Dick Lawton’s Magic Box

My first serious job, when I was 19, was as a computer programmer for a man named Richard Lawton, an engineer, inventor and businessman. This is the story of Richard Lawton and his greatest invention: the Magic Box.

Richard Lawton had parents, was born in England (in the mid 40’s I think), had a childhood, complete with hobbies (rock climbing, model airplanes and electronics), went to school (earning a bachelor’s degree in physics) and then pursued his career in industry, as an electronic engineer and inventor, first in England then in Canada.

Modern biographers would chafe, but this is all you really need to know of Richard Lawton’s past–it was about all I ever learned of it. Men who live in the present and make the future are not products of their past.

In appearance, he cut a rather dashing figure. He was tall and trim, with an expressive well defined face. He had wavy auburn hair, sometimes cut short, giving a modern look, sometimes grown longer into a swept-back mane and attended with a trim beard, lending a more aristocratic appearance. His expressions and stare had an almost physical kind of effect, like a reversible charge generator: when he smiled or admired, you were drawn to the source, when he glowered, you were forced away. He had the hands suited for a man who reshaped matter: strong, with long bony fingers. He spoke perfect North American English, with only the occasional noun or phrase betraying his British roots.

From what I gathered, he held many jobs in his early career, all of which allowed him to use his electronics and physics knowledge. Dick (as he was usually called) was never much for discussing his own achievements, but I did get some details over the years: an airborne device to take exquisitely accurate measurements of the earth’s magnetic field, for example, and a novel electronic control system for a high speed printing press. There were a few others I’ve forgotten, since one of his inventions has pushed all the others aside and has been permanently embedded in my memory.

The Magic Box.

(But I am getting ahead of myself…)

Dick began working in the alarm equipment business in the 70’s, and held positions with several firms. Throughout this period, he became fully apprised of the nature of the alarm monitoring business and the existing state of equipment and practices within it. Here, Dick discovered an industry whose challenges were a match for his technical prowess and serious view of life–an industry worthy of him.

Before going on, some technical background is needed. The purpose of an alarm company is to securely monitor protected premises, such as businesses and residences, for abnormal or dangerous conditions: burglary, hold-up, fire, or environmental hazards. To do this, appropriate detectors are installed within the premise, then connected to a central alarm panel–you have probably seen such panels in the entrances of businesses. Since local alarms (sirens and such) are all but useless, and sometimes even dangerous (as in hold-up situations), a means is needed for the state of the panel to be monitored remotely by an alarm company, who can then take appropriate action upon detecting an abnormal condition, such as dispatching the police or fire department.

Traditionally, there have been several technologies used to monitor alarm panels. One is called direct wire, and uses a dedicated circuit (pair of telephone wires) run from the alarm panel in the premise to the monitoring equipment in the alarm company’s office. Although this has been used for some types of clients, banks perhaps, it is hugely expensive.

Not only is direct wire expensive, but the number of telephone circuits available between telephone exchanges is often limited, and only a fraction of any alarm company’s customers are within the area of its own local telephone exchange. So efforts have been focused on finding ways to allow several subscribers clustered around a particular telephone exchange to be monitored via a single circuit connecting that exchange to the one nearest the alarm company. Combining multiple circuits onto a single channel this way is called multiplexing.

(In addition to direct wire and multiplexing, there is also a technology called dialers which does away with dedicated wires all together, and is thus very cheap–more on this aberration later.)

When Dick entered the alarm business, some of the existing multiplexing systems being used were based on telegraphic technology nearly 100 years old. The McCullough system was typical: a number of premises, perhaps up to 20 of them, would be wired together into a series loop, and a current would be passed through this loop at the alarm company’s office. To signal, an alarm panel on the loop would interrupt the current flow, as a telegrapher’s key does, by releasing a mechanically spring wound code wheel, which drove a switch, music box fashion, in a uniquely coded sequence–its S.O.S. The interruptions would be recorded at the station by a pen recorder making marks on a strip of paper, and then be decoded by the operator, who would make the appropriate dispatch decision.

“Ticky Ticky.” That’s what Dick Lawton always called this system.

As a technology for alarm monitoring, “Ticky Ticky” was seriously flawed, in many ways. An alarm panel could fail, its relay remaining stubbornly and permanently closed, and you would never know. Opening and closing times for businesses each day would result in a flood of overlapping signaling patterns at the central station which were difficult for operators to reliably decode–imagine 20 telegraph operators trying to send messages over the same wire at once. Leakage to ground, foreign signals on the wires (particularly the ubiquitous 60 cycle AC from the power grid), and intermittent or high resistance connections–all common problems with telephone circuits–would lead to many false alarms.

