You might think that electronic navigation systems are a relatively recent development, with Sat-Nav boxes appearing on many people’s car dashboards in the last ten years, but in fact they are older than me. Obviously such navigation could not involve artificial satellites because it started before Sputnik became the first man made object to orbit the earth. The first system was in England and went into operation in late 1946. It was the Decca Navigator and it consisted of four radio beacons, a Master and three Slaves; the Red Slave was in Shotesham near to West Poringland, about 5 miles outside Norwich. The other Slaves were at Lewes in Sussex and Warwick, and the Master was at Puckeridge in Hertfordshire. It lasted for over 50 years, finally being shut down in the year 2000, although it had been on the way out for several years.
Decca is a name which we associate with pop records; it was a Decca employee who famously turned down The Beatles demo tape on the grounds that guitar groups were on the way out. But records were just a part (although it is true to say a major part) of the electronics giant’s operations. They may be associated with music, and they had a musical signature tune formed of the notes d-e-c-c-a (the BBC had a similar one from the notes b-b-c). It was music that took the attention of the public, which navigation did not. The Decca Navigator was, unlike GPS, never a consumer product, but one used by professional seamen and aviators, fishing vessels and helicopters going to the gas rigs in the southern North Sea.
We often had cause to go to Shotesham, and our route took us past the Slave, a single 138 foot tall mast set back from the road. No sign announced what it was, but my father with his fascination with all things technical knew all about it. It was placed there partly because this is about the highest ground in Norfolk, which also accounts for the nearby presence of the WWII radar station at Stoke Holy Cross. The Slave was on Abbot’s farm where Poringland, Stoke and Shotesham meet. That at least was the farm’s official name, but to us (and everyone else) it was always ‘Kidner’s farm’. The Kidner family had originally come from Somerset in 1912. Mr Kidner had a prize winning stock of bulls which were always kept in a row of sheds you could see from the road. It was just as well they were not let out because that part of the road was unfenced. I believe they gored a farm worker to death in the 1950s. They sired the famous herd of Stokely Cross short horn cattle, but the herd was dispersed in 1960. It was just past Kidner’s farm that my sister and I picked up a hare that had just been hit by a passing car. We took it home and skinned it and put it in the oven; it is only time I have ever eaten hare and it was delicious. Nothing like rabbit, although I think few people eat rabbit today either.
You can see from this map that the original navigation system covered all the English Channel, the Irish Sea and the southern North Sea. Over the years other systems were established to cover all the UK. Abroad there were Decca Navigator systems in over twenty countries from Australia to Finland and South Africa. In common with early computers it was nothing like as user-friendly as a modern Sat-Nav with its visual display of an interactive map. The original Decca system relied on dials for a numerical output which was completely opaque to the untrained observer; but by the 1970s a visual map interface had been developed.
By then though we were well into the space age, and the days of an earth-bound navigation systems were numbered.