My (younger) brother died recently, and when I visited him a few weeks earlier he had been rambling about how there should be an APP that would encapsulate someone’s life – I think like a lot of old people he felt that when he died – he wasn’t expected to die soon although he had a progressive illness – he would like to leave a detailed account of his life. Fortunately or unfortunately very few people do! I’m not sure that anyone would be interested in my autobiography – but I think I would enjoy writing some of it down, so that I could relive the good bits when my mind starts to go – lets assume it hasn’t already gone too far. I thought this blog was a good place to put it, because its stored off site, and it is accessible, and I conceitedly hope that there might be someone amongst the many thousands of people around the world who visit this site over the years who would be bored enough to find it more interesting than watching endless Youtube videos – well one can hope! Plus it’s decent editor and I won’t loose it an an obscure folder on my computer. It also has the possibility that it will be saved for posterity on ‘ The Wayback Machine’ – an online archive that stores copies of all websites at intervals and can be publically accessed. I had cause to use it to prove that information I’d stored on a website in 1994 pre-dated someone’s later patent claim. Anyway, I’ll see how far I get in the coming months/years, At least to begin with it will be about my technical/professional life, rather than strictly personal details, although I probably need to say that I was born during early WWII.
My first memory of any ‘technology’ was an experiment I did at the age of about 5 or 6 that involved connecting a torch bulb to a 240 V A.C. power socket with a couple of short pieces of rigid wire – at the time power sockets in the UK were the unshuttered round pin sort – my mother never discovered why the fuses blew, and I never found the bulb – but I was completely unharmed – strange. My next relevant technical memory was building a model aircraft at the age of 10 – a KeilKraft balsa kit of a Fairy Gannet powered by a rubber band, perhaps the most unsuitable plane in the whole kit range for a beginner. I managed to build it but the tissue covering was all soggy with too much tissue paste when I tried to launch it, and it just fell to the ground in a heap of bits. I can remember that we had a Hobbies fretsaw and fretsaw table that used to be clamped to the edge of the rather nice Queen Anne drop leaf table in the evenings for hobbies – at Christmas we used to produce plywood profiles of Scottie dogs that were painted in poster paints and had a calendar stuck on them as presents. I am, with hindsight, sure that my mother’s encouragement to make things and total acceptance of all the mess and fuss were the main source of my lifelong urge to design and create – good old mum, Rest in peace.
At secondary school (more about that later!) I spent most of my spare time making and flying model aircraft – mostly control line models and 1/72nd scratch built scale models, with one or two sidelines;- I used to make bits like model aircraft fuel tanks and sell them to my friends, I had a session of using a home made lathe to turn out ashtrays (haven’t seen one for ages) in commercial quantities, making explosives and firing cannon and killing all the grass on the lawn (again my poor longsuffering mother had no idea why a stripe of grass had died). I had long periods off school with illness, during which time I never had any schoolwork, but my model making skills flourished. I brewed a large quantity of rhubarb wine, but as I didn’t really drink and it was anyway pretty revolting I decided that it would be good to distill it, so I built a still out of Nescafe tins and a bit of copper pipe – it worked rather well and I ended up with a large bottle of rhubarb gin. I couldn’t think what to do with it, until it occured to me that my mother had a bottle of Gordon’s gin in the sideboard that she occasionally sampled after we had gone to bed, and I found that topping it up from time to time went un-noticed. In the end she must have been drinking almost neat rhubarb gin with just the scent of juniper (no, she didn’t go blind, the methyl alcohol scare is more or less a myth to deter people from running stills). I did a bit of rather hairy electrics/electronics – I modified an old wind-up alarm clock to turn on my big valve radio beside the bed by sticking an open switch in the way of the alarm winder – the only downside was that when I reached up to silence the alarm I would get a 240V shock – but a quick way to really wake up. As I got to be a teenager I became aware of pop music and thought I should have a record player so that I could play records. I had bought a few copies of Practical Wireless and one had a design for a record player that I built – I made a case for it out of 1/2 inch chipboard and covered it in Rexine – very smart – so I bought a record to supplement the household copy of Teddy Bear’s Picnic and Colonel Bogy – I got a Lonnie Donegan record (By the Light of the Silvery Moon)! Well, I played it a couple of times but it didn’t do much for me, so I sold the record player and kept the now useless record. I can remember watching the young chap who bought it for £15(?) struggling down the road with it – it weighted a ton. I came across a design for a tape recorder that used a record deck as a tape transport, so I got a cheap deck and made a recording/playback head out of a bit of copper water pipe, a couple of transformer stampings and a length of fine wire and recorded The Archers from a socket on the back of the family radio – by sticking my ear right up against the speaker I was just able to replay it through the hum! Ok, so that worked, move on….. A friend and I acquired a Red Panther 350 motor cycle – it had a broken selector fork in the gearbox that my friend got welded, but the magneto didn’t work so we set out to push it to a garage about 3 miles away – on the way we were coasting down a hill when a policeman stopped us for not having a license and being too young to ride a motorbike – our offer to accept the telling off if he could just start it to prove it was a motor bike got us nowhere. We never collected the bike, so maybe its still in the garage.
My father, who I visited with my brother every holiday, was a firearms collector and used to shoot all his guns, On a couple of occasions we had a major session casting bullets and took all the guns down to the Army range at Tidworth where his friend was the Armourer – I think I fired all of them – from flintlock duelling pistols to Lugers and Mausers and Sten guns. I can remember when Myxomatosis was infecting the many rabbits on the downs nearby I used to wander around with father with a .22 self loading pistol each, dispatching blind and dying rabbits. Completely separately from him, pistols were quite easy to come by, and at one time I had a couple of .32 self loading pistols – a Savage and an FN. I once travelled by train with them in a box on my lap, with a police officer sitting opposite, which made me a little nervous – I disposed of the pistols many years ago to my father who had them destroyed. Many summer days were spent wandering round the Wiltshire downs with a ferret snuggly in my anorak and a few rabbit nets and half a dozen snares – that’s how a childhood should be spent!
My Grammar School more or less kicked me out before the 6th form and I went to live with my father in Essex and went to the North East Essex technical College and School of Art – a fantastic establishment where I used to have loads of free time and virtually no rules – I spent a lot of the summers fruit and vegetable picking on nearby farms and loosing my earnings at poker – I made up for it at parties when I took a bottle of gin and drank water, and from about 1 a.m. I could usually clean up – without cheating. Every Wednesday was Hitchhiking Day when I and a female friend would meet in the morning at college with a shilling and a bar of chocolate and think of a place name, then hitchhike there and back in the day – I can remember Cantebury and Saxmundham as being good sounding names. I can remember we hitched to Alnick and back in 24 hours once – I used to travel that way often, it was a completely acceptable means for young people (mostly boys) to get around. Between college and University I hitched all round France and Spain for 6 weeks – I think it cost me less than £50 all in. Father used to keep and breed Ferrets and always had a menagerie of other animals – foxes, a mongoose, owls etc. all of which needed feeding, and I used to go out in the evenings when I got back from college and shoot pigeons out of the trees in a nearby wood with a Westley Richards Muzzle loading percussion gun ( the logic behind this was that at the time that was cheaper than using the 12 bore breech loader – sadly no longer true by quite a margin!)
Three years living with my father was quite enough for anyone, so going to University was a logical step – my primary selection tools for which to apply to were a map and a ruler – just get as far from him as possible! I picked Manchester College of Science and Technology and did their somewhat unusual physics degree. As well as the usual physics subjects, with a heavy emphasis on Xray crystalography, we did a quick course in engineering drawing and machine shop practice and our practicals all involved thinking of a problem and making an apparatus to study it. As I was a bit older than the average student and much more practical, I ended up designing a lot of the other students apparatus. I can remember one student’s experiment, – a wind tunnel to study airflow – we needed something to inject into the air to visualise the flow, and came up with a machine that smoked 4 cigarettes at a time to generate the necessary smoke in the airstream. The cigarettes lasted about a minute, so in the course of a term we got through rather a lot at the department’s expense, and of course quite a few didn’t make it to the machine. I was there as transistors began to take over from valves for many purposes – they were all germanium transistors with rather poor radio frequency performance, although it ws just becoming possible to buy transistors that would work for FM radio – they were still very expensive so I used an ex radar acorn valve when I built a FM radio – it picked up the taxi radios too. We had a visit to the GEC transistor factory at Stockport(?) and were given a handful of transistors to play with. I bought a couple of complementary output transistors and built an audio amplifier of 3 Watts power – it had a massive chassis cum heat sink made of copper that must have weighted a kilogram. I guess we got up to all the things students did in those days, but I still made things – I painstakingly ground a 4 inch concave telescope mirror, but couldn’t get the figure right – I still have it somewhere! During term time one year the people in my hovel drove a minicab in shifts – it was an old Mini with the entire boot filled with a big valve radio for getting our jobs – the only problem was that the battery was not man enough for the radio, and if you stalled there was no power to restart, which made driving great fun and meant we had to refuel with the engine running and change drivers without stopping the engine. None of us had a clue about the whereabouts of anywhere, but we had a map and the controller knew every street and seemingly every door and bell in Manchester if we got too stuck, although there was a price to pay in battery power and you had to keep your foot on the gas while on the radio or the engine died, In the vacs I always worked as my father didn’t pay his share of my fees – the summers were the best – I started out as a bus conductor in Colchester, but as soon as I was 21 I worked a couple of summers as a bus driver in Clacton. The company used to train a group of students in about 10 days, we would then take our Public Servise Vehicle exams in a double decker bus and off we went. In training we had 6 of us and an instructor and spent all day driving the bus around Clacton learning all sorts of useful tricks like driving without using the clutch – the buses had crash gearboxes, but the engines were very slow running and had massive torque so you could start off by just touching the gears together and listenng to the click click and then slipping them in and the bus would move smoothly off. One of my party tricks was to turn a corner while making a hand signal and changing gear by wrappping my foot round the gear lever and doing a clutchless gear change. My first time on a service run found me in the only up to date bus in the fleet – I climbed up into the totally unfamiliar cab and looked for the key or starter switch – after an age of abortive searching I had to climb down and find a regular driver to ask – ‘oh, you just lift the accelerator pedal to start it,’ he said….. The bus was a bit longer than all the others and had air brakes, which I wasn’t used to, so at the first stop the bus came to a very sudden stop and the passenges who were standing up all fell in a heap. I sat there waiting for them to sort themselves out and get off, but no one got off – a banging on the cab window gave me a clue – the bus had a pnumatic door, unlike all the other rear platform busses and I was in control of it. When I got back to the depot I mentioned my trials and tribulations to a regular driver who informed me that all the regulars had had a half day induction course on the new bus as it was so different…. I could fill several pages with adventures as a but driver, I didn’t have any accidents – briefly held the speed record for a double decker bus on the Clacton Bypass and almost, but not quite, took the top deck off on a low bridge at Manningtree . Some of my fellow students were not so lucky – one managed to uproot a tree outside the Girl’s Grammar School, drove over a bank into a corn field, reversed out and carried on – back in the garage someone noticed water leaking from the radiator, and the front wheels were no longer pointing in the same direction . He wasn’t fired until, third time lucky, he put a single decker into a ditch and the passengers had to get out ot the emergency exit. One thing that I noticed – several of the regular conductors would sit in the canteen and empty their takings onto the table and divide them in two, pocketing one half – they managed this by damaging their ticket machines so they couldn’t issue tickets – the Inspectors were mostly having to drive so there were no checks! That sort of petty crime was quite common in those days.