And the one terminal flaw: a faulty connection anywhere in the loop results in loss of communication with every premise. Since a station operator has no way of knowing if this is merely a broken or shorted wire somewhere, or is in fact Joe the burglar and his trusty side cutters or bypass jumpers, dispatching the authorities to every premise is required. If this happens enough times, the authorities stop going. (A fact not lost on Joe…)

“Ticky Ticky” was a nightmare to troubleshoot as well: when some part of the circuit did fail, good luck finding the problem. Ever used those irritating Christmas lights where if one goes, the whole string dies? This is just like those lights. And good luck trying to find two.

Dick worked in the industry for several years, observing the antiquated technology, and growing increasingly impatient with an industry whose standards he felt were so low as to be negligent. He began developing his own set of standards that equipment and practices must meet, in order to fulfill the task of securing property and human life from loss. One of the first things Dick did, was check his premises. The alarm industry installed alarms. The loss prevention industry should prevent losses. One existed in spades, one largely didn’t.

Dick Lawton decided to create this second industry.

To do any job right, men need adequate tools. To do their job right, Dick reasoned alarm companies needed a monitoring tool that possessed certain characteristics. The new system must be: reliable, immune to false alarms induced by the exigencies of phone circuits, resistant to willful attack, fully supervised (meaning the alarm panel must be continuously and actively interrogated), easy to troubleshoot, and be cost competitive with existing signaling technologies.

The cost constraint, as well as the limited availability of inter-exchange circuits explained earlier, demanded some kind of multiplexing technology. To be cost effective, the system would need to compete with “Ticky Ticky”, a system that operated on the phone company’s lowest grade of line, too low grade to carry voice traffic, and only really suitable for DC (direct current) uses, like telegraphy, “Ticky Ticky,” or direct wire alarm monitoring. Dick committed himself to design a system that would operate over these ‘dirty’, low-grade wires.

Here is where the story becomes interesting. In order to satisfy the criteria of reliability and immunity to willful attack, Dick concluded that a multiplexing system using DC telephone circuits must possess what he called, “emergency fault signaling”: the ability to continue signaling in the presence of any single ground, open, or foreign-voltage condition anywhere in the circuit.

Now, if you have any knowledge of electrical circuits, you may be objecting already. Here are the problems: If you wire all the circuits in parallel, and signal with voltage, then a low resistance ground or foreign voltage applied anywhere in the system appears everywhere in the system thus rendering it inoperable. Or: if you wire all the circuits in series (like “Ticky Ticky”), and signal with current, then a break (or high resistance connection) anywhere in the circuit causes the current to stop everywhere in the circuit, thus rendering it inoperable.

These are physical, immutable facts: grounded or loaded wires can carry no voltage; open wires can carry no current. Common sense would dictate that Dick’s goal was impossible, and should never be pursued.

But Richard Lawton was not a common man, and decided that he would make the impossible possible. So he locked himself in his basement, determined not to emerge until the problem was solved. The work was only interrupted by the occasional need to do some consulting to pay the bills.

Two years later, he emerged, with an updated solution to an ageless challenge: Dick had developed a method for turning copper into gold.

The Multiplex Systems and Computers Limited, model MSC 500 Central Station Alarm Monitoring Receiver, was born.

The Magic Box.

Dick didn’t come out of his basement with just an idea or diagrams sketched on napkins, to be handed to the Production Department for implementation. He came out with armloads of finished equipment, along with the professionally drafted blueprints for all the custom housings and assemblies; electronic schematics and circuit board layouts (painstakingly routed by hand) for some 20 different boards; complete flowcharts and hand coded assembly language instructions for the device’s central control computer; the production and testing procedures for all the myriad assemblies; sources and seconds for all the components; and a business plan for putting everything into production.


The MSC 500 itself was a modular system comprised of 3 standard 19″ equipment racks, one for a computer/power supply, one for the printer/display/keypad units, and the other for up to eight (dual) telephone line transceiver modules. The equipment was finished in black anodized aluminum, and labeled via a photo etching process that revealed the shiny aluminum below, a nice touch. All the modules were designed to be easily replaceable by non-technical personnel. The system operated on standard lead acid batteries (continuously float charged), and could operate for up to a day, if need be, in the event of a power outage.

Dick also developed the compatible alarm panels, one for fire and hazard monitoring, and one each for business and residential burglary.

