`We called the lamps Ayatollahs: the lighting director looked like one'
Charlie Paton is developing a greenhouse that desalinates sea water, but he got his start inventing a robotic lighting system for plays, television and rock concerts, which he sold in 1987 for pounds 1m
Sunday 31 March 1996
Between 1969 and 1975, I was working as a freelance on West End musicals, rock concerts and television commercials. I must have worked on more than 200 productions during my career, including Starlight Express and the last Who concert. It's a bit like being in business - you are your own boss. But what motivated me to set up Light Works wasn't financial gain but my own curiosity.
In those days, because the lights were fixed, you needed lots of them, and each one had to be adjusted manually before the performance. I realised that motorised lights could be run from the lighting desk, so I started experimenting in my workshop. Eventually, all of my fiddling around with lights and motors and mirrors ended up with a product that was a universal building block for a motorised lighting system.
At that time robots were just beginning to happen, and they were fearsomely expensive, so I had to design my own from scratch. Attaching motors to the lamps was relatively easy, but I had a problem with heat. The lights can reach 200C (360F), and very few electrical components can stand more than 85C. I dealt with it by taking the electrical bits to the side, using the heat to create a chimney cooling effect, like a draught.
In the early days I financed the development out of my back pocket. But by 1973 I thought I had a working design and went looking for money to build a prototype. NatWest came through with pounds 12,000. I know everybody knocks banks, but at various stages I was supported by banks when nobody else would support me. The old-school bank managers were tremendously good. The only other financing I got was from the National Research Development Corporation. It put in pounds 20,000 to cover 50 per cent of the cost of making it manufacturable. My business then was called Small Works, but NRDC wanted me to set up a limited company, so I incorporated Light Works.
My first model never did make it into production. It was a technical success but a commercial failure. The mechanisms were too bespoke. Everything had to be made specially. Before you can cut down the unit costs, you've got to build the equipment to put on the production line. A cigarette lighter can cost about pounds 200,000 to tool up for.
It was impossible to persuade anyone to make that kind of investment unless there was a market clamouring for the product. And there wasn't. The idea that all you have to do is build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door just isn't true. It cost about four times as much as fixed lighting, so no one was willing to buy it, even though they admired it.
At the time lighting was very macho - the more banks of lights you had, the better. I was trying to do more with less, which ran against the grain, and I was charging four times as much per light. A bank of 18 lamps cost pounds 8,000.
Even though I never got a single purchase order, I did rent my prototype rig out to shows like Chorus Girls at Stratford East and The Who tour. I also spent a lot of time in and out of the studios at LWT. I did the Sunday Night Live show and other variety programmes. It kept me alive.
While the product failed, the business survived. Eventually I found a neater, cheaper solution based on off- the-shelf components, replacing mechanisms with electronics. The key was Intel's 8096 chip, which was designed to control missiles and by the 1980s cost just pounds 10 each.
I worked out a lot of the details while doing the lighting for Starlight Express in 1984. We nicknamed the lamps Ayatollahs, partly because the lighting director looked like one, and partly because they were majestic, sinister black boxes that turned towards Mecca and nodded. We couldn't call them that publicly, so we dubbed them MRLs. Officially it stood for Motorised Robotic Lights but really it was Muslim Religious Leaders.
That second prototype worked even better than the first, and it was cheap enough to be viable. Furthermore, by that point I had introduced enough lighting directors to the idea that they were ready to buy it. But there was still the problem of setting up a production line.
I don't regard myself as a good manager. I'm hopeless at marketing and I wouldn't want to have more than half a dozen people in my team. By the time I'd won a contract to automate the lighting in a Hanover television studio, with 150 lamps controlled from an IBM PC, it was all getting too big.
The solution was to sell the rights. I'd been talking to Strand, a lighting company owned by the Rank Organisation, for two years. We set up a licence agreement in 1987 and I was free to move on to other projects that had attracted my curiosity.
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