As the end of our 3 years at University approached we would all do the ‘milk round’ of suitable employers, and employers would come and make a pitch to the science and technology students. Its difficult to believe how different things were then, with a massive shortage of technical and scientific graduates for the booming industrial sector. We would typically go for half a dozen interviews with major employers and would expect to get several offers – if you only got one or two you knew you were doing something wrong! If you had a reasonable reference you could expect to get one or two rejections and be left with 4 or 5 choices. I remember going for interview at STC in Harlow and having to do a psycometric test with 30 0r 40 questions which I thought was a bit of an imposition! anyway I answered the first 5 rather crossly, and the sixth question appeared to me to be a rehash of the first question in a different form, similarly the seventh question seemed like a rehash of Q2, a quick check showed that Q11 was a rehash of Q1 & 6. I guessed that the same thing happened throughout so I just copied my first 5 selections repeatedly until I got to the end. I then had an interview with the industrial psycologist, who started to tell me my character and failings – when I questioned some of his statements he looked at my results and said they must be right because I had an incredible score for the consistency check – in fact he had never seen one so high. I tossed up in my mind whether to confess, but decided against it! Anyway I got a job offer from them, which I didn’t take up. I had an interview at Bracknell for a job working on the Blue Streak missile – then a hot development topic – I quite liked the idea, particularly as I had a family by then and it came with the offer of a council house in the new town. I had an interview in Cambridge with Unicam Instruments – I took an instant dislike to the personnel manager who was a terrible snob – I had to turn my one experience of playing rugby into a love of the game to please him, and he told me that it just wasn’t done to live on the East side of the river Cam (which was where all the affordable houses were). They offered me a job at £800 p.a. – £50 more than the Blue Streak job but it wasn’t enough to pursuade me so I wrote a nice letter saying that much as the job attracted me (which apart from him it did), there was no way I could afford to live on the West side of town on the salary they were offering. I was bit taken aback when he rang me a couple of days later and offered a 35% increase – that was more than I could resist, so off to Cambridge I went. Actually I had originally hoped to do a Physics PhD, and had a place at the new University of Essex at Colchester, but couldn’t make the sums add up.
So pack up the family in a hired van and off to a flat in Cambridge (E of the river!). Unicam Instruments was the major British manufacturer of spectreophotometers used in chemical analysis – the other player was Perkin Elmer in the US. My first task – a sort of trial I guess, was to modify their largest instrument so that it was calibrated in wavelength rather than the less useful wavenumber (the reciprocal of wavelength). The spectrophotometers worked by passing light of a particular wavelength through a liquid sample in solution – they generated the monochrome light using a light source, a prism and a slit, and scanned the wavelength by rotating the prism using an arm following a cam – basically pretty simple. My main task involved calculating the shape of a new cam to rotate the prism using fairly simple trigonometry – the downside was that I had to calculate a new radius to a precison of 1/10th of a thou for each 1/10th of a degree of rotation of the cam. Now it would take a few minutes of a P.C. – then it took me about a month cranking away on a mechanical calculator using values from 6 figure trigonometric tables… and the another two weeks to verify the results. Having passed my trial I was given a proper project with a technician and my own bay in the lab to design the next generation of U.V. spectrometer, the SP 1800. We had a very good model shop that made the bits I designed, and as the design got to resemble an instrument, I had a draughtsman assigned to my project and we made good progress, producing a design that was easier to make and looked a lot more modern that anything else in the range – I’m still quite pleased with what I achieved fresh out of college! One of the complications of these spectrophotometers was that the detectors measured the amount of light transmitted, but the user really wanted to know the absorbance of the sample, which is the logarithm of the transmission – various fudges were used to do the conversion – potentiometers with weird responses that were expensive and difficult to make and had limited range, or shaped shutters that slid in and out of the beam. I thought there must be a better way and invented an simple electronic log converter and built a prototype that worked much better than the fudges and was easier to make – I showed my immediate boss the result which impressed him and he disappeared with it and circuit diagrams. I never heard any more about it, until after I left the company I discovered that they had patented it – in those days there was no legal requirement to name the inventor on patents. I was anyway rather disolutioned with the way in which my ideas would disappear ‘upstairs’ with no feedback, and when my father sent me a cutting form a Cambridge paper with a job advert In the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics I wrote off for particulars, but decided that I wasn’t qualified as it mentioned a PhD so didn’t bother to apply. So I was surprised a a month later to be invited to interview, which I nearly didn’t make as I was stopped by the Police in a roadside check , they found my handbrake to be ineffective and initially refused to let me drive on – I did manage to get away, and did make the interview, and got offered the job of Technical Officer. When I told my Unicam boss he was very keen to raise my salary, but I’d had enough and said I was going… Actually he couldn’t have raised my salary as it was in the middle of Harold Wilson’s pay freeze, as he later admitted, and anyway the University was paying quite a bit more, surprisingly. An incedent while at Unicam sparked my interst in sailing – my draughtsman and I were discussing details of the instrument when a colleague came by and offered us a fibreglass dinghy for £50 – my draughtsman and I looked at each other and said we could build one for less – so we did, at least I built the boat and he built the rudder! It was the most awful little sailing dingy imaginable – called the Goblin. Made of ply, the hull was shaped by placing a sheet of ply on the four legs of an upturned table and using props down from the roof to bend it into something vaguely resembling a hull. We finished it and got sails and I used to sail it on the river Cam – it was a pig!* in any wind at all it would tilt slightly and water would pour in over the gunwhale and it would sail serenely on getting lower and lower in the water until it was totally submerged. Still it taught me a lot, trying to tack up a narrow river in a boat that doesn’t sail properly is good training. Oh, and I didn’t ever speak to the Personal Manager, but he did try to block my car in one day because he thought I was parking in his space – I extricated the car, and the next day returned the favour, only more effectively – I was not to be pushed around!
(* I may be being a tiny bit unfair to Percy Blanford who designed the Goblin – there is a website saying how good it was/is by people who think its great – my problems were probably partly down to my build – the hull was horribly ‘hogged’ (hollowed upward in the middle) although I still think a well built one would fill with water in a breeze unless one was very careful always to sail upright).
On my first day at G+G as it was affectionately known, I arrived at 9 a.m. as one might think was the thing to do, only to find the door locked – when someone arrived a few minutes later I mentioned that it had taken me a long time to get to work in the traffic (even then). The reply was ‘ well, why don’t you just come later when the traffic is less bad?’ – Welcome to University logic! My role was to take on the running of the electronics lab at the department, and would have normally included being in charge of the mechanical shop as well, but the chief tecnician Lesley Flavill was a mechanical genius and had been doing the job since the war, so we worked together, until his untimely death a few years after I jointed when I took over running both workshops. The normal way we worked was that the research students – studying for a PhD – would have a project for their 3 or more years. About half of the projects involved some new geophysical measurement or other in the UK, abroad or at sea. These were pioneering days, and very little commercial euipment was available for the sort of work we were doing – so the students would come up with a project, design and build a piece of equipment, go out and do the experiment and spend a year analysing the results and writing their thesis. Our (the workshop staff and I) role was to facilitate this by providing design help and advice, assistance with building apparatus and support in the field.
As soon as I got started I the department took delivery of a new radio sonobuoy system – one of the few commercial systems we ever bought. Sonobuoys were then a vital tool in investigating the deep structure of the sea floor – the buoys would be put out at sea in a line and the ship would steam away and drop explosive charges into the water at intervals up to 40 or 50 miles in total. The sonobuoys would record the sound waves travelling through the water and through the rock layers underlying the sea, and the times various waves took to arrive could be used to estimate the depths of the layers and the speed of sound in them, which relates to the rock type – it was, and more or less still is in one form or another how we explore the sub-sea geology, and how we find oil and natural gas – the science is called seismology and this particular technique is called Refraction Seismics, because the sound waves are refracted in the rock layers.. Anyway the new Sonobuoys had radios that transmitted the waves they received back to the ship, where they were recorded, like some of our older ones, but hopefully much better. So I had to get the darn things working, despite having no knowledge of radio transmitters to speak of. A French oil exploration company were interested in the buoys and offered us the use of their ship for a trial in the English Channel – so within a few weeks of arriving I went off to sea on a ship, my first work voyage and a radio virgin! I struggled to get the buoys to work – we just could not get any sensible radio range from them. Whenever I worked on them I would be surrounded by a semi-circle of Frenchmen all asking what was wrong – I hadn’t a clue, but that wasn’t something I wanted to confess. When I wasn’t working things were better – lunch took about 2 hours minimum and involved wine (I didn’t touch a drop as alcohol and any kind of meaningful activity don’t mix for me) and I had a cabin with a real bath – the first and only time I’ve seen one on a ship – it was quite an experience lying in a bath while the ship rolled and pitched – decidedly sea-sick making. We had another instrument for a student to to test as well as the sonobuoys, a seismic recorder that dropped to the seabed and released after a hopefully predicatable interval when a magnesium link fizzed away. It released, as might be expected, at an unpredicted time and we couldn’t find it. The ship was eventually contacted by a French fishing boat that had found it floating on the surface. Score;- work 0/10 food 9/10. We later found that the makers of the buoys had most carefully insulated the electronics from the seawater, so there was no sea connection for an earth plane for the radio antenna – a bit of a cock-up on their part, but had I known a bit more about radio transmitters I might have spotted it in time for the trial. I still don’t really understand radio transmitters!