The telephone lines in Dick’s system were wired just like the “Ticky Ticky” system from alarm-system antiquity: one twisted pair of copper wires went to each premise, all of which (for a given multiplexed circuit) were connected into a series loop in the telephone exchange by soldering one wire from each pair to one from an adjoining pair. The two free ends of the loop were then connected to a single pair of wires returned to the alarm company, terminating at a MSC 505 Line Receiver in the Magic Box. Each such multiplexed circuit could accommodate up to 30 alarm panels, but practical limits on total telephone line mileage resulted in a typical average of 10-20 alarm panels per circuit. Each box could connect up to 16 such circuits, for a practical total of around 200-250 per box, which at $10,000 each, resulted in a capital overhead of about $40-$50/subscriber: peanuts.

At the heart of each alarm panel was a common circuit for communicating with the central station (i.e. to which the phone wires were attached), called the MSC 550 Transponder. It looked pedestrian, as electronics go: a paperback sized circuit board comprised of some 16 integrated circuits and a few resistors, transistors and other components. Nothing in it was the least exotic (all of its parts are probably available at your local Radio Shack for maybe 10 bucks.) But embodied within this nondescript looking board of ho-hum components was the “magic” of Dick’s system: a simple relay with a resistor wired across its two terminals together with an electronic circuit of startling originality; united, these permitted a categorically new form of fault tolerant electronic communication that had never before been conceived.

The MSC 550 Transponder wasn’t just brilliant–it was brilliantly well suited for its task. It was the myriad “oughts” of an entire industry distilled by a brilliant luminous mind into a single concrete “is.”

Such is genius: what could never be, that had to be so.

Operationally, the central monitoring computer was designed to poll each of the premise panels attached to it once every 30 seconds, receiving four bits of information each time, and sending four back in return, (Never mind this was a transmission rate some 108,000 times slower than the modem in your computer; it was entirely adequate to catch Joe the burglar.) A special polling scheme, of Dick’s design, virtually eliminated false alarms due to spurious noise on the line. The design of the signaling method was such that it inherently rejected 60-cycle noise, the most common form of interference. The system was highly robust, degrading gracefully under adverse line conditions. If an entire MSC 500 failed, you could switch to a backup unit and be up again within minutes–meanwhile, no status conditions or pending alarms would have been lost.

I could go on and on…

Apart from its superb operational advantages, Dick’s system differed from “Ticky Ticky” and other multiplexing schemes in one unique respect. Go anywhere out on the circuit, cut the wire, ground it or even hot-wire it to a live electrical outlet, and… everything still worked–the operator would be notified of the fault, but the bi-directional exchange of data with each premise unit continued, unabated. Cut or ground both wires to any single premise, and you would lose communication with that premise (an automatic alarm condition), but communication continued elsewhere on the loop.

Think of it as the Christmas tree lights at David Copperfield’s place. (I will leave determining how Dick did it as an exercise to the reader. <grin> Hint: Check your premises…)

The technology that gave the MSC 500 its fault tolerance also gave the station operators a means to determine exactly where, and usually what type, of fault was occurring on the loop. Through a simple process of deduction, operators could be taught to identify the cause of specific faults. This ability would typically confound phone company technicians, some of who believed it impossible to isolate faults with such specificity from the alarm company station.

Dick Lawton’s system was truly revolutionary. But as I mentioned earlier, he had ambitions far beyond (merely!) bringing a brilliant new piece of machinery to market. Multiplex Systems was not a company–it was a religious movement; the Magic Box was not a commodity–it was to be a tool of redemption for a fallen industry.

Dick set up shop in a small warehouse, and began turning out the panels and boxes, at first by himself, later with a growing cadre of staff. When the orders to his initial customers were filled, he then set out on the sales path, not so much to sell his equipment, but to sell his vision.

The Enemy was the dialer. Much Badder than “Ticky Ticky.” Very, very Bad.

A dialer is an alarm panel connected to a standard dial-up telephone line. When triggered, it “picks up” the line, and attempts to dial a preprogrammed phone number to communicate the alarm condition. Many times, this actually works, when a number of fortuitous conditions simultaneously obtain: the dialer hasn’t failed since last tested; Joe the burglar hasn’t cut the phone wires; the dialer gets a dial tone; the dialer is able to get through to the alarm company.

Dialers were the antithesis of security according to Dick–he railed against them, and called their use egregiously irresponsible. Dick used to vividly demonstrate the principle being violated: he would grab the nearest level surface, close his eyes and say, “There is a table here.” Then he would recite, keeping his eyes closed, and each time emphasizing his solid grip, “There is a table here.” “I am certain there is a table here.” “I am absolutely, positively convinced there is a table here.” etc. It was an hilarious but perspicuous demonstration: there is nothing more difficult than explaining, after the fact, the metaphysical implications of the alarm system he had purchased to a man whose mother just died of heart failure because nothing happened when she pressed the emergency button connected to the dialer in her home.

