The Udderthorpe Paper-Clip Engine

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It is easy for us to forget these days, as muzak rings out from a thousand call-centres, that Great Britain once dominated the economy of the world. Its ascendancy was founded upon the brilliance of a handful of Engineers, whose entrepreneurial spirit shaped and defined the Industrial Revolution. The legacy lives on into modern times. What follows is a remarkable tale of latter-day technical innovation, and of an extraordinary man. This is the story of the Udderthorpe Paper-Clip Engine.

Malcolm Armitage was born in the small Northern English town of Udderthorpe in the year of 1957. When we consider what he came to achieve, it is amazing to relate that Armitage began with no formal engineering education and no business management experience. In spite of a dismal academic career, however, he had learned two things in youth which were to give him a unique and particular insight. One was a precise recollection of an entire set of Typhoo 'cigarette' cards on the subject of 'Great British Inventors'. The other was a keen appreciation of the economic factors which underpinned the development of the Industrial Revolution, assimilated when he coincidentally woke up during a school history lesson in 1972.

On chances such as these, miracles of enterprise may be founded. Armitage looked upon a simple lock-up garage and realised that it possessed all of the vital requirements for the establishment of a manufacturing community. There was water in the stand-pipes of the allotments opposite. There was a light bulb in the socket. Moreover, there was a ready supply of labour, since the bookmaker's on the corner of Delphi Terrace had mysteriously burned down just a fortnight before.

It was the Sunday of the first week of June 1988. The events of that incredible summer have been recreated through the acute memory of Armitage's daughter, Margaret, then a child only six years of age. Inspired by Margaret's vivid account, a determined local community has teamed together to rebuild the Engine itself.

Margaret Armitage was born at the height of the Falklands Conflict, though by 1988 the warrior queen who inspired her name had become altogether less popular in Udderthorpe. Her father had been unemployed almost since the day of little Margaret's birth. On that day in June, he finally saw a glimpse of salvation. He realised more than the potential of the lock-up. He saw his product, and the process by which he would make it. A blindingly obvious economic necessity had been overlooked by tycoons and business magnates everywhere, but it was not missed by Armitage. The world needed more paper-clips. The cigarette cards began to blend together in his mind, to realise the machine that would deliver them.

It is a testament to Armitage's innate engineering skill that the prototype machine that he designed carried him through almost five weeks of production, with scarcely a component failure or a major operational adjustment. Moreover, it cost him not one penny to build. He constructed it entirely from materials at hand, including the charred wreck of a Mark III Cortina that lay behind the block of flats that Armitage called home.

The principal source of machine parts, however, was Deirdre's flat next door. We have already noted that life was hard Up North in the sunset of Thatcher's Empire. Since the official abolition of society some years earlier, the council seldom noticed the expiry of its tenants. It was customary among the doughty folk of Udderthorpe to bury the unclaimed dead in their allotments, and to pay respects through the thoughtful commercial exploitation of their possessions. And thus did Malcolm Armitage celebrate the life of Deirdre Boothroyd, late spinster of this parish.

The Paper-Clip Engine was naturally named Deirdre, and it consisted of Deirdre from the formica base-board sawn out of her kitchen work-top to the leaf-springs scavenged from the front-loading door of her Hotpoint. But the power source was provided by Margaret, or more properly by her pet Hamster, Harold. The linkage of his treadwheel to both the stonking-box (as Armitage called it) and the indexing mechanism remains to this day a masterpiece of machine design and of lateral thinking.

To connoisseurs of engineering elegance, Armitage's Engine is sweet inspiration. The three bends required to form a clip are effected by separate strokes of the single stonking-arm. All three motions take place within one rotation of the treadwheel, as does a fourth motion which simultaneously discharges the finished clip and indexes the wire feed. The cam which governs this four-stage cycle is beautifully fashioned from a Mackeson bottle-cap, and Margaret recounts that her mother consumed two crates of stout in a forty-eight hour period as the driven genius strove to perfect its design. The indexing mechanism cunningly exploits the Cortina's rotor-arm, and the hopper which collects the finished product started life as its ashtray.

