A Gem of an Idea
Mrs Killick and the Sapphire Stylus - Postscript
Recounted by Barrie Blake-Coleman from material supplied by Cynthia Killick
Between 1953 and 1961 Marie Louise Killick fought a long, bitter and ultimately fruitless battle with Pye over their infringement of her 1945 patent for the truncated sapphire stylus used in sound reproduction of 78 rpm and the 'new' microgroove recordings. This story (A Gem of an Idea - Mrs Killick and the Sapphire Stylus) was covered in the Winter 1995 Edition of Inventors World. The tale remained incomplete because all traces of Marie vanished after 1961 when, through a conspiracy of events, she left her last court hearing having failed in her appeal against bankruptcy and the official seizure of her damages from Pye. The Inventors World article put forward a plea for any information regarding the whereabouts of Marie and we have been fortunate to have been contacted by some members of the Killick family.
What follows here is a condensed version of a longer text supplied by Cynthia Killick. Cynthia's original version is a coldly shocking and unemotive account of a dreadful episode in British corporate and legal history. Likewise, even this abridged version leaves no one in any doubt that justice is not necessarily in the hands of the judges, that unscrupulous people can control events, and that equity is certainly never an automatic consequence of any legal system, even one which supposedly strives for fairness.
Editors Note: This article originally appeared in Inventors World magazine, Summer, 1996.
The text is unchanged.
When Pye began infringing Marie's patent in 1948 she had already achieved acclaim for the excellence of her 'Sapphox' design stylus - Decca, in 1946, said that it was "the finest thing on the market" having passed "all known tests" and was later to offer £750,000 for the rights. The Rank Organization began to use it specifically to improve cinema sound systems. However, styli made by Walco, Telefunken and Pye began to encroach on Marie's sales and in order to establish the extent of Pye’s activities she offered her British Patent for sale. Only then (October 1950) did she learn that her trusted patent agent had allowed her British Patent and pending World Patents to lapse. Until she could recover her patent her competitors could legally manufacture her stylus.
Reinstatement of the patent proved onerous - the Patent office controller delayed for a year, continually procrastinating even though it was clear that Marie was not at fault and that it was her agent who had been negligent. Time passed and Marie’s market for styli was being rapidly eroded. So great was the strain on her that she fell ill with pneumonia. Nursed by nuns from the Sisters of Mercy, one in particular became a confidante to Marie and distressed by Marie's story decided to champion her cause. True to her word, Sister Helen confronted the Patent Controller in his office and, perhaps because he was challenged by a nun, quickly confessed that he faced a dilemma - Marie's agent was an old friend of his, if he reinstated the patent his friend faced litigation and the ruin of his career. Nevertheless he subsequently undertook to reinstate the British patent.
Setting aside the additional fight to reinstate the other patents, Marie decided to concentrate all available resources for legal action against Pye for infringement.
So large was the styli market that even Pye’s sub-contractors advertised for manufacturers who could make the Pye ‘Universal’ styli. Marie, responding to one such advertisement from Cosmocord, was told that quantities in excess of 20,000 units per week would be required. On seeing a blueprint of the styli design issued by Pye it was quite clear that it was very close, dimensionally and geometrically, to her own design. The National Physical Laboratory confirmed it. On the 13th of August 1953 Marie issued a writ against Pye for Infringement - two days before her youngest daughter Christina was born.
What ensued was a hard fought battle against a corporate adversary determined to stop Marie from gaining control of an extremely lucrative market - one it knew it had pirated.
By 1961 Marie had at first won, and then lost her battle with Pye - the court actions and her subsequent forfeiture of her victory are covered in our previous article. However, what is not recorded is that during the period 1958 to 1961 interests acting directly for, or on behalf of, Pye and its allies carried out a systematic campaign of threats, violence and character assassination against Marie and her children.
Pye had already insured its retailers against action by Marie but they also knew that without money she could neither pursue the company itself, nor its outlets. By ensuring that they delayed or frustrated the inquiry for damages, Marie would be hard pressed financially to maintain her campaign of court actions.