Loss prevention. Not selling alarm panels.

The crusade continued for nearly 10 years, sometimes by example and long patient discussions with anyone who would listen, but often by fiery oratory. Once, at a Canadian security trade show, Dick held a seminar where he lectured the entire security industry–owners, operators, suppliers, and installers–for two hours on the nature of the alarm business, and the standards they should hold. To attract the participants (the room was packed), he offered an MSC 500 box as a door prize. As a bonus, attendees were each given a complementary gift: the officially labeled “MSC Dialer Defeat Kit”–a small leather pouch containing a pair of nail scissors. This was so typical of Dick–although a deeply serious man he was always delightfully colorful and dramatic.

Without a doubt, Dick Lawton was the most extraordinary man I have ever met and perhaps ever will.

In the first two years I worked for Dick, he worked 7 productive days a week, 365 productive days a year, (except for the one Christmas his wife forbade him to work, and that only because he was ill.) In the early years he was: President, general manager, chief engineer, buyer, assembly line worker, tester, shipper, salesman, technical support person–whatever it took to produce the boxes and alarm panels, and get them to the customers.

As an electronic engineer, he was matchless. He could do with a handful of cheap components what you would almost not believe was possible. His system embodied almost every kind of electronic circuits imaginable, from power regulators; battery chargers; complex high voltage amplifiers, of his own unique design, for the telephone line transceivers; control circuits for printers and displays; and a microprocessor–a brand new technology then–to control it all.

I observed what made Dick’s great skill possible: he always learned how every type of device worked, at the most fundamental level possible. Because he knew exactly how everything worked, as opposed to simply having memorized various circuits and formulas, he could figure out all kinds of incredibly clever and economical ways to construct the various parts of his designs. And because he knew the full identity of every type of component, he could instantly assess its suitability to a specific purpose, giving consideration to the myriad design constraints imposed by that context.

As a mechanical engineer, he could seemingly work with any material or industrial process in existence, from wood to steel to aluminum to plastic; silk screening, machining, forming, assembly etc.; and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of how to specify each one. At the high end, his production designs were amazing integrated wholes of whatever combination of materials and processes were needed to achieve the goal. On the low end, if some new jig or caddy was needed for production, or some new housing for equipment under development, Dick would head off to the machine shop, and soon re-emerge with some cleverly executed solution, using whatever scraps of wood or aluminum he could scrounge.

His designs were not merely technically brilliant, but took all aspects of production and installation into account: availability of supplies, cost, manufacturability, cost, reliability, cost, ease of testing and repair, cost, longevity, and most importantly, cost. (Though the price was always whatever the market could safely bear. <big grin> )

As a man, he was charming, witty, warm to those whom he admired, and tremendously colourful in his use of language and expressions. For instance, he would always greet you with an infectious, “Greetings!”–a habit almost impossible not to pick up with him, and one I’m happy never to have abandoned.

Dick loved achievement, particularly in fields of technology. He would often bubble over with enthusiasm for the latest products of electronics or computer software and hardware companies. He also loved sports cars and motorbikes, which he always drove with a restrained sense of urgency.

Dick worshipped competence, and it was always, without exception, the primary criterion of his estimation of others. A typical example: I vividly remember him being awestruck at the speed with which a certain contractor had installed a drop ceiling. (Dick seemed to be an expert in everything!) He inquired of the method, and positively glowed when he later related it to me. (Yes, said contractor was retained for all future work.)

In short: Dick Lawton was a man who belonged on earth, and to whom the earth most gloriously belonged. He was a brilliant genius, in every department of life, a man most passionately dedicated to his own life and values, a truly human being.

I had the privilege of working for Dick for a total of four years, two years as a programmer, after which I went back to school for two years, then two more years as an electronic engineer. It was during those two years away that I first discovered the American novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand’s universe was new to me in many ways, but parts of it were intimately familiar. It only took me only about two chapters of Atlas Shrugged to recognize who Henry Rearden was: “Hey! – he’s just like Dick Lawton.” Then John Galt, then (later in The Fountainhead), Howard Roark.

Some people mistakenly think Ayn Rand was projecting mythical Romantic fantasies in her novels–ideals without referents. Not so. (She obliquely and gracefully points this out herself in her postscript to Atlas Shrugged.)

There was never any doubt in my mind. I have seen: the arresting intensity of will, the productive genius and business acumen of Henry Rearden; the boyish exuberance, aristocracy of spirit and worldly wisdom of Francisco D’Anconia; the inexhaustible inventive genius, and scope of vision of John Galt; the man who fought an entire industry for the sake of his truth–the intransigent individualist, self-contained and a law of nature unto himself, Howard Roark.