In the early days at G+G I was closely involved in a number of different projects, mostly to do with seismics, but also Earth Strain – expansions and contractions of the earth’s crust due to tectonic movement, ultimately driven by the motion of the Earth’s plates. At that time it was thought that measuring Earth strain in earthquake prone areas might let you detect the build-up of tension in the crust that could be a predictor of a future earthquake, or could indicate areas along a fault between two plates where ‘aseismic slip occured – that is, the fault slipped smoothly instead of storing up its energy in deformation around it, and then suddenly releasing it when the stress became too much for the rocks. * We had a project to build a laser interferometer for very sensitive measurements of ground movement, which was built in the disused Queensbury railway tunnel – one of the longest tunnels in the UK – I worked there occasionally, and it was a spooky place. Old railway tunnels are completely dark away from the entrances because the soot from the steam engines lines everything and is absolutely dead black and a very porous surface. The investigator decided that it would be a good idea to lighten the 20m. section we used as a base in the middle of the tunnel by firing a detonator in a 5 gallon can of white paint – the paint disappeared with absolutely no change in the overall blackness, just a small patch of grey on the ground. The laser was highly sensitive and showed the daily expansion and contraction of the Earth caused by the pull of the moon and sun – just like the tides move the seas – so the Earth itself moves, but obviously much less – about 1 part in 1000000000 or so. We also developed a simple instrument with much less sensitivity using a stretched wire, but it would still detect the buildup or release of tectonic stress. We had a project to place these in Eastern Iran after the 1968(?) Das’t a Bayaz earthquake. In ancient times the Iranians, and other middle eastern societies built complex irrigation system by piping water from the areas adjacent to mountains out into the surrounding desert to irrigate crops and for domestic water through a system of underground tunnels called Qanats which were dug and maintained by specialists among the villagers. These underground tunnels ran for tens of kilometers and sometimes when a earthquake occured the fault would cut the Qanat and the villagers would dig a bypass – so there were dead sections of tunnel left near active faults – ideal places to look for ground movement, and for a number of years we ran an array of wire strainmeters in these redundant tunnels, with the help of the local miners. The instruments were meant to run for a year without attention and get an annual visit – I took part in a number of expeditions to install, check and service the instruments. On one such visit the local miner took us to a disused section of Qanat about 10 meters deep. As usual we asked him to descent and check for bad air etc. he returned to the surface and said there was a red and green snake at the bottem of the shaft leading down to the tunnel. Our student interpreter said that there were no red and green snakes in Iran, and the miner must be making it up to get more money. After a bit of a discussion I volunteered to go and have a look, so I climbed down the ladder with a very dim carbide miner’s lamp on my head – the ladder didn’t reach the bottom of the shaft by about 4 feet, so I got as far down as I could and had a good look round – nothing, so I thought I’d better drop off the end of the ladder to have a better look around – I was just shouting up that I couldn’t see anything when I spotted a coiled snake about 2ft from my face – my shout tailed off about 2 octaves higher and I made a leap for the ladder and exited fairly briskly. There followed a long discussion – we had never encounterd snakes in the tunnels before and we couldn’t think how to get rid of this one from an otherwise useful site. In the end we decided that for our future wellbeing we should find out what sort of snake it was likely to be, and what we should do if we encountered one, so we set off for the nearest Hospital, which involved back tracking across the tracks and river beds to the nearest road – about 3 hours, and a road journey of an hour. At the hospital we found a French doctor and in schoolboy French explained our quest. I was able to sketch the pattern of the snake on the back of a cigarette packet – ‘Ah’ he said ‘that is a horned viper – if you are bitten by that snake you have 20 minutes to inject 80 ml of antivenum serum or you are dead!’ He gave us a couple of vials of serum and said ‘keep them in a fridge’ – some hope! Anyway we found another section of unused Qanat without snake. I went back a couple of years later on my own with just a driver who didn’t speak any English, and I only had a few words of Farsi, mostly to do with food, so going alone down the Qanats was probably foolish, but I’m not easily put off. Anyway if you were bitten down in a Qanat it would be very difficult for someone, even a colleague, to get down and inject you, even if the serum was still good after being in the Iranian heat for a week or two. That whole experiment ended with the Iranian revolution and was abandoned – there are probably rotting strainmeters down Qanats to this day.
* It turned out that single measurements often only sample a small and unrepresentative motion, and that predicting earthquakes is more difficult than we thought at the time – plate and local motions are now mostly done using GPS.
Following on from the sonobuoy tests, I did several test ‘cruises’ as we called any voyage on a ship. Several were day trips on an old fishing boat of about 50ft. from Lowestoft, The Meggies. – like all old fishing boats it smelt of fish and diesel and I used to get seasick at the sight of it. We also did a coupleof test cruised on Sarcia – the Plymouth Marine Labs old trawler. All I remember is that it had bags of coal stowed on the aft deck for the galley range for cooking and my cabin. Sarcia was typical old trawler and rolled like a pig in any kind of seaway – Unfortunately I had a bunk that ran athwartships – that is from side to side of the ship so first my head would crash into one end of the bunk, then my feet into the other, and so on – I ended up sleeping curled up on floor, freeezing. It wasn’t too long after joining that NERC, the funding body Natural Environmental Research Council acquired a modern trawler from the Whitefish Authority who, for reasons that will become clear, didn’t want it. The ship spent the best part of a year in refit to convert to a small research ship, and the officers were on standby on shore for months while it was completed. Sea trials had to be abandoned because it failed fire safety inspection, so our sheduled trip out into the English channel from Plymouth was the first trip the ship had made under NERC ownership, and the first time the officers had been to sea for months. The ‘fun’ started as we left millbay docks – it rapidly transpired that the ship’s variable pitch propeller had not been serviced, and the ship could not go from ahead to astern by this usual method – the alternative was to stop the main engine and engage a manual gear. Doing this while going astern rapidly into Drake’s Island had eveyone in a panic, but we survived, although when the main engine was stopped the power dropped out and all the lights with it. As we were leaving Plymouth Harbour the captain realised that there was something that they had forgotten to put on board (reputedly the duty free cigarettes) so decided to anchor. With the booty on board it was time to raise the anchor. The first attempt failed because there wasn’t enough room in the chain locker for all the chain, so it had to be paid out again and a man bribed to go down into the chain locker and manually stow the chain as it came in – a truly horrid job, only he never had to finish it because the anchor snagged on something on the seabed – probably an old mooring chain – and couldn’t be freed, so was cut and buoyed off and the spare anchor put on what remained of the chain. Off we set, only for the engine to fail some time later – a couple of hours wallowing around managed to find a bit of old rag left in the fuel pipe! I don’t know if anyone had bothered to check the weather forcast, but it blew up to force 10 as we neared Ushant. I mentioned that none of the officers had been to sea for months, so they were all pretty seasick – I had always suffered from seasickness up to that point and was determined that I would drug myself up with Dramamine and not be sick – it did work ( I was never significantly seasick at sea again) but the drug itself makes you feel less that perfect! Anyway I was up and about to watch the pandemonium. The captain was slumped in a chair on the bridge wanting to die and the bosun was driving the ship – the VHF was constantly giving out distress calls for cargo ships with shifted cargoes etc and it was pretty hairy. We had brought some chunks of railway line to act as ballast for the seabed experiment we were supposed to be doing, but at the height of the storm they came loose on the aft deck and just crashed from side to side with the rolls – I was a bit concerned at the damage they might cause, but it was far too dangerous to venture on deck – apart from the motion, the rails would have taken one’s leg off. We eventually made it to the entrance to Brest and called the pilot to come out and bring the ship in as is normal. The pilot cutter came alongside but to loose speed the ship had to stop the engine and put it in astern, which dropped out all the lights, which must have puzzled the pilot! Anyway we made it to anchor off Brest and all fell into our bunks and slept. The ship, The John Murray, was about the most uncomfortable sea keeping boat any of the crew had encountered – hence the Whitefish Authority wisely flogging it to a gullible NERC…..
I went to sea regularly during my time at G+G and later when it became the Bullard Laboratories of the Earth Sciences Department after the amalgamation of the three departments of Geodesy and Geophysics, Geology and Mineralogy and Petrology – it was quite usual for me to spend more than two months at sea a year on various research ships, mostly those belonging to NERC but sometimes on research ships of other countries on joint cruises. NERC had a number of vessels over the years, all bigger than John Murray. All the NERC ships were designated RRS – Royal Research Ship – and had official status as being an arm of the British government. NERC ships were all run in a similar fashion with a similarly configured crew. The crew consisted of the regular ship’s company and the scientific party made up of the University team or teams plus one or two technicians from the NERC marine base who maintained and ran the ship’s scientific systems like compressors, or ran the firing of explosive charges for seismics. On the larges research ships, like RRS Discovery, RRS Shackleton and later RRS Charles Darwin the total number of people on board might be from 40 to 50. Life on board NERC ships was quite formal and well regulated – The Deck Officers – Captain, 1st, 2nd and 3rd mates, and the Chief Engineer, Radio Officer if there was one and occasionally when on board, the ship’s Doctor constituted the ship’s officers and the Scientific party were all counted as officers and ate in the officer’s mess in a formal setting with service at the tables in the older ships – there was always a white cloth on the tables, in moderately rough weather it was wetted so that things didn’t slide, and in rough weather fiddles (wooden fences) were put up round the tables to stop things falling off if they did slide. Officers and Scientists was expected to attend meals at the specified times and to be wearing clean clothes rather than dirty work gear – the Ship’s officers always wore clean white chirts etc. There was a small Dirty Mess on most ships for scientists who were in the middle of dirty jobs or were rushed. The rest of the ship’s crew were ‘the crew’ consisting of the Bosun who ran the deck jobs, and the ABs – short for Able Bodied Seamen – who did the deck work and the maintanance work, the stewards and catering staff . The Catering officer lived in no-mans land and was often an alcoholic! There was a pretty strict defacto division between officers and crew – officers had a bar where beer and spirits could be bought – spirits were incredibly cheap – cheaper than the mixers, and the bar was usually comfortable and well funrnished whereas the crew were not permitted spirits and had a limited beer ration per day and had a much less nice mess and bar. All these distinctions were taken as normal, and things usually ran very smoothly. Officers had their own cabins, and the Chief Scientist had a larger cabin with desk etc as did the captain and Chief engineer. On some ships scientists shared double cabins, but in later ships the cabins were singles. In the early days on RRS John Murray one would be woken up by the steward with a cup of tea if one was in onr of the two single cabins on main deck level. This wasn’t quite the treat you might be thinking – you would be asleep, there would be a knock on the door, the steward would enter without waiting for a response and thrust a large and brimming mug of scalding tea made with tinned milk into your hand, and there was no-where to put it down – that was guarenteed to get you to your senses in double quick time – wake up – struggle out of bed and decant half of the tea down the basin – the other half would be pretty revolting on account of the tinned milk. The other two double cabins were in the depths of the ship with no portholes, one was right against the generator engine and was very noisy. Both had a bottom and a top bunk – the top bunk was close under the deckhead and had an air conditioning duct running across it so there wasn’t room to sit up – it was the most claustrophobic place I’ve ever slept. I got to know the John Murray very well in the early days at G+G – at one point I had spent more time on her than any other scientist and knew most of the crews that manned her – not always the same crew. Each of the NERC ships had a different character, and each of the ship’s Captains had a different attitude to the science that they were there to facilitate – most were, as one would hope and expect, fully committed to supporting the Chief Scientist and getting the work done, but occationall one or two could be a little difficult – since they were in absolute charge of the ship there was not much one could do except complain. I remeber one cruise where we lost instruments because the captian refused to pick up equipment from the sea in conditions that we knew from past experience were safe to work in – the Chief Scientist put in a formal complaint afterwards, but the captain is god and if he says the conditions are too bad then by definition they are!
