloke who helped him – writing the Pascal programs to drive the arm. Used to drive a motor scooter.

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