Graham John Thirkell, Audio Pioneer. 1937 – 2010 (2)

An Illustrious Career:

Born on the 8th April 1937, Graham left school in 1951, aged 14, to take up an apprenticeship in electrical fitting and armature winding with Sun Electrics.

In 1952 he joined Byer Industries, and was involved with the groundbreaking 77 tape recorder.

Graham winding motors at Byer - note the ubiquitous Avo meter and Scope iron.
Graham winding motors at Byer – note the ubiquitous Avo meter and Scope iron.


In 1956, the same year that Byer Industries was delivering truckloads of 77s to the Olympics Host Broadcaster the ABC, for use at the Melbourne Games, Graham was awarded Apprentice of the Year – Electrical Fitting & Armature Winding. That must have been a busy and exciting year for him.

In order to address his lack of formal higher education Graham returned to night school for sub-intermediate and then Leaving Maths & Physics. He then went on to RMIT and achieved a Diploma in Electronic Engineering, all as a part-time student while working at Byer/Rola.

In late 1957 Rola Industries purchased Byer, and Graham progressed up to head the Research & Development (R&D) Department about the same time.

1961 saw Graham leave Rola Industries to work at Telefil, then a major recording facility in St Kilda. This was an era where much recording equipment was not available “off-the-shelf”, and Graham built much of their equipment at the time, as well as maintaining it all in top operating condition. It was at Telefil that he became close to their Studio Manager, Bill Armstrong – somebody who would feature strongly in his future.

After Telefil, Graham returned to Rola/Plessey as Head of Research & Development. Following the takeover of Rola by Plessey, the product range expanded to include broadcast cartridge machines and a new range of console tape recorders.
During his time at Rola/Plessey Graham was working out-of-hours in his own company Optronics, with the approval of his employers, manufacturing one-off and small-run professional audio products.

The Optronics company had been started in the mid fifties as a partnership with Graham’s astronomy buddy Barry Clark, to merge the Optics field and the Electronics field for a range of industrial applications. However, after a couple of years Barry amicably left the partnership to follow a public-service career in optics, leaving Graham as the sole proprietor.

It was a classic “cottage industry”. Parts and partially-built equipment filled all the empty spaces of his home, and the whole family was involved in manufacturing and assembly – with his wife Katherine looking after the business side and keeping the planning and finances on track.

There is a saying that behind every successful man there stands a woman… and that is undoubtedly true with Graham and Katherine. Katherine certainly held the company together over the years, allowing Graham to invent, design, and create.
Daughter Linda remembers winding transformers for pocket money during the school holidays among other tasks – musing that the skills learned at such times proved to be invaluable.

During his time at Rola, Graham also renewed his alliance with Bill Armstrong who was setting up his first Albert Road terrace house studio.
Bill relied heavily on Graham, and Optronics, to build specialist equipment like studio consoles, equalizers, compressors and the like – and to keep other equipment like multi-track tape machines running and on-spec.
This imported technology was often the only example of its type in the country, with nobody locally trained or qualified in its maintenance – and Graham often had to analyze its operation from first principles to identify how to repair it.
Graham also modified and improved much of the equipment at Armstrongs …

Armstrongs’ recording engineer Ernie Rose recalls that Graham was “probably the most intelligent person, the best user of information that I’ve ever worked with. He could digest a complex manual overnight and come back the next day and tell us how he could improve it. He had a capacity to be able to understand new technologies (and see ways to improve on it) which was outstanding”

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Links to other pages:

GT’s Clippings’Photos’n’Stuff    

The Rola Days 1 – Graham’s photos.    The Rola Days 2 – The Magnetic Drum products.