Fairly early on in my time at G+G we were involved in developing and using equipment for seismic reflection profiling – this technique was complementary to the Refraction Seismics, at that time using sonobuoys. Whereas the refraction technique had the explosive source and the receiving buoy separated by distances that were long compared to the water depth – which might typically be 4 km, the reflection technique had a source and receiver, or multiple receivers much closer together and relied on waves reflected from the layers rather than travelling alon within them. Because the ranges were much shorter explosive charges wee not needed, and an ‘air gun’ that discharged a bubble of high pressure air beneath the sea surface provided the sound source. The receiver was a ‘streamer’ a 20m long tube with sound detectors (hydrophones) spaced along it. Before I joined the lab, it had developed a small air gun of 30 cubic inches capacity – microscopic by modern standards, but still the same principle, and was experimenting with streamers before eventually buying some from IFREMER, a French Institute. The streamer would be towed behind the ship at a steady 5 or 6 knots ( it got too noisy at normal ship speeds of say 10 to 14 knots) and the air gun would be run from a compressor and fired about every 30 seconds to 1 minute. The signal from the streamer was displayed on a paper chart by a scanning system that syncronised with the firing of the air gun, thus generating a very clear raster picture of the section through the seabed down to a few kilometers beneath the ocean floor (later systems gave much greater penetration. One of the ships we used for reflection seismic surveys in the Mediteranean was MV Researcher, a converted Norwegian ferry that had been used in and out of the fjiords on the coast of Norway – it was chartered to NERC by Gardline, who ran the ship and provided the crew. On my first cruise on this ship, we left from, I think, Plymouth where at the time the NERC base was situated at that time, and headed to Gibralter, and then on to Naples, doing surverys at points on the way. Researcher had a rounded stern, and the aft cabin area had been the day passenger space but was now the laboratory area where our equipment was located and where we worked. The ship had a big old engine turning a single propeller and at certain engine speeds would vibrate so badly that the screws in our equipment undid themselves – on later cruises we put sheets of thick ply on inflated wheelbarrow inner tubes as worktops to partially cure the problem. The crew, including the officers had been recruited in the Orkneys or somewhere similar, and the Captain, as well as being somewhat deaf, was really only used to his local accent. The ship’s equipment was more or less as it had been in Norway – there was no autopilot so someone had to steer the ship the whole time, and communication between lab and bridge was via old fashioned speaking tube. One of the problems was trying to stop the ship from running the engine at 220 revs per minute, which was a critical resonance, so we would constantly be calling up the bridge and asking them to run the engine at some other speed, say 240 r.p.m. – the problem was getting the captain to understand, and on more than one occasion he turned the ship onto a course of 240 degrees in the middle of a survey line in response to our call. This was before the general availability of satelite navigation and the ship had no radio navigation aids and was dependent on sextant sights by the captain. We had an Omega long radio navigation system we had hired as part of our scientific equipment so we could inddependently keep our track plots up to date, and ever day just before noon the captain would get the 1st mate to set his sextant at the approximate angle the captain thought would be the sun’s altitude, and then the captain would take the noon sight. At about half past noon, when he had spent half an our calculating our position from his sextant sight, he would come down to the lab with the back of a cigarrette packet ( amazing how often these appeared it those days !) held secretively in his had and say to the scientist keeping the plot ‘what do you make our position?’ On being told, he would invariably nod and say ‘yes, I got the same’ – I did try to get the scientist to give him a position near the North pole to see what he said, but they were far too responsible, so I have no idea whether he could use a sextant or not. I think the crew had rarely if ever sailed out of home waters – a belief confirmed for two of the crew when we docked in Naples and they didn’t have passports or Seamen’s Discharge Books, the universal marine document – they were not allowed ashore but had to paint the hull, but unfortunately were so drunk that they fell into Naples Harbour, which is almost like a cesspit . One very pleasant feature occured after we docked in Gibraltar – there was a drama getting in, as the only VHF radio wasn’t working and one of the scientific crew had to signal to the Naval Port Authority in morse using an Aldis lamp. The Steward/cook had been disgrunteled as he thought the provisioning of the ship in the UK was inadequate, so he went ashore to get supples with a small army of helpers. I was standing with the Chief Scientists at the rail when the army returned carrying food – a couple were carrying long frozen fillets of beef over their shoulders like guns and the Chief Scientist muttered to me ‘ I’ll be paying for this, I know I will’ in a doomed sort of voice. Later in the cruise I found a frozen fillet being used to prop open the fridge door. Anyway the up side was that if you wanted a snack of an evening you could go and cut off a steak and cook it on the top of the old range in the galley – 2 minutes per side max. – perfect. There was a young lad acting as galley hand, and one of his jobs was to make toast at breakfast in a domestic toaster – inevitably one day the toast caught fire and he just stared at the machine – the Steward, rightly being aware of the danger of fire in ships, shouted at him ‘put it out’ whereupon he opened a porthole and threw the toaster out – end of breakfast toast. Several of us scientists got our steering tickets as we were used, when not otherwise engaged, in steering the ship to give the bridge a rest. Drama aside, I enjoyed life on Researcher – I don’t know what she would have been like in rough weather, but I don’t remember ever having an uncomfortable time on her.
Another of the early NERC ships was the RRS Shackleton, like John Murray a ‘repurposed’ vessel, but quite comfortable in roughish weather. All ships of the size of our research ships roll and pitch when the seas get up, and even if its not possible to work on deck, life in the labs goes on. There are almost always a series of measurements that are made continuously while the ship is in the survey area, even if the seismic work is not taking place. The basic underway instruments would likely include a towed proton magnetometer, a deep water echosounder and often a gravimeter, plus keeing a log of ship’s position, usually every 5 or ten minutes. There would also be equipment to be got ready for launching, or being serviced or repaired, and occasionally being finished if there wasn’t time in the lab before the cruise! These activities took place whatever the weather, unless the ship hove too in a gale. It was often challenging to work when the ship was rolling – in rough weather she would roll 20 to 30 degrees each way, and on one occasion I saw a tall stool flip over 180 degrees on one roll and back again on the opposite roll. The magnetometer was an important tool – it was towed behind the ship to get it out of the ship’s magnetic field, and measured the total field – the magnetic signature that was recorded as the ship proceeded was due to the magnetisation of the rock layers under the seabed – The Earth’s magnetic field has reversed every few hundred thousand years (but not regularly) and when magma spills out of volcanos on the ocean ridges it takes on the current magnisation direction as it cools. If you record the magnetic field across the ridge you will see peaks and troughs corresponding to the changing magnetisation of the earth’s crust generated as the sea floor spreads over time from the ridge. Its really just like a giant tape recorder, and its how we were able to prove conclusively that the oceanic plates spread outwards from the ocean ridges – a discovery that was made at G+G shortly before I joined. I did many voyages on Shackleton, for a few years we would take her to the Eastern Mediteranean to do reflection profiling and refraction seismics – it was a difficult area to use these techniques as the Mediteranean has a layer of ‘evaporites’, basically salts, that were deposited millions of years ago when the Med was a closed sea and it dried up periodically – the evaporites have a lower seismic velocity than the rocks on top which messes up the propogation of seismic waves and makes it very difficult to get refractions beneathe the evaporite layer. One year I did a spell as Chief Scientist on Shackleton with a Captain who liked his drink, and who thought my job was to drink with him through the night – I am usually pretty abstemious on board ship as there is always work to be done, and I was often the only person who could fix bits of kit. I learned a whole lot of ways to avoid drinking without appearing rude. One of the chores abourd was keeping the 30 cu. inch air gun running when we were using it for seismic profiling – it was a somewhat complicated beast, but basically it was pumped up to about a hundred atmosspheres pressure, and then triggered so a shuttle slammed open and released the bubble of air, it fired about once every minute, and sometime around 30 hours the PTFE seal on the shuttle would fail and it would stop. The scientific watchkeeper would eventually notice it, then call out the AB who was on watch to work the winch, and me to fix the gun – by the time the gun was back in the water we would have lost at least half an hour’s record. I had a real job to pursuade the Chief Scientist that if we did planned maintainance at 24 hourly intervals we could have everything ready, stop the gun, service it and have it back in the water in ten minuutes – I did eventually prevail – it meant that I no longer got woken up at night to fix that particular job.
Around 1980 (?) NERC commissioned a new research ship RRS Charles Darwin to replace Shackleton. They canvassed all the Chief Scientists who had used their ships and staged a massive consultation to finesse the design of the ship. While a lot of details could be sorted out that way, it really wasn’t a particularly good way of sorting out lab space as many disciplines with very different requirements used the NERC ships. One thing that seemed to get general approval from these scientists was to position a large scientific plot (working office for watchkeeping and underway instrument readouts) directly behind the bridge on the upper deck to allow good communications between scientists and the bridge – never mind that it was two decks up and several doors away from where the rest of the scientists would be working. Despite the fact that the Darwin was equipped with a form of water stabilisation – a tank of on either side of the ship passed water back and forth as the ship rolled, but slowed so that in theory it opposed the roll to some extent, Darwin rolled quite badly, and each end of the roll ended in a little flick back. This wasn’t too bad in the cabins which were below the main deck, or on the main deck where the labs were, but up in the wonderful scientific plot it was horrendous due to the height above the hull. I guess the bridge crew got used to it if they were at sea for long periods, but the scas reducing the stability slows the roll)ientists didn’t, and the plot was rarely used. I think after a couple of years someone discovered that one of the baffles between the two stabiliasing tanks was missing, and they also added more weight above decks as reducing the stability slows the roll, and it was said to be better. I did a number of trips on Darwin – I guess it was the best ship I worked on for science facilities
I did a few trips on non NERC ships – one on MV Theta from Halifax, Nova Scotia that was the firing ship for a 2 ship seismic experiment – she was loaded with around 50 tons of Ammonium Nitrate in big cans like oil barrels, fired with a 1/2 lb high explosive primer charge, which was fired by a normal detonator. The Captain was from Newfoundland and objected to my long hair – as I was on the bridge every day doing radio communications with the other ship I stopped shaving just to annoy him – I’ve kept the beard ever since. I got pretty used to being on ships with a lot of explosives, and didn’t worry too much as the shot firers were always pretty well trained and safe, although we did have one scare on Charles Darwin – the big charges of Geophex (Gelignite mixed with rice husks to stabilise it) were made by banding together a number of smaller charges in cardboard tubes – this was done on a tipping table over the stern. Two detonators with slow burning fuses were then inserted into two of the tubes, the fuses lit with an electrical hot wire, and the table tipped up so the charge gently slipped off the table and into the water. Only on one occasion the shot firers made a mistake and banded the charges to the table, inserted the dets and fuses and lit them and then tipped the table – but the charge didn’t move and the fuse continued to burn…………………! As a precaution they always had a knife handy, and cut the slow burning fuse – panic over, but a bit of a tense moment. My job on shot firing days was often to sit on the after deck with a radio and count down the charges so that a recorder in the lab could be started to record the precise instant of the shot. W normally had tons of explosive on board, so it didn’t matter how near the explosives you were, because the whole ship would have gone up in one big bang.
The longest time I spent at sea without a port stop was on a cruise on the US ship Maurice Ewing with Scripps Institute of Oceanography scientists to the East Pacific Rise – a sea floor spreading centre in the Eastern Pacific which lasted ( I think ) 37 days. We were doing a combined reflection and refraction seismic survey around the spreading ridge towing very long seismic streamers with multiple hydrophones (underwater microphones) and a set of sea bed seismic recorders that I had designed and was responsible for, plus a set provided by Scripps. rather than use explosives as the source of the sound waves, we were using a number of very big air guns towed close behind the ship. My instruments hadn’t been used in that form before, so it was a bit nerve wracking to have to deploy them for about 3 weeks without knowing if they were working – it was always thus with our marine instruments – it was as complex and expensive to do a proper test as to go and get some scientific results, so we always did the latter! You find out pretty quickly if the instruments have worked when you recover them – on this occasion the first two recovered didn’t work and then it was time for our shift to end and the Scripps team to take over, so I remember going to bed feeling a little aprehensive to say the least. By unlucky chance those two were the only instruments that didn’t work, so just as well I didn’t jump overboard in the night. Had they not worked our entire participation would have been negated and I would have felt a bit bad about it. Both Scripps and Cambridge had teams of scientists on board who assisted with the instruments, and while the instruments were on the seabed they did the scientific watchkeeping and kept things running, including frequently changing the tapes that recorded the output of the streamers. I was excused watchkeeping, partly because I am a lousy watchkeeper as they all knew – my mind always gets distracted into working out how the whole activity could be streamlined and automated – I start out with the best of intentions to do the 5 minute checks and write very neatly in the log book etc, but then after about half an hour I realise that I was miles away and just missed a set of readings and it goes downhill from there. Anyway on this cruise I spent the working time designing a new recording circuit for Scripps with their engineer – I afterwards discovered that they paid their design engineer $2000 per day – so I felt they had about $40,000’s worth of my time. Life on board the Ewing was very different from the ships I was used to – and not just because they were ‘dry’ – no alcohol…. The officers and crew all messed together, including a lot of the crew in work gear, so the mess had the furnishings and feel of a large 1950s English transport cafe that I used to frequent when hitchhiking up the A1 road. There were no bars or lounges, although there was a large room where truly awful films were played back to back. So there was no-where to go to relax or socialise except a bit of deck behind the bridge when the weather was being kind (not often) , when you could sometimes find a group of Cambridge people with large tea mugs drinking what looked like rather pale tea without milk, but in smaller quantities. I had prepared for something like this by buying a ship model kit of a 16th century sailing ship and taking all the tools necessry. As the hull was planked with individual planks and everything was similarly detailed it filled most of my spare time for the whole cruise, and I still didn’t manage to finish the rigging – its still sits on the overmantle in the drawing room in the same state today – I WILL finish it one day.
