A Gem of an Idea

Mrs Killick and the Sapphire Stylus

Barrie Blake-Coleman

One of the most celebrated patent litigation cases ever to become enshrined in the case books for patent lawyers and patent agents marks its 40th anniversary this year. In the annals of invention it is virtually unprecedented, yet its beginnings, as so often happens, were somewhat inconspicuous.

In May of 1955 the Pye Company Ltd, (Radio Works, Cambridge) well known then for its range of quality domestic entertainment goods, received a disquieting letter from J.H.H. Kidgell and Co, a firm of London solicitors...

Editors Note: This article first appeared in Inventors World magazine, Winter 1995.  The text is unchanged from the original.

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The lawyers had been instructed to serve notice that sales of certain Pye Company styli, essential for replaying disc recordings, infringed their clients 1945 patent covering not only sapphire styli but specifically 'universal' styli with a specialised tip profile and side geometry. The Pye management were staggered.

 

Executives privy to the indictment were incredulous, amazed both that the Pye Company stood accused of commercial piracy, and that the plaintiff in question was a woman!

 

Thus began the famous, and subsequently infamous, patent case of Killick vs Pye, made the more bizarre by the paucity of authentic information surrounding the case, and the behaviour of the central character, the remarkable Marie Louise Killick.

 

In just over 4 years, between 1957 and 1961, when she was in the public gaze, Marie managed to portray four distinct roles - ingenious engineer, destitute widow, tenacious litigate and flamboyant profligate. Which one she genuinely and naturally held claim to still remains a mystery. Which one, if any, was the instigator of the others can only be guessed at.

 

In any event her story, though it has no happy ending, has left her immortalised in the history books - as an enduring example of how determination and tenacity can be squandered through lack of realism and self-restraint.

The Illustrious Mrs Killick

 

To say that Marie's origins are obscure understates matters. There is little hard evidence for her roots, yet we are able to establish some background.

 

Born Marie Louise Benson (by her own admission) in 1918(?) she spoke of her father John Benson as an engineer. Whilst in Belgium and Holland, as a young girl, her father coached her in precision engineering and she studied sound recording in Antwerp. Against her father's wishes she experimented in sound recording techniques. Later, in 1938, she raised £300 as base capital and started a small engineering firm in Putney, London, manufacturing sound recording equipment.

 

Of particular interest were disc cutting systems, and the tricky business of master disc cutting styli. Hardened steels were precision ground to form a chisel 'V' cutter. Careful design was needed to ensure that the head cut the groove with the utmost precision to retain replay fidelity.

 

Within a year of the outbreak of war in 1939, special steel was in short supply and Marie's company won a number of contracts to provide the civilian and armed services with gem cutter disc recording equipment (presumably for use in recording air and ground traffic communications and coded transmissions). During this time Marie appears to have been closely involved in experiments with different methods for replaying master discs made with the company's equipment.

 

There seems little doubt that her experiments included the use of gem styli for playing back recordings, as well as cutting the masters. But this approach was certainly not new.

 

Antecedents and Ideas

 

Meyer in the US had patented a flat tip carbon steel and jewel stylus for Berliner disc recordings in 1907, and Edison had employed diamonds as cutter and tracking stylus in his improved phonograph of 1911. As early as 1939 steel phonograph and gramophone needles were gradually being replaced by ground gem stones, sintered or 'reconstituted' sapphire and synthetic sapphire (Aluminium oxide) styli.

 

In a paper published in April 1938 Pierce and Hunt at Harvard University proposed the development of 'vinylite' based microgroove sound recordings utilising appropriately profiled styli. At the time, conventional shellac records ran at 78 r.p.m. and had 0.0062 inch grooves tapering at 87° to a curved bottom of 0.0015 inches. Stereophonic reproduction was already a reality.

Alan Dower Blumlein in England had patented each of the steps necessary for stereophonic recording in 1931 whilst, virtually simultaneously, Harvey Fletcher at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in America had perfected the same process and was able to give a full public demonstration in April of 1933.

 

Central to the Pierce and Hunt anticipation was that 'vinylite' microgroove records would inevitably arrive, but would not displace coarse groove shellac records overnight. Ideally then, a stylus which could accurately replay any current or proposed groove size would be advantageous.

