Peter Cochrane started work putting up telephone poles. But his love for technology has taken him to the top at BT. He talks to Jack Kenny
Peter Cochrane is head of Research at BT Laboratories, based at Martlesham in Suffolk, and is one of the most provocative thinkers about the impact of information and communications technology. It is his job to think the outrageous and to encourage others to do likewise. "Even when you do that, what we have thought up will look pretty tame in five years," he says.
Born in a Nottinghamshire mining village, Cochrane failed the 11-plus and went on to fail at school. "Now I have four times more doctorates than I have O-levels." This is the man who said that in the next five years there will two kinds of teachers: the IT literate and the retired.
He was born into a home where there were three books: the Bible, a dictionary and an atlas. "My father had been an engine fitter in the RAF during the (Second World) War," he says, which brought an engineering influence to his life. School made little impact.
The discovery of radio was the first watershed in Cochrane's life. In the Fifties, radios had a strange beauty, with valves glowing brightly.
"It started when I was ill. I was in bed for about six weeks with a virus and lost a lot of weight. In the recuperating period, someone brought me a Boys' Own book, and in there was a chapter on how to build yourself a morse lamp. You needed a battery, a light bulb, a match box, a few drawing pins and pipe cleaners - so I built it. I moved on to things electrical and then to shortwave radio.
"Shortly after the illness I went around all the radio shops in the town collecting their scrap. There was a shed in the garden I turned into a workshop and I dismantled all these old radios, throwing away the cases and keeping capacitors, resistors and tuning coils. Out of these, I set about building my own radio receivers. Some of these things had 350 volts at half an amp. I could have killed myself. It's a wonder I am still here because I knew nothing. "
This passion sustained him through secondary school. "I would collect things from the radio shops, stick bits together and that would allow me to listen to people in America. I then got this lust to talk to them and I went and found people in an amateur radio club. Eventually, at 15, I got my licence to build transmitters. I also built morse code units, oscillators, modulators. I was then able to talk to people in places like Middletown, New York, to Australia and Russia."
His choice of first employer - the Post Office, part of which evolved into BT - was a crucial watershed that enabled him to follow the technology he loved. The company has nurtured him.
"My first job was digging holes and putting poles up. I became a maintenance technician. I was green fingered - fault finding was intuitive as far as I was concerned. It wasn't until I was educated in the academic sense that it all started to come together.
Cochrane continues:"From 16 to 18 I struggled with maths, didn't even know what a logarithm was. Suddenly, a teacher took an interest. I was on day release and I also went to night school. Mr Martin used to work at Nottingham High School for Boys and now taught at Nottingham Technical College. It was under his tutelage that I began to understand electronics because he also gave me the mathematical tools to understand."
At 22, Cochrane attended Trent Polytechnic. "I met a group of brilliant teachers - a mathematician, physicist, chemist, radiologist, electronics engineer - all at the same time. I was there for five years and came out with a first-class honours degree."
He moved straight to Martlesham. The influences have been many and varied, ranging from writers such as Nicholas Negroponte to Richard Dawkins. And this is where his other big influence came to bear. "In its heyday, Apple Research influenced me. They had a dedication to humanising machinery."
Up until this stage, computers were unwelcoming, even esoteric machines. But Apple, which famously built computers "for the rest us", was attempting to break away from this. Apple's attitude, says Cochrane, was "we will make something that is so complicated - a computer - so easy that everyone will be able to use it".
"I fell in love with Apple a long time ago. If I have a PC, it gives me a lot of grief, whereas the Apple is dead simple. Three clicks on the Apple is the equivalent of about 17 on the PC.
"I had an early PC and thought that it was an abomination. I got an Apple and, without reading the instruction book, created my first document in 15 minutes. The G3 Macintosh on my desk has 8Gb of hard disk space and 200Mb of RAM. I have a love affair with the whole thing. My wife even says: 'If I had an Apple tattooed on my forehead would you love me more?' " Cochrane's frame of reference is vast and his conversation ranges widely. Ideas cascade from him. He is concerned about the gap between the Third World and the First World, with the education system, the avoidance of war. "If the population of India and Russia and China all decide that they want to live to the same standard as the people in the United States, then the planet dies. If the West does not create the people to create the technology to allow us to transport and communicate at very low energy and material costs, then the planet dies. We can't predict the future but we can build it."
THE COCHRANE FILE
1962-69 Post Office technician, system maintenance
1968-73 Trent Polytechnic, BSc Hons in electrical engineering
1969-73 Post Office, student engineer
1973 Joined BT Laboratories
1974-76 Essex University, MSc in telecommunications systems
1976-79 Essex University, PhD in telecoms transmission
1978-91 Essex University, DSc in electronics systems design
1990 Queen's Award for innovation and export
1993 Appointed head of Applied Research and Technology department at BT Laboratories
1995 Member of the New York Academy of Sciences
1996 Honorary doctorates at Essex and Stafford Universities