The instruments we built to work on the seabed were mostly intended to work in the deep ocean, which can be anywhere from about 3000 to (exceptioanlly in ocean trenches) 9000 meters deep, although in general we built instruments to work down to 6000 meters, which is as deep as the normal ocean floor gets – in fact I think most of our deployments were at or less than about 4000m. At that sort of depth the pressure is enormous, and a very strong pressure vessel/ container is necessary to put electronics and batteries in. In addition, the pressure will find any leaks and flood your instrument – even a small scratch across a sealing surface can be sufficient to allow a very sloe leak. However, with careful design you can make seals etc so that the pressure actually compresses the seals and for the most part eliminates the risk of leaks. One of the strange things about the seabed pressure housings is that it was not uncommon for the instrument to return to the surface with about an eggcup full of (salt) water inside, irrespective of how long it had been deployed for. which would splash about inside the container as it was handled in recovery from the surface of the ocean, causing damage to electonics. Our solution to this problem, having failed to find a universal solution to the leak problem, was to put a baby’s disposable nappy (diaper) in the bottom of the instrument to absorb the water – problem solved! We pretty quickly surmised that the leaks were occuring as the instrument fell and rose through the near surface layers, before the pressure was sufficient to press sealing surfaces together firmly enough to seal – hence the leaks were a more or less constant volume. The pressure at 6000m is such that design and choice of materials is quite limited – a spherical shell is the most efficient shape as the stress is shared equally in all directions of the shell, whereas a cylindrical shell (tube) needs to be twice as thick to take the same stress. Surprisingly the strongest material we had available was glass – its stronger that steel or titanium when its in uniform compression, as it is in a spherical shell, and this means that you can make a pressure vessel thin enough that it floats in water, whereas the pressure vessels we made out of high strength aluminium tube had to have glass spheres attached to provide the buoyancy to let them float to the surface after they had been commanded to drop their anchor weights.
Away from marine seismics, another G+G activity I got involved with was the Earthquake Aftershock Study group – this was a small group of G+G / Bullard academics and students who were set up to go immediately to regions were there had been a major earthquake with a set of seismic recorders to record the aftershock waves at locations around the site of the earthquake. There were two reasons for doing this, firstly because the location of the major shock was by the international network of seismic observatories and was not very precise, so recording aftershocks locally as well as on the international network would retrospectivey calibrate the crustal structure round the area and allow refinement of the original location, and secondly because it would allow the mapping of residual stress left after the main shock as it was subsequently relieved in minor quakes. I only did one of these aftershock expeditions, to Georgia, wheich involved flying to Moscow and then going by Soviet military plane to Tiblisi and then to a field camp run by the Russian military. We put out our stations in or near villages, having a Russian military jeep and driver as transport. The camp was pretty dire, and the food terrible! I used to wander out into the town and the Georgians were fantastically hospitable – I would be invited into houses and be plied with food and wine despite not having a single word in common, unfortunately when the Russians got wind of my fraternising with the locals we were all banned form venturing out – there being no love lost between the two nations. One of the perils of this trip was that the villagers were also hospitable when we went to check our instruments and as we returned to our jeep would ambush us with a tray of Georgian vodka and glasses and engage in a toasting match which usually resulted in us returning to the camp somewhat the worse for wear = I have to say that the good thing about the Russian drivers was that they never touched a drop of alcohol, I think it must have been an instant dismissal offense. We did one trip in a Russian military helicopter – I wish I hadn’t looked in the cockpit and seen the wires hanging out of one of the instrument boxes – or for that matter looked out of the window and seen the other helicopter upside down in a nearby valley! But we did get back safely, so it was an interesting trip… I had taken a large wad of cash in USD with me in case I had to evacuate the team in an emergency, and on one occasion I was sitting at a table with a Russian professor, with my cash in my moneybelt, when he told me what his salary was – discovering that I could have paid his salary for more than 5 years made me rather jumpy about carrying the money about! Because we were on a Royal Society/ Russian Acadamy joint project the Russians paid us a daily allowance, just as the Royal Society did to visiting Russians. We were handed a fistful of Roubles while we were in Moscow waiting to return to the UK, and Russian student who had been interpreting for us took us round Moscow, ostensibly to spend our Roubles. The only problem was that there was absolutely nothing to spend it on, all the shops wanted US dollars only – I did manage to buy a small wooden bird decoration, and my colleague managed to buy a second hand tennis racket that needed restringing, and a pair of worn jeans. Our interpreter saw a shop with some shoes in the window and went running across in great excitement, but came back looking crestfallen, because they only had size 13s, a whole shopfull! He said sometimes they had his size, but the last time it had only been right shoes*, not pairs. I desperately wanted a drink and asked him if there was anywhere we could get something to eat and drink – he looked puzzled as if such places didn’t exist, but asked a shopkeeper who when pressed directed us to a small cafe selling tea that appeared to be exclusively for the shopkeepers in the arcade. I tried to give away my Roubles to him at the airport as there was a big notice saying, in effect, you would be shot if you tried to take Roubles out of the country, but he would not take them – in the end I pursuaded him that if I put them in the rubbish bin he was to take them out, which he did – it was probably a couple of months living for him so no wonder he was embarrassed! Goodbye Russia – and it was true what they used to say – if you stay in a Russian hotel, take your own bathplug……
* or it might have been left shoes, I can’t remember exactly.
I had a project running in California for several years in connection with our work on Earth Strain – one of the PhD students had designed and built a very simple and clever instrument for measuring tectionic tilt – the microscopic tilts that occur in tectonically active areas in response to movements of faults. It consisted of a 1 kilometer pipe with a pot of liquid at each end, and a very sensitive diaphram in the centre that moved as liquid levels in the two ends changed, and its position was measured with great accuracy and recorded on a paper chart recorder. He had built the instrument at an observatory site called Pinion Flats in the mountains above Palm Desert, East of Los Angeles, funded by the US Geological Survey – I took over the project as the USGS wanted it to continue, and I had a friend who was just taking up a Post Doctoral job for a year in UCLA (University of Calafornia in Los Angeles) and this provided a paid excuse to visit her a couple of times a year. Running the instrument was pretty straightforward so I had plenty of time for other things. On one occasion I drove up the inland route to San Fransisco up Owen’s valley – in the evening as it got near to time to stop I found all the motels were full, but one off the main road had vacancies so I drove up to it, it seemed a bit run down and scruffy but I got a room which turned out to have an old iron bedstead and mice running around – by the morning I realised that I’d checked into a low end brothel…. I survived intact. On another occasion I flew into San Fransisco with another friend to drive down Highway 1 to L.A. At the car rental desk I asked for a one way to L.A. and they were delighted that I could take a ‘really nice limo’ back to L.A. for them – knowing what was in store for it on the dirt roads of the Pinion Flat site I tried my best to disuade them, and to get them to give me a compact but to no avail. The limo was one of those massive aspirational cars – all mouth and no trousers as they say. Instead of having a wheel at each corner like any self respecting car, it had massive overhangs front and back, so over any kind of bump, and there were a lot in the mountains and at Pinion Flat, it pitched violently until the front (almost?) touched the dirt. Part of servicing the instrument required repeatedly going from end to end of the 1 km. instrument as quickly as possible – I usually found the little cars I normally hired occasionally took off , but this one was impossible – besides, for some reason the inside was lined with fur – presumably fake – but not improved by carting equipment back and forth and the perpetual sand and dust. I did my best to clean it out before taking it back, but boy, I felt bad about it! Each year I had to submit an application for the nest year’s funding, and my applications got briefer and briefer as I could see that, really, the measurements coming out of our instrument were not going to answer any great questions – it was again a case of not knowing how representative that 1 km was of any tilt on a wider scale. But it was a good experience – even the flights were occasionally fun – unbelievably in those days it was possible to chat up the cabin staff and ask to go on the flight deck, they would ask the Captain and I would usually be invited up on the flight deck – imagine that now! On one occasion flying back from L.A. I was on the flight deck chatting to the Captain and he asked if I’d like to see the recently erupted Mt. St Helen, and diverted his route for me to look at the smoke rising from the vent. To my global warming shame, I once flew to L.A. for the weekend – I probably did at least three or four overseas trips a year, and usually managed to fit in a bit of tourism at the end of the cruise or work – I can think of less than half a dozen occasions in my life when I’ve paid for a flight out of my own pocket. Teddy ( Sir Edward Bullard FRS, Head of the G+G in my early days there) used to boast that he had never even travelled out of Cambridge unless someone else was paying. I miss the travel, but one thing I’ve learnt is that it is much more satisfying to be in a foreign country when you have a purpose to be there, than when you are a mere tourist – it gives you a much better connection to the local population and you get much more respect.
Another cruise I did was on an Italian research ship that had been an American WWII tug and had been given to the Italians after the war. Like all tug type boats it was grossly overpowered for normal sailing, but this enabled the crew to drive it like a Ferrari, complete with the marine equivalent of wheel spin. We were deploying a number of sea bed seismometers as, I think, the only activity of the cruise apart from the normal data recording. The deep water echo sounder, operating at around 10KHz rather than the 50KHz of the normal shallow water ones, required a rather large transmitter to send the acoustic signal and receive the reflection, and the ship didn’t have a built in hull transducer, so a ‘fish’ containing the transducer had to be towed from the side of the ship, but not too close to the hull or there was too much noise generated by the water passing over the ship’s hull. The crew decided to tow the transducer from a fixed boom about 10 meters long over the side of the ship. There was a very excited discussion on deck as to how to rig the fish, with quite a lot of arm waving involving most of the crew. Not speaking any Italian I wasn’t a party to the eventual deployment method, but I wasn’t at all surprised to see a similar ‘discussion’ when it came to time to take the fish back on board as the end of the experiment, because it rapidly became obvious that recovery hadn’t been part of the plan – I watched in horror as a seaman attempted to crawl out along the round pole over the sea (without a lifejacket) – recovery was eventually effected after much shouting. Everything on board happened in the same chaotic way. At one point we had all 8 of our instruments out on the sea bed and were about to begin recovery when the Captain decided that he would prefer to leave the instruments and go into port. I had discovered that every ‘discussion’ had to be accompanied by lots of arm waving and shouting – so I put up a very theatrical defense of the original plan, made more difficult because the Captain wore large mirror sun glasses and all I could see was my reflection – but it worked and we did get the instruments back. For all the histrionics, the food was the best of any ship I’ve been on – whenever the ship stopped for even a few minutes the crew would come on deck in their slippers with fishing rods and catch supper. Dinner began with a pile of half a dozen plates in front of each person, which were filled in turn with fantastic food – brilliant.