But in spite of the exquisite technical perfection of his machine, Armitage now met his first serious challenge. He had no wire. A midnight visit to the chain-link fencing alongside the chip-shop yielded a substantial length, but the gauge was to prove unsuitable. A hand-made prototype clip weighed three ounces and spanned the full width of a sheet of foolscap. Armitage briefly entertained the idea of marketing it as a means of retaining sheets of exterior plywood, but he was too astute a businessman to miss the essential technical flaw : the hamster would never have the energy to bend such formidable feedstock.

Armitage floundered for almost two days with this problem, resorting to stripping the paper off freezer-bag ties and even attempting to solder string. In an cruel twist of fate, the test-runs of his Engine had to be carried out on straightened paper-clips. Most of the resulting clips were well-formed, but the irony of his predicament squeezed the pleasure from Armitage's commissioning success. Margaret remembers the unusual savagery with which he thrashed her with a broken bottle that evening.

His greatest frustration was that the town was punctuated with wire-drawing businesses and their industrial customers. He considered partnership, but was loathe to share the fruits of his creativity with anyone. The bank refused him a loan (in fact, they refused him entry). Then, as if by a miracle, his desperate need for capital was assuaged by an unlikely benefactor, Porky's Pal in the 3.45 at Wetherby. The following morning, a Friday, Armitage purchased a coil of fine wire from Norfolk and Goode Ltd of Udderthorpe. This company were themselves makers of stationery fastenings, but by now the irony was on Armitage's side. He relished the prospect of future competition. The second week of his great enterprise was about to begin, and he was finally ready to make clips.

In the weeks that followed, Malcolm Armitage produced one thousand two hundred and twenty six paper clips in condition for sale, with a process yield of some 60% and a unit cost of production (after accounting for his own living expenses, gambling losses, hamster food and a small fine imposed for committing criminal damage to council property) of £2.79 per clip. Armitage was quite undeterred by this last figure. He had his sights firmly set on the luxury end of the paper-clip market. As if to prove the point, every single clip which passed his meticulous quality inspection was smeared with chip-fat and wrapped in a paper coupon hand-torn from the Racing Post.

Armitage had plans to automate this anti-corrosion packaging process, and to upgrade the paper medium to Rizlas once his revenue stream was established. His design for this machine remains with us to this day, painstakingly drawn on a slip of card cut from his characteristic carton of Silk Cut. The Armitage Society hopes one day to prove it, but Armitage himself was tragically never able to do so.

With the benefit of Margaret's hindsight, we know that the beginning of the end occurred some two weeks before production ceased. Armitage knew very well (courtesy of Typhoo No. 50) that securing the intellectual property behind his invention was essential. He researched the patents for related technologies in local libraries, and was one evening dismayed to find that the 800-ton pit-arch gag press invented by Dudley Durdle of Cleckheaton in 1919 matched his own design in some detail. Only the scale was significantly different, as evidenced by the structural steel cage containing the eight thousand hamsters necessary to generate the required torque.

From that moment on, Armitage lived in perpetual dread of competitor emulation of the Engine. He wrote to the Patent Office, seeking their opinion on the novelty of his design. He waited, in a state of high anxiety, for their postal reply every day thereafter. Then, on a Friday evening at the beginning of July, at the bar of the "Heaving Collier" in Nirvana Street, he overheard a conversation that confirmed his worst fears. A plant in Nakamihara, Japan was turning out two million paper-clips a day from a single line, and Norfolk and Goode had just called in the receivers.

Armitage was immediately convinced that the Japanese had stolen his process concept, but he couldn't understand how they'd raised the productivity to such a level. There was nothing wrong with Armitage's mental arithmetic, honed as it was at a dozen racecourses, and he knew that his competitor must be making thirty clips a second after a reasonable allowance for tea-breaks. Perhaps they weren't using his process after all? But a couple of pints later, Armitage was resolute again. He began to believe that such a rate of production could be achieved with a simple refinement of the Engine, and he decided to put his ideas to the test.