Application

 

For reasons which are not clear, if at all veracious, Marie Killick formulated or consolidated her own ideas while in Russia, and (somehow) dispatched her invention specification to her Patent agents Gill, Jennings and Every (then at 51/52 Chancery Lane, London) in May of 1945. Giving her address as 117-120 Fleet Street, Marie's specification covered Improvements relating to Styli for Sound Reproduction, and was filed for application on October the 25th 1945.

 

Though Marie spoke later of a desire to remove the obvious distortion that needle point and conical styli produced in playing records, her patent specification speaks of being able to play 'all' records, and has as its object the production of a sapphire stylus able to give high quality reproduction with 'minimum wear'.

 

This was to be accomplished by avoiding a needle point or conical tip to the stylus and preferably truncating the cone by grinding the end flat. The use of slight side bevels and trailing angles are suggested for either light or heavy pick-ups. To safely accommodate microgroove records, the tip was profiled to a 0.004 inch effective radius with a preferred taper of 52°.

 

This design avoided contact with the groove bottom; it thereby tracked the sides of the groove rather than responding to groove seat forces (prevalent in conventional styli) as they dragged along the groove bottom. This 'centring' effect tended to produce forces competing with the groove side walls, which caused distortion and ultimately damaged the groove walls.

 

Furthermore, as the groove varied through peaks in modulation the groove width changed, but the new stylus geometry was well able to accommodate this.

 

Apparently, a considerable amount of experimentation, was carried out to verify the idea. The patent mentions the advantages of a non-bottoming stylus and speaks of 'no perceptible signs of wear after 1600 playings' and a frequency response 'from 50 to 14000 cycles per second maintained after hundreds of playings'.

Killick Patent

Peter Goldmark - CBS Reasearch

Alan Dower Blumlein

Frank Gillard, BBC war correspondent, using the Killick acetate recorder just after 'D Day', June 1944

Business

 

During the war the Killick operation did well by gaining government contracts. As stated above, a shortage of cobalt and tungsten steels made gem tipped recording cutters an ideal substitute. The demand was high, particularly for portable entertainment systems and those able to record coded data and enemy transmissions.

 

As hostilities ceased, government work dried up. If it was to continue, the Killick business needed to find new markets.

For a time the manufacture of styli for records supplemented other small precision engineering jobs. Then, in 1946, agents for the Killicks (supplying independent outlets) secured a £58,000 contract for various types of styli (almost £1,000,000 by today's standards).

 

This changed matters considerably. Overnight the Killicks became prosperous. They moved to a large house in Esher, ran a limousine complete with chauffeur, hired a secretary and a governess, and moved up into society. American orders beckoned too - the US market was estimated to be worth $78,000,000.

 

Within a year, and against advice, Marie refused an offer from Decca of £750,000 for her business, its goodwill and the British rights to her patent.

 

At the time it seemed a wise decision. A stylus made for 10 pence (approximately 4 new pence) sold for 6 shillings (30 new pence). Margins were high and demand was steady. Yet she needed to increase her output and productivity. but even with the promise of massive US orders (quoted as being worth $25,000,000) merchant banks refused her a £2,000,000 loan to purchase machine tools and plant.

 

Inevitably, competitors were attracted by the enormous profits. Telefunken and Walco brand styli flooded in. After completing only £10,000 pounds worth of the original £58,000 contract, the supply agreement was rescinded by the agents and the Killick business virtually 'melted away'.

 

Survival

 

When Marie's final patent specification was submitted (October 7th 1946) she still had the makings of a successful business, two children and a supportive husband. (Though the shadowy Mr Killick has no history beyond his name and it appears that his only direct involvement in the case was to leave his wife a widow sometime in 1954).

 

By 1948, the year in which Marie's patent was granted (603,606 dated June 18th 1948) better times for the Killicks had come and gone, but matters were soon to acquire a new twist.

 

In 1948 a number of key events which were to effect developments in the story had already occurred. The first was that CBS in the United States announced the development of the 33.1/3 r.p.m. microgroove high fidelity (long playing) vinyl record. This was the result of three years hard work by Peter Goldmark at the CBS Research Laboratories. Secondly, and very soon after the CBS disclosure, RCA revealed their 45 r.p.m. 7 inch vinyl record.