There were plenty more cruises with stories to tell, but perhaps its time to say something about what we got up in the lab when not at sea or on land expeditions, which was generally about three quarters of our time. When I joined the Departmentin 1966 all the technical work was done in a separate building named ‘Pendulum House’ because one of the principal activities of the lab was operating pendulum gravity meters – at that time the only portable instrument with which the earth’s gravitational field could be accurately measured. The instrument consisted of a pair of pendula of very precise construction and very stable length independently of temperature that swung in a vacuum and were timed by light beams that reflected off mirrors attached to the pendula against radio time signals. They were relative instruments, in that you needed to calibrate them at a base station before you tookl them to wherever you wanted to measure gravity, and then you would set that place up as a sub base station etc. Gravity measurements were important because they tell you the density of rocks deep in the earth and allow you to find deep geplogical features, and when I joined there was a burst of interest in the measurements because they were vital for calculating the orbits of the emerging sattelites. Pendulum House was our own base station from which many measurements were made around the world, including on submarines at sea. Pendulum House was mainly a mechanical workshop with Leslie and two technicians – Roger and Klem. Roger had been in the workshop for a few years – he was a quiet man and made very precise mechanical bits and pieces, although at times he got the dimensions very percisely wrong, and there would be a pile of tell tale bits in the bin.
An interuption – one more cruise springs to mind that was, in its way, as odd as the Italian cruise. I and a student were asked to provide some seabed seismic instruments for a survey line the British Geological Survey (BGS) wanted to shoot from offshore in the Tyne area and onto land. The plan was to fire a total of 2 tons of explosives. We had two ships, both were Navy salvage ships run by civilian crews – they were used for recovering aircraft that had ditched in the North Sea, or any other heavy lifting which they did in an ingenious was – they had a couple of big horns sticking out from the bows with a large pulley between them for the cable and a winch. The winch wasn’t powerful enough for the strain of freeing things from the suction of the mud, so they had a very large water tank at the bows and stern, pumped water into the front tank and tightened the cable, then pumped the water to the stern tank which generated the necessary lift. Our seabed instruments were, on this occasion, moored to large doughnut buoys with a tripod on top for an antenna and light. When deploying the buoys the crew, working without hard hats or safety boots, used a steel pin weighting about 5Kg as a slip pin to release the buoy after lifting it on the crane overside. On a couple of occasions the pin fell from about 10 ft high onto the deck, narrowly missing a crewman, who seemed unconcerned and carried on as before, replacing the pin at height… On recovery they brought the ship alongside the buoy and a seaman climbed down the side of the ship onto the doughnut which was dancing around and banging on the ship’s side, in order to hook the crane onto the buoy – all without a lifejacket in sight! I’d been careful in my original agreement to make sure that I wasn’t on the ship with explosives, a view that was reinforced by watching these examples of stupid and unsafe working, so when the chief scientist announced that they were going to transfer the explosives to our ship, I insisted that we be put ashore beforehand, citing the agreement. Luckily it didn’t come to that as they reinstated the original plan, but I will always remember my horror as seeing crew acting like that. I did another cruise in the same area on an Oil Rig guard boat – all I can remember about that cruise is that I had to stay in contact with the lab and so hired a very early mobile phone. which was the size of two bricks and cost about £100 to hire for a week or so – but being relatively low frequency, its range was out to about 30 miles offshore, probably better than a modern mobile!
So, back to the Pendulum House – I was principally appointed to provide electronics expertise, and the lab had just appointed an electronics technician, who was having a detached retina sorted when I arrived, but on his return we set up an electronics lab in a separate building -The Crombie Lab – which had been built as a seismic observatory for training operators for stations to monitor possible Russian nuclear tests, with a pleasant recording room with lots of windows, and an underground vault for the seismometers. It was a shame that the site for the observatory was about as bad as could be found anywhere for recording seismics as it sat on a deep bed of gravel that attenuated any signals and rendered it totally unfit for purpose, so it was never really used. It made a fine laboratory for Mel and I, and we did the necessary modifications to suit ourselves and started to equip our electronics laboratory. We were not the first to do electronics design and building at G+G as Leslie and others had built radio equipment for seismics, and also proton magnetometers. The proton magnetormeter that was designed by Teddy Bullard was a clever design – it measured the total magnetic field by measuring the frequency with which molecules of a hydrocarbon precessed when they were first aligned in a strong magnetic field which was then switched off to allow them to precess in the earth’s field. The clever bit was in the coil used to provide the strong field that had to be very uniform – Teddy designed a spherical coil with the right properties that the lab turned up out of the newly discovered Araldite. He always said that the idea for the spherical coils came from a suggestion in a letter sent to him by a schoolgirl.
I think the first thing we built with a student was a set of amplifiers for land seismics – we were by now in the world of transistors, and integrated circuits were just becoming usable for simple applications like amplifiers and simple logic chips. In some instruments we were still using the logic functions were realised on printed circuit boards housed in plastic moxes with a modular plug in system – a box contining a decade counter, for example would be housed in a box about the size of a couple of matchboxes. I had played around with making printed circuits at Unicam – very crude – by painting the patterns on the copper and then etching it, and we did the first circuit boards a G+G in the sme way, although we quickly set up a darkroom and did simple contact printing of circuits cut out of red film by hand and etched in ferric chloride. This terribly impressed Teddy, who would tell visitors proudly that ‘we makeour own printed circuit boards’ while Mel and I cringed. We helped a lot of research students with their projects, and developed a set of modular boards in a standard format so that they could quickly make up instruments. Shortly after I started the department appointed an academic who more or less moved into my electonics lab and tried to take over, which didn’t please us, particularly as he chain smoked in the lab. I had a quick chat with Teddy Bullard, who had a great sense of fairness, who resolved the issue promptly, and we got on in our own way setting up the lab. In those days we didn’t seem to have much difficulty in getting money for projects or for basic lab equipment – for many years it was the proud boast of the head of the Marine Group, Drum Matthews, that he had never had a grant application rejected, and he had a number of rolling grants. Sadly that all came to an end towards the end of my time in the lab. I remember one one occasion we were informed that the government was promoting the British machine tool industry by giving large grants to Universities to buy machines – we were told that we could have more or less anything we wanted but we had to order it within a couple of days as the other departments hadn’t responded – we didn’t have a lot of space in the workshop for more machines, but we manage to fit in a massive new lathe – used a lot, a horizontal milling machine that I think was only ever used a couple of times and just took up space, and a number of smaller machines. That reminds me of a story that Teddy told of when he was Director of the National Physical Laboratory before coming to Cambridge – the accountant came to him on the morning of the last day of the financial year and said he had discovered a significant sum of money that had to be spent by noon – Teddy signed a blank order and sent his workshop head out to buy something useful that came to the available amount, and he duly arrived back at 5 minutes to 12 driving a large and shiny fork lift truck. It wasn’t just equipment – in 1967 (? – I’m not good on dates) the Woolfson Foundation (money source: Great Universal Stores) gave the Department money to build a new lab building, and I spent a fair bit of time over two years with the architects/builders fiddling with the design of the building and its fittings, and then equipping it with furniture. I had almost weekly meetings with the builders – it was a fixed price design and build contract – at which each week they would come in and say how much money they needed to save, and we would argue about just how many power points each lab needed (at the level of individual sockets!), or whether we needed 2 sets of drawers under this or that lab bench. It was a reasonable space and we got an adequate number of usable labs and workshops, but it was all pretty utilitarian – the internal walls were all block walls just sprayed with some speckeldy paint and of course, it being then, glazed with large single glazed windows. The building had a flat roof of precast beams overlaid with some form of sparse insulation and then a bituminous layer all within a parapet. Almost immediatley bituminous stained water began to drip from the beams above the suspended ceiling and cause brown stains – for a long time the builders maintained that this was water that had been in the insulation when it was laid, and there ‘couldn’t possibly be any leaks in that construction’! When it became clear that rather more water had come through than the total volume of insulation they grudgingly admitted that there was a leak problem ( I think via the parapet walls) and came up with an ingenious solution – a series of ‘draining boards’ under the ceiling beams all plumbed into the rainwater drain that ran down the middle of the ceiling cavity to catch the leaks. This sort of worked, except that at some point we had prolonged torrrential rain and the drains backed up, causing the draining boards to act as a source of water rather than a sink – it was all quite spectacular as there was an 8 ft fountain of water from a 4 inch pipe by the back door and water pouring through the ceilings. I didn’t like flat roofs then, and I still don’t. Anyway Mel and I set up our nice new electronics workshop in the Woolfson Building, and quite soon found we had chosen too small a space, and moved to a bigger space with adjoining labs where a number of students could work on their projects.
One of the really nice features of my early life at G+G, and one that now seems distinctly unusual, was the seamless boundary between work, our own projects and home life for the research students and the younger staff. Visits to the Churchill College bar were just as often taken up with discussing work as philosophy or politics, and there seemed to be similar gatherings in peoples rooms, flats or houses. The workshops and labs usually had one or two people working in them over the weekends, again either for urgent work or some hobby and in the early days there was nothing to stop students using some of the machines in the workshop at weekends. Cars were frequent projects for us – One student rebuilt a complete sports coupe from an old car and a new body shell, and I had a small fleet of derelict BMW 1600 and 2000s that used to get canibalised to keep my main 1600 going – in the end I sold it to a fellow employee and it finally gave up the ghost with 250000 miles on the clock. The workshops included a space for a woodwork shop, although we didn’t have much in the way of machinery, and no-one used it, so it was taken over as a car parts workshop and saw several engine and gearbox jobs. Several cars got resprayed at the lab, and I welded up a lot of boat fittings when I was converting a Reedling hull into a small cruiser, and also welded up a trailer for it with metal from a scrapyard and wheels and suspension units that were salvaged from old 3 wheel invalid carriages. It was all done perfectly openly, and Teddy Bullard used to take a pride in our extramural activities – what a fantastic leader. A lot of the relaxed atmosphere resulted from the fact that most of us spent time doing fieldwork or on ships together, where of course you were cheek by jowl with your fellows for most of the time, and often even shared a two berth cabin.
I wrote my first computer for a mainframe computer in around 1968, when an IBM XXX was installed in the Institute of Astronomy, another Woolfson funded building, just 50 yards down the drive from the labs. In those days you typed your Fortran program onto punched cards in a card punch, each card holding one line of the program. Even a small program would result in a pile of cards several inches high, and a large program might run to several feet of cards. The unfortunate feature of this system was that the pile of cards wasn’t indexed, so to get the program to run properly the cards, and hence the instructions, had to be in the right order, If you dropped the pile of cards you had effectively lost your program. My program was a very simple one for calculating how a weight on the end of a wire would tow behind the ship at various speeds. This was important because we needed to get the airgun to a particular depth to get the best signal. I was amazed when I left the department around 2000 I looked at the much changed and upgraded towing programs then in use and discovered that the arbitrary names I’d given to important variables were still there, although almost everything else had changed except my basic algorith. Computers gradually became a bigger and bigger part of a student’s work in getting a PhD, so the time they had in their 3 years for building instruments was reduced, and in consequence more and more was done by the lab staff, until the students effectively became operators of them.