Most people can only dream of knowing even one such individual–I have known them all.

Sadly, just as Hank Rearden was plagued by an internal contradiction, so too was Dick Lawton in some ways. Though a supremely rational, properly selfish and reality oriented man, he nevertheless adopted, in explicit matters of philosophy, the ideas of a Platonic, Eastern mystic sect. In testament to his matchless integrity, he took his philosophy seriously. He was for example, a vegetarian on the principle of “karma”, and expressed explicit opposition to “selfishness”, and the “trappings” and “desires” of the flesh. He would often comment, in explanation of other’s behavior, that they were indulging in “grubby self-interest.”

But for a man who explicitly eschewed pride as one of the deadliest of the deadly “sins,” he was its embodiment: whether in a matter as simple as personal appearance, or as important as the integrity of his work and mission.

I’ll never forget the righteous anger in his eyes as he told me of a meeting he had been invited to with the executives of a large, national alarm company. A contract to supply such a company could have been worth millions, and would have expanded production perhaps tenfold. Before the meeting was to begin, Dick was asked to sign what he was told was a “confidentiality” agreement. Dick read it closely, and it turned out to be some kind of confidential memorandum of purchase of Multiplex Systems. Needless to say, the meeting never began. Nor was it rescheduled.

Humble and selfless? I don’t think so. I think Dick was just slightly and understandably confused. It must be hard to identify moral qualities for which you have no referents apart from yourself, particularly when Augustine and Kant wrote the lexicon.

Upon what does life depend?

The second time I worked for him, Dick seemed to have lost the productive vigor he had displayed for so many years. In the last year, he only infrequently came into the office, and spent most of his time at home, working on a new type of alarm system that never came to fruition. He said he could no longer work nearly as intensively as he had previously, which he attributed to the long years of intense, non-stop work, an assertion I am certainly not in a position to dispute. But I sometimes wondered whether this circumstance might have been exacerbated (or perhaps even precipitated) by either or both of two factors: the irreconcilable contradiction between some of his explicit philosophic ideas and his actual values; and the lethargic indifference or hostility to his vision with which he systematically had to deal with over the years.

In any event, weary of an industry that did not want to take itself seriously, and unable to create his new system, Dick finally sold MSC to one of his customers.

I haven’t seen Dick Lawton since he sold Multiplex – it is my understanding that he bought a farm in a remote area of a sparsely populated locale. Very Dick: if you’re gonna “get away from it all”, then do so! But I bet it’s the most fabulously well-run, delightfully appointed, and technically well-equipped place in the area. <smile>

Although Dick didn’t quite achieve his goal of transforming the alarm industry, his equipment and vision did achieve a considerable degree of success within Canada. Well over 200 of the boxes were eventually sold, which implies somewhere in the order of 40,000 or more installed premises. MSC had customers in most of the major metropolitan areas in Canada. Some of its customers, such as the one that eventually bought Multiplex, became wholehearted converts and fellow evangelists in the mission of being loss prevention professionals. So although he didn’t wipe out dialers, he did have a great influence on the industry, and helped raise the standards of at least some of its participants.

The new (and completely worthy) owner of Multiplex Systems carried on until the early 90’s recession, when he was driven into bankruptcy–40% of his own customers went bankrupt, and few new systems were being installed.

What effect did Dick Lawton have on me? Well, needless to say, it was a priceless learning opportunity for a budding young engineer, and I absorbed as much of the Master’s theory and art as I was able.

More importantly, he showed me that one must never accept less than the ideal, neither in matter nor in spirit, and that the choices and values of other men are not absolutes, and when wrong, must be challenged intransigently. Dick taught me the meaning of morality.

I would like to end my tribute to Dick Lawton with the only facts about his company and invention that I think he himself would consider being relevant:

  • After an initial advance from his first customer, MSC was self-financing and always profitable;
  • Dick Lawton sold his equipment without any warranty, expressed or implied. But while he owned MSC, no customer was ever charged for repair or exchange of equipment that failed, even if it was the fault of the customer;
  • The MSC system has never (to my knowledge) been compromised;
  • In the history of operation of the MSC 500, no loss of life or property (to my knowledge) has ever occurred because of failure of MSC equipment.

The world is a pretty safe, reliable, prosperous place when men like Dick Lawton are running it.

…and a marvelous, magical one.

For giving me a vision of the world in which I want to live, and inspiration to last a lifetime, I want to thank you, Dick Lawton, wherever you are.

Thank you.


Copyright © 2002 by Brad Aisa. All rights reserved.