Agar oil industry instrumentation from Prospect Road

Back in the 1970s the offshore oil industry in the North Sea was booming, and associated with that there were many smaller companies that made special purpose sensors and other equipment associated with the installations. Many of them were in East Anglia and Scotland, but some instrumentation in particular was designed and manufactured around the Reading/Bracknell/Farnborough area.

Many of these companies spun-off little start-up companies centred around a couple of their boffins who had their own ideas, and Agar Instrumentation was one of these, started by Joram Agar in a factory at the top right corner of Prospect Road. He and his colleagues had developed a vibrating spool densitometer, which was basically a thin cylindrical shell of an exotic metal that acted like a bell, or tuning fork, and when energised by an electromagnetic coil, would ring like a bell. This was around 2” or 5cms long, and maybe 1” or 25mm diameter. If this sensor was immersed in a liquid, the frequency of the ringing would change, and you could derive the density of the liquid from the change in frequency.

So electronic coils were used to pick up the resonance and electronics measured the frequency. The beauty of this was that it measured the density of any oil or liquids being sent along a pipeline. In conjunction with a volume flowmeter, this could measure the mass flow, which was far more important than the volume, in terms of cash changing hands. Also, if you had a single pipeline from Fawley to London airport, you could send different grades of fuel along this pipeline, and this little sensor could signal when the fuel interface between two batches had arrived by saying that the density had changed.

The 1970s were boom years for Agar Instrumentation, with the base in Alresford and another plant in Texas somewhere. Joram Agar, the founder, wanted to sell his company while he was ahead. I can’t remember whether the figure was £1m or £10m that he wanted. In those days I was a small cog in a new business search activity for Bestobell in Slough, who were interested in buying the company. But that was the first time I visited Alresford, to return some sample equipment that the Bestobell Directors had been looking at. They failed in their bid to buy the company, or it would be a different story: it was bought up by Redland, the brick company, and subsequently moved to a brick built new HQ in Kingsworthy, by the Church. Joram Agar retired to Bermuda or somewhere, I seem to remember that was where he wanted the money transferred.

In 1981 I changed jobs, and went to work for the Redland company in Kingsworthy, again in a new business search role: but Redland sold them to the management, and it became Sarasota Automation, no longer looking for new businesses. So I went back to work for the Bestobell company in Slough. But in the meantime I had moved house to Alresford, and the family said they were staying here!

In the 1990s the industry moved on, and a new liquid analysis device was flavour of the decade, a Coriolis meter that measured mass flow directly. After 2000, the original vibrating spool business in Kingsworthy was bought in a package by Thermo-Electron Inc or similar, and moved to Andover I think. Much of the factory site was redeveloped for housing.

You might not know that:

Sarasota Automation in Kingsworthy had two Divisions – one was the Joram Agar stuff, the other was a business making vehicle detector systems for traffic lights, and vehicle speed monitoring and analysis systems – just on the edge of radar speed monitoring. The radar speed traps and loop vehicle speed detectors in the A33 heading North, just before the turn off for Alresford, were right alongside the R+D section of the Sarasota traffic detector business: so I think they were experimenting on the traffic speeding up that road! But it also needed a radar trap, as it is a very dangerous junction to this day.

Nick Denbow, www.iainsider.co.uk

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