Sir Edward Lewis, Decca's CEO. (From Decca Navigator News , April 1980)
From Decca Navigator News - April 1980

Sir Edward Lewis, who died on 29th January at the age of seventy-nine, was the creator of the Decca Group.

Edward Roberts Lewis was born on 19th April 1900, the son of Sir Alfred Lewis, Chief General Manager and director of the National Provincial Bank, and was educated at Rugby School and Trinity College, Cambridge. While still in his middle twenties he started his own Stock Exchange firm (which still continues, with his son as Senior Partner, under its original title of E. R. Lewis & Co). Though he remained a member of the Stock Exchange and participated in the affairs of the firm, the whole course of his business life was changed by the fact that his firm sponsored the public share issue of the Decca Record Company in 1929.

In 1930, the Company got into financial difficulties, its bankers threatened to foreclose, and at one time it actually had its telephones cut off, but in 1931 Sir Edward was invited to take effective control and joined the Board himself. Though he had intended at first to stay on the Board only for a few months, he took over the running of the business into his own hands.

During the 1930s,  the Record and Radio business became most successful and shaped the pattern in two ways for Decca's post war entry into the radio navigational business. Firstly the acquisition of the Brunswick Record Co in 1935 gave Decca Bing Crosby, without whom it was most unlikely that the Decca Record Company would have survived. Secondly, from Brunswick came a radio engineer, H. F. Schwarz. Sir Edward in 'No C.I.C.' wrote 'It was on the 3rd September 1939 that W. J. O'Brien wrote from Chicago to his friend, H. F. Schwarz, at Decca, setting out a revolutionary idea in the use of radio for the purpose of navigating aeroplanes and ships. This new theory had been submitted to the American Navy and the Civil Aeronautics Authority in the USA, both of whom were doubtful as to its practicability. We put the idea up to the Air Ministry, but it was considered to be too complicated and there were other promising navigational aids in embryo. We were disappointed but not deterred.

The Admiralty however showed more interest and in due course held trials which were impressive enough for them to support the future development in time for its major role in the 1944 D-Day landings.

After the war Sir Edward again showed great courage and business acumen when The Decca Navigator Company Limited was formed and he agreed to set up a Decca Chain (backed by Record Company funds), to gain acceptance by the British Government that the System would meet the navigational requirements of ships and aircraft for peacetime use. Soon after, from an idea to integrate the Decca Navigator with an anti-collision warning device, the first commercial radar was developed.

Sir Edward was a fervent believer in those twin pillars of the private enterprise system, competition and the profit motive. He was basically a shy man with a dislike of ceremony and protocol, and he maintained a friendly relationship with his Decca colleagues, business friends, the Press, and overseas agents.

Though he was for practical purposes the Chief Executive from 1933 onwards, he gave himself no official position except that of a member of the Board until 1957 when he assumed the Chairmanship. He did not take a salary and though not a technical expert he had an uncanny intuition which played a most important part in working with the enthusiastic executive team around him. His achievements in this field were recognized by the award in 1967 of the Gold Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts for services to the development of electronics, and a knighthood in 1961.

He donated generously to Charities and other deserving causes without publicity. A special interest was cricket. and he personally knew many famous players. He was also a keen follower of rugby football, particularly the team from his national country - Wales.

Decca has indeed been fortunate in having at the helm a man who has been widely acclaimed as one of the country's leading industrialists.

Harvey Schwarz and Bill O'Brien receiving their respective awards. The date is not known at this time. (From the collection of Walter Blanchard)

From Decca Navigator News, March 2000

The citation of the award reads as follows:

The Gold Medal for 1956 is awarded jointly to William J. O'Brien and Harvey F Schwarz for their work in originating and developing the Decca Navigator System. The Decca system of hyperbolic phase-comparison navigation was originally conceived by Mr O'Brien in the United States in 1938, when however, little commercial or military interest was shown in the invention. With the help of Mr Schwarz, then of the Decca Record Company in London, a demonstration to British officials in the United States was held late in 1940; this led to trials for the Admiralty in  the UK in 1942, and ultimately to the first operational use of the system, by the Royal Navy as a mine-sweeping aid, immediately prior to the D-Day landings.

The success of the system in this vital operation led to the formation of the Decca Navigator Company in 1945. Since then many technical developments have been made and Decca chains now cover the entire British coastline and most of the western European seaboard. In particular, its simple dial-presentation and great accuracy have contributed to its success as a marine aid. With the perfection of lane identification, the system's potential value for air use was greatly increased. and in 1949 the Ministry of Civil Aviation officially approved it as air aid. The flight log type of presentation which has been developed for air use gives a continuous indication of aircraft position and track made good, and there is no doubt that the accuracy of track keeping of which the system is capable can contribute greatly towards effective methods of air-traffic control..

Two new Decca systems are being developed to cater for long-range navigation and the North Atlantic trials of one of them, DECTRA, begin this autumn. Finally, some note should be made of the successsful use of Decca as an aid to hydrographic and land survey.

In all this work the original inventive genius of O'Brien and the engineering ability of Schwarz have combined to produce what is I undoubtedly one of the outstanding contributions to both air and sea navigation of the last few years.

The following letter was sent from A.L.Buchanan to John Molloy-Vickers. 

Marine Navigation Limited
Telephone: 081-942 7711 Telex, 22891 Fax: 081.3361158

Mr. J. Molloy-Vickers 
Racal Decca Canada Limited 
7510 Airport Road 
Mississauga Ontario
L4T 2H5 

21 July 1994

Dear John,

As you may be aware, it was 50 years ago that the Decca Navigator System, under the code name QM, was used to define the channels to be swept by the minesweepers to enable the invasion fleets to successfully  negotiate the minefields and help land the Allied forces on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Some of the leading vessels of these flotillas also used QM.

The Decca Navigator had been developed during the war and there is little doubt that without QM, D-Day would have even been bloodier.

Since then, the Decca Navigator system has gone on to be the most widely used navigational system in Europe and many other parts of the world, contributing to improved livelihoods for fishermen, improving safety of life at sea and actually assisting in saving many lives. It has made its mark in many fields and has become a household name to every mariner.

To recognise. this landmark, we have had 500 First Day Covers produced with the new D-Day stamps. Enclosed herewith please find your own numbered and. personalised cover.

Yours sincerely,



Sir Ernest Harrison, former Chairman of Racal, died in mid February 2009 at the age of 82. He was originally an accountant with the young Racal company and pushed them to take on the HF receiver that became the basis of Racal Communications and lead ultimately to the whole Racal Group that acquired Decca in 1980 and then pushed on to set up the second cellular carrier in the UK in 1984. That division, Vodafone, became the giant that spawned Verizon Wireless and several other carriers. Always a gambler, he was quick to make a decision and keen to join in the fun at the end of a long day over drinks and cards.

Contributors and Credits:

1) Walter  Blanchard  <wb(at) >
2) David Jones <dsjjones(at)>

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