Obituary: Alexander Poliakoff

Jeanne Vronskaya
Wednesday 31 July 1996 00:02
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Alexander Poliakoff was for more than 40 years chairman of Multitone Electronics, the pioneers of electronic "bleepers". He was also a designer of hearing aids for Winston Churchill.

He was born at his parents' country house at Losino- Ostrovskaya, near Moscow, in 1910, the only son of Joseph Poliakoff, a telephone and sound engineer and inventor. His mother, Flora Shabbat, was a granddaughter of a textile millionaire. The family lived in the heart of Moscow; Alexander's nursery window overlooked the golden domes of the Kremlin.

Gradually after the October 1917 coup the flat, then the car and his father's Telephone Construction Company were confiscated by Lenin's government. At the age of 14, in June 1924, Alexander left Moscow with his father for London with the help of a friend, Godfrey Issacks, the managing director of Marconi, who pretended that he needed Joseph Poliakoff's assistance to discuss building Marconi radio stations in the Soviet Union. The then Soviet ambassador, Khristian Rakovsky (later executed by Stalin), signed the paper.

Once in London an appropriate position for Joseph Poliakoff was found as Deputy Director of the Technical Department at the Soviet Trade Delegation, known as Arcos. The young Alexander, who obviously was not needed to instal radio stations, was taken under the excuse that he was dying in Russia and would not survive the forthcoming winter.

The British police closed Arcos's premises in 1929 after a well-documented raid which confirmed that it was being used for espionage activity. This also resulted in breaking diplomatic relations between the two countries. Alexander's father did not return to the Soviet Union, which in the eyes of the Soviet government made him a "traitor". In 1931, Alexander graduated in Physics from University College London, and joined Multitone Electric Company, founded a month earlier by his father, in White Lion Street in Islington, north London.

The company eventually employed 700 people with Alexander Poliakoff as its chairman. Among the items they made was a wireless set for the deaf. But their star client was Sir Winston Churchill, who purchased several hearing aids. Alexander and his father used to be invited to Downing Street to check they were working.

During the Second World War another device designed by Alexander Poliakoff - the Bomb Clock Detector - was launched on the order of the Ministry of Aircraft Production to equip air force disposal squads.

In 1946 Poliakoff married Ina Montagu, a granddaughter of the first Lord Swaythling, the banker (she died in 1991). His younger son, Stephen Poliakoff, is the distinguished British stage playwright.

In the post-war years Multitone, which became Multitone Electronics plc, became a pioneer in the development of bleepers. From the 1970s they were exported all over the world.

Poliakoff returned to Moscow for the first time in 1966 to take part in the British Exhibition held in Sokolniki Park. He stayed at the National Hotel, opposite his former flat. Among the special visitors at the Multitone stand was President Leonid Brezhnev. The KGB sealed off the huge pavilion from the public. One of his accompanying ministers liked a particular electronics gadget and complained to Brezhnev that it was expensive. "Nonsense," said Brezhnev. "Alexander Iosifovich would give me a big discount."

Poliakoff retired in 1977 and sold Multitone to a Hong Kong-based telepaging group, Champion Technology. With Deborah Sacks, he wrote a volume of memoirs, Femya Polyakovyx ("The Family of Poliakoff" - subtitled "The Silver Samovar"), published in Moscow last year.

Alexander Poliakoff, electronics engineer and designer: born Moscow 20 August 1910; chairman, Multitone Electronics 1931-77; married 1937 Ina Montagu (died 1991; two sons, two daughters); died London 26 July 1996.

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