 

Unfortunately, 1948 was yet another unpleasant year for the Killicks. Post-war shortages and the long, arduous 1947 winter were a disaster for the nation's poor economy. The Killicks, facing ever mounting business difficulties, had them compounded by economic stagnation and a financial situation which was rapidly deteriorating. So bad were things that the precious stylus patent lapsed on the 25th of October 1949 for non-payment of renewal fees.

 

Given its new found importance vis-à-vis the CBS announcements this was unthinkable. It is possible however, and there is no evidence to say otherwise, that Marie did not become aware of the changing status of her patent until after October 25th. One reason, perhaps, being that she was once again pregnant.

 

Undoubtedly, news from America in the technical journals, and other sources, that CBS had perfected the microgroove long-playing record galvanised Marie into action. Finding the money somehow, she applied for recovery of her patent. It was restored by order dated the 11th of September 1951.

 

Nevertheless, to usefully exploit her patent Marie needed to manufacture styli under her monopoly, license her idea to others or dispose of the rights lock, stock and barrel. The first was for her the only viable option as it held the greatest promise of regaining her hard won prestige and prosperity. But either way, she could do nothing immediately. Her stylus could play any record old or new. It was unthinkable that she would find her options frustrated by yet another corporate competitor - but this was what occurred. By 1953 Pye were selling 'universal' styli, for 78's and the new 0.002" microgroove records. The stylus geometry was too similar to Marie's design, she concluded, to be anything more than a blatant plagiarism.

 

However it wasn't until late 1954 that Marie made any effort to defend her interests. The delay, it must be said, was not due to lethargy - by this time she had a fourth child and was apparently widowed. Cruel circumstances, it seems, had distracted her from commercial matters. Nevertheless, by early 1955 her solicitors had been briefed, instructed and were pursuing her interests.

She, now with only the residue of her former affluence, was selling jewelry and non- essentials to finance her living expenses and her legal action. Still occasionally at the Wadham Road, Putney, business address, she began arrangements to sell everything to raise finance. The Esher house, her car, and what was left of Killick & Co, were sold off.

 

Seeking respite, a low rent and some place to carry on a new business, Marie and the children settled in a small basement flat in Royal Crescent, Brighton.

It's Not Enough!

 

Pye made an almost immediate response to Marie's solicitors following the spring 1955 letter claiming 'infringement'. They attempted to settle for an amount too paltry to even pay legal costs and so the correspondence went on until December of 1955. Pye claimed that they had ceased manufacture of the styli design in question and that although they had made a total of 50,000 there was only some 1000 left.

 

Advised that she had a strong case, Marie was determined to seek full damages. But finances would not meet it. First she had to convert all her last assets to cash and/or seek legal aid. She eventually needed to do both and succeeded in obtaining enough money in late 1956.

 

Pressing her suit, her lawyers applied for a date for a hearing. Marie and her four children had a long and anxious delay in store - the case was not heard until the 28th of November 1957. It lasted eight days.

 

No Patent, No Case

 

When the case opened Pye counsel argued strongly that the suit was sterile because the patent was invalid. They cited Meyer's prior art going back to 1907, indeed they used expert witnesses to comment not only on the ambiguity of terms in the Killick specification, but the actual practicalities involved in applying each and every interpretation. They focused on the failure of the Killicks to make styli as described in the specification and to exploit the patent. They argued that it was invalid through 'unutility'

Yet, as Mr Justice Lloyd-Jacob observed, there was no valid objection to the definition of the monopoly claimed. As such, the question of validity failed and the question of infringement arose.

 

Certain of the claims to infringement were fallacious, but on the main claims regarding design, and on admission by the defendants that the Pye pattern was virtually the image of the Killick design, the plaintiffs claims succeeded. On the question of Pye having attempted to settle early in the hearing (they placed a cash sum with the court) Lloyd- Jacob took it as an admission that the defendants had conceded their case.

Judgment was held over until the 20th Sept 1957, but on the 20th Marie was awarded a certificate of validity, an injunction, costs and an inquiry for damages.

Appeal

 

The case had no discernible media impact. Indeed, it was all very much an anti-climax. Pye immediately served notice of appeal and Marie realised that she had to go through the whole ordeal again. However, her confidence was boosted, even though she was facing a £20,000 bill for the next hearing and there was little in the way of cash to feed herself and the family.