Most of my work over all the years I was at the lab were connected one way or another with seismics, mostly marine seismics and latterly sea bed seismics, where I made something of a speciality of looking at the coupling of the geophone sensors to the sea bed – its a quite complex problem, and important for interpreting the sound waves ( = vibrations) that arrive a the sensor. The deep sea bottom is almost everywhere fairly soft mud like material – the accumulation of millions of years of fine sediment falling to the bottom, its only rocky where there have been recent undersea earthquakes or where fast sea bed currents have scoured the bottom. The seismic waves travel in the deep rock layers and propogate upwards as the go, arriving at the sensor at an almost vertical angle. There are actually two distinct kinds of wave that travel in solids – one where the particles within the solid are displaced backwards and forwards in the direction the wave is going – the p wave, and one where the particles move at right angles to the direction the wave is going – the s wave. The problem is that the sensor has to be quite heavy in order to sit securely on the sea bed, but the soft mud acts as a springy mattress would and so the sensor is not moved as the mud would if the sensor was not there – any way, that will give you a brief idea of the problem – we’ll come back to it later….
Another area I was involved with was measuring the heat flow out through the earth’s crust. The earth’s core is still hot from the time of its formation roughly 4 1/2 billion years ago, and also the decay of radioactive material in the core and mantle produces heat that has to escape through the earth’s crust. These two sources are about equal and drive the convection in the mantle, which is then responsible for the movement of the lithospheric plates and the transport of heat to the underside of the plates. These plates acts as a blanket, but also to some extent have there own internal radioactivity, so the amount of heat coming out of the surface of the earth at any point tells you quite a lot about how thick the blanket is and the rocks. The ocean plates are thin – typically around 5 km as they are all pretty young aand have very little rinternal radioactivity – maybe 2% of their heatflow, being continuously created and subducted, whereas the contintal plate are the accumulation of thousands of millions of ‘scum’ and are typically around 30 km thick, although mountains have much deeper roots – up to 100km deep – they do have more radioactivity, so there is not as much difference in the heat flow as you would expect from the thickness. So its an important tool for studying the crustal thickness. It’s quite a small amount of heat that comes through the surface, typically around 400 Wattts per hectare so not a useful amount – almost all the surface temperature comes from solar radiation – heat flow contributes around .03% to global warming! Teddy Bullard did the first heat flow recordings well before I joined the lab, and Leslie built a beautiful mechanical recording heat flow meter, but in the late 1970’s a student decided he wanted to do heat flow measurements in various bits of the ocean, so we set out to build a new digital instrument, and it was going to use a micro-computer. All the instruments we built in the lab were for use in the field, and almost always had very limited power available, so the early micro processors like the Intel 8080 and the associated memory chips as used in the ZX80 from sinclair etc were not usable because they needed too much power for the available batteries to provide – batteries were also much less efficient then so the power issues were actually a dominant constrain right through my time in the lab. The breakthrough came with the RCA1802, a very low powered CMOS microprocessor that fitted our power budget, and a few memory chips that also didn’t need large amounts of power. The Heat Flow we built using the RCA 1802 looks unbelievable when seen from the 21st century – it stored its program in a tiny memory of just 256 bytes that had to be loaded each time it was used and had to be written in machine code and entered manually via a simple programmer – a similar program nowadays might run to about between 1000 and 10000 times bigger – that program did all the measurements of 16 sensors and recorded them to a digital tape recorder as well as timing the measurement and controlling a heater. The heater was an essential part of the measurement – to go back to the blanket, if we want to calculate how thick the blanket (crust) was from the amount of heat escaping, we also need to know how insulating the blanket was – it could be thin but a very effective insulator, or thick and a poor insulator, so in order to measure its insulation properties we give the probe a quick burst of an exact amount of heat, and measured how long it took to cool down – the probe, by the way, was a 3 meter long steel bar with a thin tube stretched alongside it containing the 16 sensors and the heater. The steel bar had to be incredibly strong because you couldn’t guarentee that the ship would be directly above the probe when you pulled it out, so it might have to stand a very strong sideways pull. So the proceedure was to lower the probe on a steel wire of perhaps 1.5cm diameter until it was 10 meters above the seabed, then let it fall suddenly so it sticks in deep, leave it there for maybe 5 minutes to let the frictional heat dissipate and the actual crustal temperature to stabilise, then fire off the heater for about 30 seconds and record the following temperature decay, then pull it all back up again. In order to get the probe to penetrate 3 meters into the seabed the whole apparatus had to weigh around half a ton, but that was a ‘normal’ sort of weight for a bit of marine gear and could be handled on board a large research ship without difficulty. The thin tube containing the sensors and heater was about 7mm diameter, and the construction of the string of sensors to put into the tube was a work of art – fortunately the student involved was an expert fly tier with lots of experience fly fishing in Scotland – I would probably not have had the patience to make such a beautiful job. One of the parameters that we had to record along with the temperatures was the angle that the probe ended up in the bottom – If it was too far from vertical the measurement was not going to be any use, and if it was off by more than a few degrees the measurementss needed to be corrected to take acount of the angle. We had very limited capacity for data storage, and needed a sensor that gave an output that could be used to determine the tilt from the vertical. I couldn’t find any small, low powered commercial tiltmeters, so designed a cylindrical cell with a separate conductive top and bottom with an insulated layer between and a central cconducting cylinder, filled up to the level of the inulator with a dense flourocarbon (MFL18) that turned the cell into a capacitance bridge – it worked rather well, and I used the design in a number of seabed devices.
I did a few research cruises with the heat flow equipment, and one non cruise – the student and I, plus the rest of our marine party flew out to Rio Janero for a mixed heat flow and seismic cruise, then flew on to Belem to join the ship. We had a couple of days in Belem before the ship sailed, and came across a Portugese guide who offered to take us round the locality to see some Voodoo ‘services’ – an opportunity not to be missed, so the student and I plus two hefty rugger playing technicians squeezed into the guide’s VW Beetle and set off for the seamier areas of Belem – it soon became obvious that the guide was quite nervous about being in those areas, and on a couple of occasions he did a very quick about turn and exited smartly, sweating heavily. We then found a ‘session’ going on, so the guide went in and asked if they minded us watching – the hall had a strange mixture of pagan and catholic icons, and the ‘priest’ sat in a large chair smoking, with an acolite on either side , one giving him a cigarette every time he finished one, and the other lighting it for him. Meanwhile members of the congregation were engaged in Dervish dances and speaking in voices and becoming trance like – quite impressive, and we just quietly observed. After that one, we drove on and found another -church’ (I’m sure I’ve got the names wrong, and perhaps at the time I knew what they were called) = the guide went in and came out again and said there was no service going on, but the ‘priest/witch doctor’ would be delighted to meet us, so we went upstairs to a very large and, for the locality, plush office with the witch doctor sitting behind an enormous desk watching a gigantic television, at least at the time it seemed enormous to us, I guess now it would be quite modest. Through the guide he greeted us and we explained briefly what we were about to do, after which he offered to ‘read the bones’ for each of us. After looking at one of us he shook a large basket containing bones, feathers and other odds and ends and studied the result, then repeated for the rest. He then gave a summary of our individual characters which had us all gobsmacked – we were all pretty smart cookies, and well used to the idea of generalised predictions, but we could have clearly recognised each other by his analysis. Our scientific training precludes a belief in the occult, so we were left with his ability to read character in a few minutes across a cultural gap of almost half the world – I still think of it as the cleverest bit of people reading I’ve ever come across. Anyway after a trip up the river Belem, a tributary of the Amazon to see cocoa pods being gathered in the forest (probably a regular tourist activity!), we were ready to sail – having lunch in the Officers’ mess, when there was a loud bang – five minutes later the Chief Engineer came in and said that one of the generators had blown up, and that would mean we couldn’t use the main winch (for the heat flow). The student and I looked at each other and said as one ‘ no point in us staying then’, and caught the next flight back to Rio and then home – my shortest ever time on board a research ship.
Another heat flow cruise was on a Dutch research ship Snelius, a converted cattle carrier with all the labs in containers on the dack. The deck below was where the cattle were carried – it must have been thousands of them, because the whole deck was completely open. We sailed from Ambon in Indonesia and it was a pretty dreary cruise – hot and humid in our container and the food didn’t really inspire us although the Dutch scientists seemed to think it was wonderful. The only saving grace was that the crew rigged up a small ‘swimming’ pool using old pallets and a big rubber sheet that was regularly refilled from the sea, so if things got too fetid one could cool off. There must have been a few other heat flow cruises – but I don’t remember them! Our heat flow design was highly sucessful, and we eventually made several for our use and one for a Canadian group. I still think of those heat flow electronics as No 3 in my best efforts – it combined a number of inovative elements and worked well.
Fairly early on in my time at the lab we hired another electronics technician, Mike, who was fairly untrained in electronics but very good at coming up with crafty, if somewhat complex circuits – probably his ultimate triumph was the Seismic Jet Pen – I had been working on the design of a recorder that would produce a raster type display to record the repeated traces from the seismic reflections from the airgun – each time the gun fired the pen would traverse actross the chart drawing a trace corresponding to the incoming reflections, then fly back in time for the next gun pulse so that the reflections from layers under the seabed lined up on the recorder and formed a view as if it was a slice through the seabed. At the time all the commercial recorders had limitations, and we needed a high quality record. The recorder was based on a very igenious commercial unit – the Jet Pen – very simple in concept, it had a very fine glass tube with a magnet round it, bent at right angles at the end. a coil round the magnet caused the tube to twist back and forth when a signal was applied, thus pointing the bent bit from side to side. A high pressure pump sent ink through the tube, which the drew a line that wiggled from side to side with the signal – the incredible thing about the device was that it would do this up to 10000 times a second! Our recorder moved the Jet Pen back and forth across the paper in syncronisation with the firing of the gun to produce a raster display (like an old TV picture). Our design problem was that the pen was quite heavy and we had to accelerate it rapidly, move it at an exact speed across the paper, stop it quickly, and get it back to the beginning again at exactly the same rate every time. Now one could program the whole thing into a microcomputer in a day, then Mike spend months designing acceleration and decceleration circuits using logic chips, and all the control logic and option controls – a tour de force of electronic design and a very sucessful recorder – the best display by far at that time – we made a couple for other groups. I’m sure Mike wouldn’t mind me telling a couple of good stories about him! He had lost a leg in an accident as a young man, but you would never have known – in fact we really never did know until one day on board ship a very heavy weight fell on his foot and he didn’t flinch! On another occasion on board the Charles Darwin we were discussing our cabins and how to get into the top bunks in a lively sea, and Mike said, quite calmly, that it often took him three or four goes to throw himself up there. Going through customs in, I think, Rio, he was asked to open his suitcase – to reveal his lifelike spare leg – I’ve never seen a customs officer shut a case so fast! I was next, and had some lollipops in my top pocket – the customs officer asked what they were, so I said I’d give her one if she didn’t open my case – she took the lolly. Customs officers are strange beasts – going into the Canaries I had a very heavy case with a large bit of equipment that only just fitted in the case, around which I had packed my few clothes. The porter signalled to the Customs Officer that the case was heavy, so he asked what was in it – I couldn’t think of an inoccent answer, so he suggested books – OK! He then proceeded to do what I can only describe as a mock search – he went all round the case, and appeared to be searching but carefully never lifted the shirt on top that would have revealed the equipment! I did get done over fairly thoroughly leaving Cyprus on a ferry for Turkey once – to the extent of squeezing my toothpaste tube, opening match boxes and wanting to know what was under my shirt – I started to take it off but they thought that wasn’t on in the public hall. I was made to wait while they went to the office and checked files for an age and obviously thought that I was engaged in smuggling antiquities out of Cyprus, to the extent that they had someone follow me on the ferry and watch me on the way across – must have been a case of mistaken identity.
