Exclusive Interview from our Author John Polden

In this interview, we talk to John Polden, author of the book, Signal Failure: The Rise and Fall of the Telecoms Industry. We discuss the motivation behind writing the book, the target audience, the most useful aspects of the book, the challenges of writing the book, and advice for other engineers who are considering writing a book. 

John Polden lives in the UK and has a degree in electronic engineering from Southampton University. He gained an MBA at London Business School and pursued a career managing UK electronics companies. He then went on to spend 20 years in the UK venture capital industry investing in technology start-up businesses. He spent 7 years researching the history of the UK electronics industry as an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sussex until 2023. While he has contributed to several industry publications, this is his first book to be published. 

  1. What was your main motivation behind writing your book?  

I feel the need to document an industry that I spent my life working in particularly as it is becoming alarmingly clear that many of its features and records are rapidly disappearing. I am conscious of the danger of this becoming just a project to make sense of my career, but I feel there are wider issues that should come out of this work. 

This book is a result of a personal journey for me. Having spent my career involved with UK technology business, I wanted to step back and look in more detail at how technology affects business and society. I have always been interested in the history of enterprises and noticed how quickly once thriving businesses could disappear with little trace. Unlike most major industries of the past (steel, shipbuilding, cotton) little physical evidence of modern technology businesses survives when they cease trading. 

Following on from this, I intend to use the book as a platform for the recording of the history of the electronics industry. Appendix 1 is intended to be the start of a systematic record of the sites used by the UK electronics industry 1950-2000.  

I have always welcomed fresh mental challenges. My background as an engineering trained manager in the electronics industry and later the Venture Capital industry, covered a wide range of disciplines but never gave me the opportunity to explore the economic issues underlying the growth and decline of industries. Nor did I see the political forces involved as anything other than peripheral factors in business decisions. 

  1. Who is the main target audience for your book and what will they appreciate the most about the book? 

The book is intended for anyone who is interested in the how innovation affects economic performance and the realities of technology entering the marketplace. Telecom professionals will find it gives background to the changes that happened in the UK industry. However, the book is also aimed at people who are interested in trends in the world-wide telecoms and other technology industries. 

Managers, economists and industrialists involved with technological development will find the book relevant as it gives an insight into the issues that occur as significant disruptive technology enters a market. 

  1. What do you see your book being most useful for? 

What the book attempts to show is the extraordinarily long timescales of business cycles even in what is usually considered a fast-moving technological environment. Hence events in the 1980s are an almost inevitable consequence of decisions taken in the 1920s.  It also attempts to show that the relatively poor quality of business and political management deployed to address the issues of the industry made its ultimate demise much more likely. I would also hope that the book illustrates that the UK’s culture of periods of laissez-faire with occasional outbreaks of state planning is highly unfortunate if we want new industries to flourish. In the absence of any apparent ability in the UK to seriously plan for a successful growth of a new industry, then I would advocate leaving things to take their own course while providing some basic resources (such as a trained workforce and some tax incentives). This seems to have worked for the media industry. 

  1. How did you find the writing of the book? Do you have a specific process or are you quite methodical in your writing approach? 

Writing this book as part of my aim to find new challenges as I moved into a semi-retirement role having spent 40 years in regular employment, the first half of it managing companies in the UK electronics industry and the second half working in the UK Venture Capital industry providing funding for early-stage technology companies. 

Through contacts I was very fortunate to be introduced to Prof Ed Steinmueller of Sussex University who agreed to mentor me as I researched the economic history of the UK electronics industry. In turn this led to me being appointed as Honorary Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the university. Eventually we agreed that the best way to carry out this role was to write a book on the economic history of the Uk electronics industry. Initially I wanted to cover the whole industry over its entire timescale up to the present day. However, this proved to be too big a task, so I ended up researching the UK telecoms industry for the period from 1950 to 2000 (a crucial period of technological, economic and political change). 

I was amazed to find my period at SPRU lasted 7 years (from 2016 to 2023). Clearly, I was a slow learner having to get used to the disciplines of academic research as well as writing a book. I also discovered that retiring wasn’t such an easy process remaining on the board of companies until 2024! During my period with SPRU Ed Steinmueller provided immensely helpful coaching and guidance to take me through the process which was totally alien to me having spent my career in technology business management.  

  1. What challenges did you face when writing the book and how did you overcome them? 

Apart from learning the whole process of academic research and turning this into a document that hopefully is both well-structured and readable, several issues arose from the specifics of the matter that I was researching. 

One was finding the basic data to analyse. The period around 1980 to 1990 was one where the accumulation of information and its publication largely transferred from paper-based to computer-based systems. In many cases little effort was made to upload early paper-based data sets into computer systems. A lot of paper-based information was put in a skip. An example of this is the Business Monitor publication of the then DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) around the 1970s. These were excellent detail quarterly statistical journals, published separately for most industry sectors. Amazingly I have not managed to locate a single copy of this journal despite contacting most of the expected locations (such as the National Statistics Office)! I rather hope that as a result of this book someone will come out of the woodwork and announce he has a garage full of old copies! 

Similar discontinuities can be seen in UN Trade Data. A lot of publications up to the 1980s have not yet been digitised so their information is hard to access. 

The interplay between technology, economic and political factors made it sometimes different to display the evolution of the industry is a simple format. I started writing a simple chronological history, but the interplay of factors made it necessary to split strands (such as mobile telephony) into separate chapters. 

Finally, there is the pervading danger of exhibiting perfect hindsight. One must try to put oneself into the shoes of the people involved at the time and understand the issues they were facing and the perceived priorities at the time. The all-pervasive growth of information technology, communications and the resulting social media remains hard to comprehend. 

  1. What advice would you give to other engineers who are considering writing a book? 

Think again! Certainly, writing a book is not a financial rewarding use of one time. (unless you’re J k Rowling). Therefore, you need to be clear what your reasons are for the activity and what you want to get out of it. 

In the academic context, the urge is to generate citations which is one way of keeping score. To non-academics (like myself) this is less important. Perhaps the main motivation is to get one’s own thoughts into some order or (as in my case) simply to explore a new activity. 

  1. What are you working on next? 


No actually, I hope the book will generate some level of response! As expressed above I have a horror that major enterprises in the electronics industry are simply disappearing with no obvious trace. Unlike cotton mills, coal mines and shipyards there is little physical evidence of their previous existence. To this end I want to explore whether the process of communal recording of information (such as in Wikipedia) can be harnessed to record the history of enterprises such as the UK telecoms industry. Watch this space! 

Learn more about the book on our websites

ARTECH HOUSE USA : Signal Failure: The Rise and Fall of the Telecoms Industry

ARTECH HOUSE U.K.: Signal Failure: The Rise and Fall of the Telecoms Industry

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