Eking out an impoverished existence in Brighton she made plans for the future, but the strain became too much and in May of 1958 she was hospitalised with a combination of physical and nervous exhaustion. The moment she was able sit up in her hospital bed, she began to issue a stream of notes to her lawyers.

 

On May 24th, within a week of Marie becoming ill, Capitol announced that they intended to discontinue making 78 r.p.m. records.

By the time the case came to the appeals court on the 17th of June 1958 it was clear to everyone that Pye had intended to use its corporate weight to make it as difficult as possible for Marie to last the distance. Once again they attempted to overturn the validity of her patent, called more expert witnesses and cited a plethora of prior judgments. The three appeal judges listened to evidence for 7 days but on the 21st of July they unanimously upheld the earlier ruling.

 

Throughout the original hearing and the appeal, Marie had remained unconvincing as an engineer. Indeed, one appeal judge noted wryly that "One of the fascinations of the case is how Mrs Killick ever came to apply her mind to gramophone needles". This was not the only comment that lacked appreciation. Little that Marie had said, or ever would say, had any technical content or technical authority.

 

The Celebrated Mrs Killick

 

Relieved of the threat of destitution, full of the promise of waiting wealth, Marie spoke effusively to the newspapers. For the first time the result of the court hearing spilled out into headlines, Marie's words making dazzling reading.

 

Pathé News caught her on film for the cinema newsreels, journalists besieged her in the small Brighton basement or at expensive hotel restaurants. Talk of her being a millionairess became intoxicating. She gave interviews to all and sundry - each one heard an even more inflated estimate of how much she would get in back royalties and damages. Two journalists accurately reported that she "wouldn't sell the patent for £5 million" but this was heard by another reporter as "this should mean £5 million to me"

Whatever the quality of reporting, Marie was assured of a substantial amount and she capitalised on every aspect of it. Dawn Killick, who at 17 had helped family finances by waitressing, immediately quit her job. Cynthia, 16, commented on how wonderful it was not to have to worry where the next meal was coming from.

 

Marie herself confided to one reporter that she had moved ten times (nearer 120 she was later to say) in as many years. She now spoke joyously of moving to "a nice little house in Rottingdean". Little it was not. She started a 'shadow' company to make styli - premises appear to have been used at 24-25 Old Stein, Brighton.

 

The only sad note was that Nigel, Marie's 9 year old son, was admitted to a nursing home. "He's ill," said Marie, "But now he can have the best of treatment".

A Creditworthy Lifestyle

 

Although Pye had a judgment against them they felt piqued. They had tried to settle fairly and had been punished in the process. Still, official inquiries could be slowed and Marie Killick made to wait a long time for any money. So it was that by May of 1959 the newspapers were reporting Marie's ever mounting debts and the trail of creditors she was leaving behind.

 

A full page article in The People for Jan 18 1959 scandalised Marie's luxurious lifestyle and its cost to small creditors; the same sentiment appeared a month later in a Sunday Express article. The situation couldn't be allowed to continue.

 

Another costly enforcement action against Pye "to disclose certain documents" was inevitable. Of Marie's £7000 of debt, £5000 were legal expenses. Her bank withdrew its overdraft facility, Nigel and Tina were turned out of their private school, Cynthia gave up her art studies; Marie reluctantly sacrificed her leased 5 bedroom house and hired Rolls- Royce.

She moved to the Park Lane Hotel but left owing £689. Owing money everywhere, precious few quality hotels would now take her in. She had to learn to economise again.

 

From somewhere she acquired an 'accountant', a 72 year old ex actor manager called Norman Howard who 'collected her bills' (a clothes basket full) and made re-assuring noises to creditors. Speaking from a Brighton Guesthouse he was reported as saying that he had no knowledge of Marie's whereabouts, and confessed that he wished "he'd never started"

Worse was to come. EMI and Goldring revealed that they had never made a hybrid stylus and doubted if anyone else besides Pye had. The millions talked about were fast becoming 'Pye in the sky.'

 

"The Honeymoon is Over"

 

Marie desperately attempted to force the courts to accelerate the inquiry for damages against Pye but she was running a double race. As Justice Lloyd-Jacob issued an order for Pye to allow Marie's lawyers to inspect their books, she had two bankruptcy petitions served against her.

