Graham Harvey: Electrical engineering fond memories and camaraderie

BSc Electronic & Electrical Engineering, 1983

I went to the University of Birmingham in 1980 to study Electronic & Electrical Engineering, after having left school with A Levels in Maths, Further Maths and Physics. The world was a rather different place back then. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan was the US President. Europe (and Germany) was still divided by the Iron Curtain with the Soviet Union very much alive and well. We had only had personal calculators for a few years. Personal computers were very rare but some of us had come across computer programming languages such as BASIC. The Internet as we know it today did not exist.

My initial impressions were that the city of Birmingham and the University were both very welcoming. I elected to stay in one of the University’s halls of residence, (the old and now replaced) Mason Hall, which sat in landscaped grounds with a lake, and which housed 700 or so students. It was conveniently located just a short walk/cycle ride away from the campus in Edgbaston and the Gisbert Kapp Building which housed the Electronic & Electrical Engineering Department (and which in those days had a radar dish on its roof). 

We Are (Third Width)

It was obvious from the start that the course was going to be challenging for us all. When I compared notes with students studying other subjects I heard that their courses had started in October and comprised late morning to early afternoon lectures which allowed plenty of time for late night partying and lie-ins. Not so “Elec Eng”, as it was known. Our course started early one morning in September where, following a welcoming speech by the Head of Department (included the ‘motivation’ that only 90 or so of us out of the 120 assembled would make it through the three-year course), we then underwent a 1 hour Maths exam followed by a 1 hour Physics exam to determine our proficiency in these subjects. Welcome to Elec Eng!

My memory of the first year was that we had an intensive but comprehensive set of courses to study. Apart from the obvious Electronics and Electrical Engineering, we were given a good grounding in other engineering disciplines such as Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Computer Studies, complemented with Maths, Physics and Technical Drawing.

These courses were scheduled from 9 till 5 each weekday, except for Wednesday afternoons which (in theory) were set aside for sports. Elec Engers spent an awful lot of time in their own company; 9 till 5 in the Elec Eng lecture halls and labs, including coffee and lunch breaks, many of us shared flats/houses with other Elec Engers and given the heavy workload, we would always turn up late together to parties. I think these conditions caused a great deal of the camaraderie I remember from those days. We worked hard, partied hard and if our bedroom lights were still on at 3am we must have ‘fallen asleep’ (no we hadn’t, we were still working…).

We got to play as well, of course. Elec Engers attended music concerts (well-known bands visiting the campus as well as playing at the Birmingham Odeon), went to football matches (numerous top-flight clubs to choose from. I followed Aston Villa to their European Cup win in 1982) and joined various clubs and societies. We went on trips to Alton Towers and my friend Ian ran the Ballroom Dancing Society back then. Then there were the Uni and private parties and gatherings at infamous pubs such as the “Mucky Duck” and the Black Horse.

As Elec Engers, we found that our studies weren’t for three ‘years’ but rather three ‘phases’; Phase 1 was three terms, Phase 2 was two terms and the final Phase 3 was 4 terms long; our department always had to be different! Our ‘summer’ exams took place immediately after Easter. One year, some of our student colleagues failed to make it back to their ‘summer’ exams as they had been snowed in at home! Another significant difference between engineering and arts degrees was that instead of a dissertation/thesis, Elec Engers were required to work on a Phase 3 project, submit a final report and present this to an audience of peers and lecturers. This project lasted four terms (plus a summer holiday) and accounted for 45% of the degree.

A photo was taken of the 1980 Elec Eng intake very early on in our course. Many of us didn’t see this photo till many years later but it has since proved to be an invaluable record of everyone that was present in the early days. Combined with lists of students from those days and a good memory, we have been able to identify the majority of our colleagues from those days. To modern eyes this photo clearly reveals a lack of diversity in those days; a sea of mostly white men which reflected how few girls chose/were advised to study Maths and Physics at A Level. There was a contingent of Chinese and Malaysian students and a handful of black and Asian Brits but just four women!

As the course proceeded, we were allowed to diversify the subjects we took to pursue our strengths and interests. In my case I specialised in Radar and Sonar in “Phase 3” and my Phase 3 project comprised building electronic circuitry, performing experiments in the sonar ‘tank lab’ and writing software (in FORTRAN IV, an ancient computer programming language).

As graduation approached some of us discussed the idea of a future reunion at which we could compare our careers, see where we had ended up and see who had married and had kids etc. We talked of holding an event perhaps five years after graduation (1988) but this never happened.

My BSc (Hons) in Electronic & Electrical Engineering was highly respected by potential employers and was a passport to all kinds of engineering jobs. After graduation I chose to join GEC’s Radar research lab in Chelmsford where my knowledge of Radar and FORTRAN allowed me to progress quickly in the job. I found myself working alongside fellow UoB Elec Engers in my first two jobs after Uni.

In around 1996 I decided to track down as many of my former Elec Eng student friends, partly by requesting assistance from the Uni who provided last known addresses. I sent out questionnaires and compiled a report which summarised our colleagues’ careers and home lives and gave contact details including email addresses (yes, this was many years before GDPR!).

This exercise went down well with a lot of people and we found that we had both pursued a variety of different careers and had dispersed around the world. Most of us had gone into engineering roles. However, one of my friends always planned to be a policeman after graduation and one allegedly became a sheep farmer in New Zealand!

Years later we were able to stay in closer contact through LinkedIn and Facebook which helped when my friend Liz and I decided to organise a reunion gathering which around 40 of our student friends managed to attend. A few of us also attended a reunion at the Uni, 25 years after graduation.

When I look back at my time at Birmingham, I have fond memories of the City and the University campus, the camaraderie between my student friends and less fond memories of all the study and exams! However, the qualification I received from the Uni and the skills I acquired benefitted me throughout my career and still do, to this day.

Nowadays, 38 years after graduation, I still remain in regular contact with some of my Elec Eng colleagues though admittedly I haven’t seen many of them for years. Another reunion is overdue!

graham harvey class of 1983