Perhaps it was the hangover, or perhaps it was the fear of business ruin, but on that terrible Saturday morning Armitage allowed his exacting professional standards to slip for the first and last time. The Hotpoint was further cannibalised, and Deirdre's fast spin was incorporated into the drive mechanism, facilitated by a pair of her tights. That part of the job seems to have been accomplished competently enough, but Armitage's growing impatience was destined to lead to tragic casualties.

Why Armitage forgot about Harold we will never know, but it is certain that the faithful creature was killed outright as his treadmill screamed up to fifteen hundred revolutions per minute. The Engine itself fared little better. It shot three malformed clips deep into Armitage's groin before catastrophic failure occurred. The stonking-arm buckled and the tadger flew clean through the lock-up window. The eccentric reciprocating sprocket-head was violently ejected from the indexing mechanism, and was left embedded in Deirdre's work-top.

In spite of his terrible injuries, Armitage is known to have spent several minutes attempting to repair the Engine. The task was, of course, beyond him. Weakened by loss of blood and hamster, he seems to have been driven to a fateful decision. Armitage secured the lock-up behind him, and went home to watch the snooker on the telly. He may have intended to return later, but he was destined never to do so. Within a week, Armitage took off with a barmaid from the "Heaving Collier", and has never been seen since.

The heroic project was over. It had lasted for the brief (though highly significant) period of forty-two days. In spite of its ephemeral duration, Armitage's achievements within this fleeting timescale remain breathtaking. No subsequent business venture on the East Side of Udderthorpe has lasted anything like so long, unless you count Mr Lance Boyle's protection racket.

The Engine remained lost to the world for several years after this. Until last year, only one interim development was of any significance. Margaret returned from a family holiday in Skegness in 1991, to be greeted by a distraught neighbour. A door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman had stolen what was left of Armitage's coil of wire, in spite of the best efforts of this worthy neighbour to prevent the theft. By such selfish and unthinking action is the fabric of the nation's industrial heritage unravelled. To say nothing of the fabric of its grammar.

And finally, about one year ago, the latest chapter in the story of the Engine was set in motion. Margaret, now eighteen years of age and in the full bloom of youthful womanhood, found a letter addressed to her father on the doormat. It was from the Patent Office. They had concluded that the Durdle Gag Press was substantially different from the Armitage Engine, and that a patent application in respect of her father's machine would in all probability be granted.

Margaret's curiosity was re-awakened, but she approached the derelict lock-up with trepidation. Fortunately, her current boyfriend had a gift for breaking and entering. Once inside, Margaret gazed in silent sorrow at the mummified remains of Harold, and at the shattered Engine. But at that moment a resolve was rekindled within her, to ensure that the Pride of the Armitages would rise and work again.

The following morning, another improbable twist of fate occurred. As Margaret described her visit to the lock-up to a colleague in the video rental store where she worked, she was overhead by an overcoated figure a couple of aisles away. As luck would have it, this was none other than Professor Cornelius Spragg of the School of Industrial Archaeology in the University of Drabcaster, who was fortuitously seeking research material for his project on Scandinavian Bathing Rituals at that precise moment.

Margaret lead the Professor to the lock-up with some caution, but any thought he might have entertained about showing her his journals disappeared as soon as he saw the Engine. True : it was twisted and broken, and Deirdre's base-board had been ravaged by rodents, but the majesty of Armitage's masterwork still rang out. The Professor's heart leapt at the sight of this magnificent testament to the tenacity and spirit of the common man. In that moment of revelation, the project to reinstate the Engine was born. Through the selfless efforts of dozens of people, that project has come to its triumphant realisation in recent days.

Over the last year, Margaret's accounts of her father's toil and vision have inspired and guided very many researchers. Of particular value have been the discourses she has delivered while participating in the meetings of the University Photographic Club. It has naturally been imperative for the Professor to remain in close attendance while these highly significant outpourings of the modern history of our community have taken place.

And so you will see that the context of the alleged incidents is one of genuine and significant academic research, as my client has maintained throughout these proceedings. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to thank you for your close attention to what has been a technically complex and wide-ranging narrative. M'lud, that concludes the case for the defence...

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