 

It was already becoming common knowledge that the amount likely to be received in royalties was going to be less than £5000.

 

She was now having trouble getting her legal representatives to stay on. Lack of money and growing impatience meant that she was often losing her lawyers faster than she could find new ones.

 

After a series of enforcement and spoiling actions against Pye and her creditors, Marie finally accepted the inevitable. Still talking of the potential of her patent in terms of 'millions' she met her creditors on the 9th of September 1959, the day before her court appearance for insolvency. She was subsequently declared bankrupt with '28 proofs of debt' amounting to £14,499 (some £230,000 by today's standards).

 

Citing multi-million pound offers, she was reported to be planning an appeal against the bankruptcy ruling, but by the 11th of December she was back in court facing a further examination for debt. This time the amount was £15,719. Within days it was revealed that Pye were only liable for £5,500 of costs, damages and royalties which was immediately seized by the official receiver on behalf of creditors. Stricken, but battling to the last, Marie issued a writ against the Official receiver in early January 1960 to restrain him from distributing money rightly awarded to her. It meant yet another court hearing. Part of the money was assigned to the law society but £4,330 required scrutiny. The application for a restraining injunction against the receiver, heard in Brighton on May 3rd 1961, failed and Marie was resigned to the agony of applying for another appeal. She received leave to do so in July 1961, a decision seriously delayed because her application had been filed in the wrong court. In the event, her action was futile.

 

Protesting to the last, she left the final hearing in Brighton determined to fight on, but her cause was lost and she, unwell from the worries and excesses of the last four years, had neither the strength nor the hope to continue.

Marie Killick

The Killick's after winning the case

Marie celebrates with her daughters

Epilogue

 

Marie Louise Killick and her family appear to have vanished completely sometime after August 1961.

We may speculate that she returned to her girlhood addresses on the continent, or using her maiden name shook off all her creditors and an increasingly unsavoury life. The author could find no trace of her through the usual government or private agencies.

 

The last address given by Marie (Wellesley Court, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham), was not fictitious, as were many of the addresses she provided for courts and reporters, but not actually her own. The author has established that she was merely a visitor to the address during those last months when she was under public scrutiny.

 

Given her constant appearances in Brighton, she must have had an address which gave her access to both Twickenham and Brighton relatively easily. The most likely is Clapham Junction which served both destinations by rail.

 

The mystery that Mrs Killick creates is virtually unprecedented in matters dealing with an invention or engineering advance. No other inventor can elicit quite the same sense of doubt regarding provenance or credibility. Was she actually the originator of the stylus design? Did she really have the technical ability to do all that was implied in her patent. What rôle did Mr Killick have in all this? Indeed, what quirk of circumstances made his rôle, and apparent demise, virtually invisible throughout all the questions asked by journalists and legal inquisitors over nearly 5 years.

 

The whole case raises more questions than answers. Any reader having information in any regard to the above is invited to contact the author via Inventors World.

 

In Retrospect

 

There is an interesting footnote. The Pye Company didn't have it all their own way. A certain poetic justice appeared in the guise of their 'V14' Television set.

 

Launched in 1955, the year they had first learned of the gathering Killick storm, the Pye V14 had by 1959 turned out to be a complete (and costly) lemon. Its design was technically seriously flawed. There were constant complaints by customers requiring the replacement of faulty parts or sets.

 

The V14 became a commercial nightmare. It was so expensive to cover up that Pye could have paid Marie £1 million for her patent, defrayed horrendous legal expenses, and still thought it cheap compared to the total outlay on the V14.

Further serious losses were incurred a few years later with dual standard TV sets. In December 1966 a bitterly divided company lurched through a disastrous AGM, voting out long-serving senior management from the Killick era. Building a commanding share holding through brokers, Philips took control in early 1967.

Editors Note: Following publication of this article the author, Barrie Blake-Coleman, was contacted by the Killick family which led to -

 

A Gem of an Idea - Mrs Killick and the Sapphire Stylus - Postscript

Recounted by Barrie Blake-Coleman from

material supplied by Cynthia Killick

 

 

Or the video...

PYE V14 TV

Cynthia Killick's subsequent book -(ISBN 9781291468304)

 

To purchase a copy simply click on the book cover image: 

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.