Obituary: John Knopp

John Knopp was an innovative electronics manufacturer who came to public notice as a principal in the "Aspire" consortium which, as the first step in a programme to put a British rocket into space, last October launched a seven-foot rocket 2,500 feet in the air from Thetford, Norfolk.

He was born at Wickford, Essex, in 1937, the seventh child of a seventh child. His father, a clarinettist in a military band, died when he was four, leaving the family, as he remembered, practically penniless and cold in a big house where if the allotment wasn't tended there was nothing to eat. He excelled at mathematics and science at primary school, passed the 11-plus examination and proceeded to a secondary technical school where he gained five O levels.

Here his considerable intellectual gifts became evident when he discovered an ingenious method of mental arithmetic which enabled him, in certain operations, to compete for speed and accuracy with handheld electronic calculators. This achievement won the admiration of his teacher and later made an outstanding parlour trick. Unfortunately he never recorded the Theory of Round Numbers, as he called the process, and the associated significance that he saw in the "magic number" of 137.

National Service saw Knopp in the RAF; he enlisted for a further 10 years as a radar technician, a period which gave him enormous pleasure. Apart from seeing activity in Cyprus and being parachuted into Suez, he also captained the service cricket team and played table tennis for England. More unusually, his quiet belief in the existence of UFOs stemmed from this time, when he witnessed innumerable instances on radar screens of fast-moving unexplained objects.

Leaving the RAF in 1965, he joined IBM, working for 10 years on mainframe computer maintenance. In 1975 he started making printed circuit boards in his garden shed for an electronic organ he was building for his daughter. This in turn led to the establishment, on 1 January 1976, of Knopp Electronic Services Ltd in Braintree, Essex, supplying printed circuit boards for the mass-market consumer electronics industry.

The company flourished and expansion was rapid, particularly between 1982 and 1986 when products such as television sets and telephones were manufactured more widely in the UK. Despite the company's gaining many supplier awards for the quality of products, by 1992 two factors indicated difficult times ahead. First, in an increasingly price-sensitive industry, the main competition was coming from Far Eastern manufacturers, primarily in Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and India. Secondly, since the late 1980s, the increasing use of Integrated Circuits in consumer products was giving rise to a corresponding rise in demand for double-sided boards, where circuits are printed on both sides of a board instead of on one side. To move into double-sided board production would have required an investment of some pounds 2m in new technology, an investment which was not possible.

Rather than face the declining future which led eventually to the dramatic decrease in numbers of PCB manufacturers in the UK, Knopp started developing an entirely new approach, which he called Etch Before Plate. It took him three years to bring the process to a fully reliable state. He then faced the socially complex hurdle of convincing a conservative industry of his credibility; millions of dollars, in one case, had already been spent by one of the largest corporations in research laboratories supported by a very substantial team of scientists only to conclude that such an approach was impossible.

The early 1990s were frustrating times for Knopp, but recognition gradually came as two of the more significant consumer electronics manufacturers in Europe tried and tested his method and verified its superiority.

Apart from achieving higher quality than competing processes, the new approach was clean environmentally inasmuch as no polluting chemicals are discharged. In an industry which is notoriously polluting, he was very proud that his factory had not discharged any effluent into the sewers or even been connected to them for several years; furthermore water requirements were minimal because the new process allowed all water to be treated and recycled.

Had he lived, a major environmental award would surely have come his way, because the Etch Before Plate process is now being licensed world- wide and being taken up by major consumer electronics manufacturers both in the UK and abroad.

In the life of John Knopp it is possible to see the continuance of the industrial revolution of past centuries where skills and intelligence count for far more than paper qualifications. Although without formal training, he maintained an active interest in many other scientific and engineering areas where he was never afraid to venture, latterly in the production of hydrogen for hydrogen-powered engines where he supported fundamental university research; in reproducing one of Kelvin's experiment in electrostatics which he christened his "thunderstorm experiment"; in providing space and financial support for the Aspire amateur rocket team at the behest of his friend the late Geoffrey Pardoe, former project manager of the Blue Streak Ballistic Missile project and President of the Royal Aeronautical Society, leading to successful launches of the Aspire 2 rocket; and in the work of Len Head and others in high- voltage electron therapy, where Knopp's energy and initiatives opened up many new possibilities which in due course will be acknowledged.

In Braintree he will be remembered for his generous support of many charities, clubs and events, including the company concert brass band. For these activities and more he received local recognition in 1994 in a Business Excellence Award from Braintree District Council for Outstanding Community Support.

John Frederick David Knopp, electronics manufacturer: born Wickford, Essex 28 June 1937; married 1963 Christine Tunnicliffe (one daughter); died Braintree, Essex 26 May 1997.

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