In Fear of our Lives!
Nevertheless, as a further indemnity, other measures were taken. Threatening phone calls told Marie she would 'never' win. Cynthia Killick, at twelve years old, received anonymous phone calls "Tell your mother to give up the case, or else.” The Killicks were subsequently threatened with direct attack. One night, intruders were detected trying to force entry at the back door. A little later, at an entirely different address, more intruders were spotted.
Convinced of the seriousness of the threat armed police (virtually unprecedented for the time) were called up and for some time worked shifts, taking up a nighttime watch and escorting the family during the day. So dangerous did matters become for the Killicks that Justice Lloyd-Jacob, the original trial judge, responsive to Marie's pleas at the 1958 appeal, allowed her to pass a written address to him rather than have it revealed in open court.
One incident stands as a clear example of how extreme the campaign against Marie was. Dawn, Marie's eldest daughter, needed hospital treatment and was conveyed by ambulance - as Marie alighted from the ambulance a car which had been following pulled up and Marie found herself being bundled into the rear of the car and driven off. Distraught and forcibly held Marie eventually arrived at Brookwood Hospital (Woking) a large 'mental asylum'. To her horror Marie found that she was to be committed as insane. Marie’s abductors hadn't identified themselves initially, but later, during registration formalities, she realised that the men were police officers acting on a committal order signed by two unknown physicians. It took three days for her to convince the Brookwood physicians that they had been the victim of a cruel deception and that she was the victim of an even crueler vendetta.
Marie and the family, in fear of their lives, continually moved house - 120 addresses in ten years. The children had horrendous problems with schooling - the two oldest girls attended over twenty schools - the two youngest following the same pattern. After winning the 1958 appeal the family hid in an Oxshott builders yard for six weeks to avoid detection - being forced to hide under a tarpaulin (covering the builders pick-up truck) every time they went out.
Money was scarce. Often neither Marie nor the children had more than bread and milk to eat. On one occasion Cynthia Killick walked from Worthing to Goring on Sea to ask for a loan from some friends. Still trying to find money for more legal action, Marie was forced to run up debts for accommodation, food and clothes. But she borrowed openly and many advances were pre-agreed long-term loans.
Newspaper reporters hounded them - some apparently tipped off by Pye agents - so that Marie found it impossible to avoid being targeted in the papers. Some newspaper stories falsified the extent of her debts or simply fabricated details. It was true she owed money, but in no instance could it be said that she had obtained credit under false pretences. Nevertheless, the newspaper articles were damaging and hard to counter, it meant that honest loans and credit became harder to get.
The banks closed their doors to her, indeed, there seemed to be a conspiracy by the financial institutions to frustrate her in every respect. Then Marie's solicitors withdraw from the case and one after another of the lawyers engaged to take over cried off. Only later was it revealed that her original solicitor, for reasons still unclear, was warning-off others from taking over the case. The effect was that the claim for damages against Pye was seriously delayed.
Marie tried to develop US interests in licensing her patent - on more than one occasion delegations from US companies, visiting Marie in England, inexplicably broke off negotiations and returned to the US. It was rumoured that they had been approached, in one instance in a nightclub, by agents working for Marie's opponents.
But this was just one of her problems - creditors were on the attack and one year after winning the appeal, and without any movement in the inquiry for damages, Marie was sued for a £900 debt. The sum covered two years rent for the basement flat in Brighton - ironic since it was where Marie had lived during the period of her court victory against Pye and where she had agreed with the Landlord to set aside payment of rent until the damages were settled.
Who Owned the Debt?
Had Pye bought the debt? Marie's solicitor thought it so - and if not this particular one then certainly some of the others which made up the debtors petition for bankruptcy. It gave Pye a tremendous advantage - not least because as a (proxy) creditor they were privy to any source of money she might get and could divert it.
Undaunted by the block of money in the UK, and the loss of American interest, Marie flew to Paris to negotiate a loan with a leading French bank. She was prepared to secure the loan with a quarter interest in her British Patent rights. The money would allow her to regain control of her assets and give her the financial freedom to resume the battle with Pye.
However, before the French negotiation could be concluded she was recalled to Brighton for a creditors meeting. Nevertheless, she was able to bring with her a preliminary draft of the French agreement. Expecting to be given a hearing at the meeting she was amazed to be refused an opportunity to address the creditors.
The Official Receiver not only denied Marie the chance to state her case but in his address omitted to inform the meeting of the French agreement. Attempting to get a hearing she was told to shut up and sit down and that her chance would come later. In the event the committee voted to have her declared bankrupt without even listening to her. Not surprising, since one of the committee was the solicitor to the Brighton landlord and also legal advisor to the Official Receiver! If Pye held title to the debt they also had access to the solicitor who had access to the Official Receiver!
The role of the Official Receiver is deeply suspicious. His actions were those of someone quite hostile to Marie. He had, of course, been briefed by Pye's legal people who naturally would have dissuaded him from Marie's cause. (supposedly telling him that the damages were not expected to be great and that Marie's patent had no real market value). Indeed, it was Pye and the Official Receiver who had pre-agreed the £4,330 settlement - a sum which had previously been rejected in court.
Having lost the final court action over her bankruptcy, Marie drifted away from Brighton - it had too many bad memories. She finally settled in Godalming.
In October 1962 the patent had run its allotted period and had expired. Desperate to salvage something for her family, Marie contacted the original trial Judge Justice Lloyd-Jacob at his home in Mickleham. Though he declared he could do nothing material as regards the court case he was nevertheless conscious of the fact that his court rulings had been scuttled and that a great injustice had been done to Marie. He was aware, also, that she was friendless and now very ill.
Hearing Marie's appeal for help for her youngest children Lloyd-Jacob proposed that he become their guardian. Later, in hospital, Marie agreed to Lloyd-Jacobs suggestion and left the younger children to be enrolled at private schools. Neither found the experience pleasant and although Lloyd-Jacob tried hard to meet his obligations he never managed a complete rapport with his wards.
Marie Louise Killick was the victim of a fallacious ideal - that the courts administer justice and that court decisions can never be thwarted. Yet court rulings are dependent on consensus and compliance. Unless sustained litigation is financially possible unscrupulous people, using the same system, will find a way of frustrating civil actions of the type Marie fought. The web of intrigue and conspiracy against Marie was virtually unbeatable, but with enough time and resource Pye's machinations could have been thwarted. It was Marie's failing health which gave her opponents victory and not her sense of defeat. Had she been well she would have fought on for as long as it took.
As to Pye's direct role in this, there is no question that they made it as difficult as possible for Marie to succeed. They were facing severe damage to a very profitable market and it was in their interests to delay as long as possible - after all, universal styli had a finite product life. By the time Marie's patent lapsed, single (non-78rpm) microgroove styli were the more common. Even so - Marie's design was still technically appropriate.
Yet the campaign against Marie had to come from somewhere - was it official or was there someone in Pye management who decided that conventional tactics might not work and that a more drastic approach could ensure that Marie was unable to succeed - was it a case of 'stop her at all costs'? The campaign against Marie was well orchestrated and financed - it seems unlikely that it was just one individual holding a grudge.
Marie Louise Killick died of cancer on the 20th of January 1964. As her finances allowed she continued her battle against the Official Receiver up to the end. As for the children, after a deeply troubled and miserable period in their lives, all four are now settled and remain in England. Still extremely wary of reviving old troubles, they carry with them the legacy of a bruising engagement with vested interests - they remember anger, fear and pain coupled with a sense of how deeply wrong it was - to their mother and themselves. Marie is recalled with love and pride - it is unlikely we will see her like again.
Brookwood Asylum, Woking - now converted to luxury apartments
Watch the documentary: A Gem of an Idea. Featuring the Killick family, Barrie Blake-Coleman, David Wardell, Paul Ambridge (Chair of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors) and James Dyson et al.