Like all organisations there was always some politics going on somewhere, and shortly after I joined there was a move by the Professor of Geology, Harry Whittington, to investigate the possibility of amalgamating the three departments of Geology, Geodesy and Geophysics and Mineralogy so he set up a series of meetings of all the academic staff of the three departments to discuss the possibility. This was many years before the amalcgamation actually took place without such democratic concern! I went to the first meeting in a lecture theatre in Geology, but because I’d never set foot in the place it took me a while to find the theatre, so I came in late, Prof Whittington was chairing the crowded meeting, saw me looking for a seat and pointed to a space next to him, which I took. He then needed to appoint a secretary to the meeting, and picked me as I was sitting next to him – thus I became the secretary of the Amalgamation Meeting. Afterwards he asked me what College I belonged to – as I wasn’t a Cambridge graduate and didn’t have a fellowship, I said none – to which he replied that ‘We must do something about that’, and subsequently got me dining rights in Churchill, which I very much enjoyed throughout my working life as it meant that I had the company of many bright people every lunchtime, and there was always someone who knew the answers to obscure questions of science, history, politics or finance. The Amalgamation Meetings didn’t get anywhere as there wasn’t a consensus, although there was a general feeling that somehow it ought to be a good idea. The experience points out an interesting feature of some of the old grandees of the academic world like Harry and Teddy, that they had a strong view of the importance of the young and junior staff compared to more recent holders of those posts. It used to be said of Teddy that if he was talking to a senior academic and a student knocked on his door he would ask the academic to wait while he dealt with the student – he certainly always made junior staff feel important.
I had another political involvement in University life fairly early on – I’d had casual commercial enterprises from time to time before I joined the University as I’ll explain later, but at some point the General Board of the University decided that Technical Officers, which is what I was, would have to ask permission of the General Board before they could earn any money in addition to their salaries. This was completely unworkable requirement as the General Board was the top management for the whole University, and anyway it was totally discriminatory since many other academics had lucrative consultancies, and no University medic could survive without his private patients. But there were not many Technical Officers – a hundred or so – so it was quite possible that it would pass unopposed . So I had to learn how to navigate the University systems in double quick time. The first thing I had to do was to call for a Discussion in the Senate House by submitting a ‘fly sheet’ to be circulated in the University Reporter, which I seem to think required a few signatures – I began to circulate all the other Technical Officers to get them to respond, and we did get a Discussion in the Senate House, at which as well as the general issues, I asked the General Board if they really wished to be involved if I offered to cut my neighbour’s lawn for a pound. Going downstairs after the discussion I heard a couple of the GB members say to each other ‘who do these people think they are’! of me and the Technical Officers in general. Anyway following the discussion the GB revised the proposed requirement and removed themselves from the permissioning and passing it to heads of Departments, so my point had been taken. The next step was a vote by the Regent House – that is all the academic staff of the University – in order to vote you had to go in person to the Senate House wearing your academic gown! I continued to lobby and in the end the proposal was rejected by several hundred to 13, by coincidence the exact number of academics on the General Board! That was fortunately my only brush with the Universitiy’s arcane democracy, and the issue never surfaced again except occasionally in an informal, half hearted way at Department level.
As I alluded to above, I have always been driven to commercialise my interests in a gentle way, not I think from any great desire to make money, for I’ve never had that as a prime objective, but because it validates what I do by giving it an external use. I think it was encouraged when I was young, I can remember at about 14 having a Wolf Cub electric drill with a faceplate and making a stand for it and turning up dozens of wooden ashtrays and selling them at a Girl Guide bazaar – I remember because it burnt out the drill, and the money I made just covered the cost of the replacement! I guess that probably set the pattern of just about covering my costs with my enterprises! I think the first real commerical enterprise when I was an adult involved a friend who had just set up on his own making and selling temperature measuring devices – his first was a nifty device for vets – a thermistor that you could put near/up an anaesthatised animal’s nose and converted the temperature of their breath to varying tones, so the vet was able to monitor their respiration without loosing attention from an operation. He rang me one day and said that he had just signed an agreement to manufacture and sell a device for measuring transpiration from plant leaves in situu – a potentially important agricultural research measurement, and would I cast my eye over the prototype that the academic who developed it had made and that he was going to produce. I did, and I had to tell him that there was no way the digital circuits and display using the then power hungry devices could be field portable – worn hanging on the chest as he envisaged it – as at the very least you would have to lug a large car battery around with you. I offered to ‘have a look’ at the problem – he had no money left for paying me so I offered to do it for a 5% royalty. I threw out all the digital electronics and the electronic digital display and came up with a simple analogue circuit – I got round the digital display problem with what was then called a ‘Post Office Counter’ – an electric click counter with a display like a car odometer, and which ony used power when it was actually counting or resetting. The whole circuit was very economical of power, worked at least as well as the original and could be powered off a rechargeable battery and worn on a neck strap – a very neat piece of retro design, even if I say it myself. The device, called a porometer, really set his business up, and sold very well, so the extent that after a few years we both got embarrased at the royalty cheques (he was a friend, remember) so I halved the royalty. Eventually he hired an electronic engineer for his business and by that time digital electronics was less power hungry so a MK II version made mine obselete.- end of royalties.
When I joined G+G we built several bits of kit for ourselves that other groups wanted, so I used to copy it for them – with the encouragement of Teddy Bullard – and so started my electronics manufacturing business that I ran as a sideline throughout my working life and as a full time consultancy when I retired from the lab in 2001. One of the early jobs was indirectly for the Gentral Electricity Generating Board – a sub contractor had received a regular order for banks of amplifiers to condition the signals from vibration sensors on turbine generators. The specification had been based on a commercially available integrated circuit, but the CEGB had pushed the specifications up so that the integrated circuit would no longer pass inspection, which I was told was rigorous. I designed and built a number of units that all passes their tests, but it turned out that in fact the equipment was no longer in use and the units were just tested and then put on a shelf and had been for almost all the contract- nevertheless I got paid! Actually in the life of my business I did several jobs that came to nothing, because the client hadn’t thought through what they were about, and overall spent many months on such red herrings – I always got paid, except once when I had to fight for it with one of the largest civil engineering companies in the country. There was a time when there were a number of occurences of subsidence in the midlands due to the collapse of old underground limestone workings, and the company was trying to get a contract to measure ground tilt as a pre-cursor to subsistence. We at that time had some highly precise tilt measurement techniques so they approached me to come up with an urgent design for a unit that they could present to the appropriate government ministry for funding for a major survey. I did some work on a possible design and a couple of executives came up to my office and looked over my design – I could see that they didn’t like it, and when pressed said that they had already presented a preliminary document and that my design didn’t match the presentation they had submitted! I was a little amused that they thought they knew more about the design that I did, but ever helpful I said I would come up with a design that matched their visualisation, on the principle that it pays to act as if the client knows best. So I bought a large steel box section for the tiltmeter, and was about to make the prototype when I got a phone call saying that the project was cancelled, so I stopped, and sent in an invoice for my time and the box section – about a thousand pounds or so in all. I got a snotty letter from the finance officer saying that I’d been working on spec and had no order for the work, so no money. Its true that I hadn’t had an order but had been told by a senior executive that it was urgent and an order would follow, but not to wait. I couldn’t shift the finance officer, and me against one of the biggest civil engineering firms in the World seemed a bit one sided, but I don’t give up easily! I had been engaged with a number of senior engineers in the company during the project, and knew they wouldn’t approve, so I rang each one’s P.A. and found out when they were in the UK and when they were abroad – it wasn’t difficult to extract the information, so I wrote to the finance officer and proposed we had a meeting with the engineers on a particular date when they were all in the UK, detailing where they were beforehand etc. The cheque arrived two days later. The large steel box section followed me round for ten or twenty years and I built it in as an RSJ when I rebuilt a chimney in this house 20 years ago – waste nothing, and thanks Ove Arup and Partners for that!
One of the annoying difficulties with my very small enterprise was that quite a lot of the jobs that came my way were via a subcontractor to the main customer, which meant that I could never interact with the end user as the sub contractor wasn’t about to let on that he had sublet the job. It was particularly annoying on one job – the main customer wanted to monitor the oxygen content of the outflow from the Wash in Lincolnshire using half a dozen measuring stations spaced along the channel. The sub contractor had previously had someone design a remote recording system, and they had got as far as to build the mechanical bits for the proposed design which didn’t leave me much scope for redesign. The problem was that I could see that the systems weren’t going to achieve the results, however well I finished them. The basic idea was to place an instrument in a cylindrical housing on the bottom of the channel and every hour a pair of ‘petals’ would open and admit water to the sensor for a reading to be made, then the petals would close again and squirt a dose of disinfectant into the closed volume to stop things growing on the sensors. Then every couple of days someone would go out in a boat and pull up the instrument and take it back to the lab and recover the data and clean and recharge it. They also planned to build a gantry with a winch for one sensor position. My thoughts were that this was a very complex system for a limited data set, with a pretty high chance of failure, given the mud and silt it would be sitting in. I didn’t have the chance to view the proposed deployment sites, but my feeling was that as the experiment was only intended to run for a couple of months there were probably easier ways to get samples of the river water – for some of the sites I thought that a weighted hose with a pump on shore that could be visited periodically would be possible. Anyway I kept to my contract and developed the electronic control and recording system for the instruments, and I had finished the prototype when I got the message that the project had been called off because it was too complex and they didn’t think it would work – my response to this was that I’d stop work there and then and give them a 5% discount, or carry on and finish them. I was relived that they accepted the 5% discount as its disheartening making things that you know won’t be used, and it probably saved me 50% of the work and cost
Without wishing to sound as if all my jobs were aborted – in fact I think only 3 were, here is last one as its quite amusing:- Some years ago there was an earthquake – not a big one on the world scale, but it was felt over quite an area, so significant by British standards ( there has only been one recorded death in an earthquake in the UK – in Wivenhoe in the 19th century). Anyway the significance of this quake was that it occured on a fault that ran through the site of a nuclear power station. Although not in that part, it excited the operators as it raised the possiblity that there could be an earthquake near the site – there concern was heightened by the fact that the construction of the reactor building was not properly documented, so it was impossible to do a full analysis of the effect of a local earthquake of similar magnitude. Their solution was to set up a monitoring network of seismic sensors around the site to see how much activity there was normally, and look for unusual activity. They gave the task to a sub contractor, who approached me to build the seismic instruments, transmission system and recording system, which was to be a large paper drum recorder as was often used for seismic monitoring. The network was to be connected by dedicated telephone lines around 10 km long on poles back to the lab site on the site. The seimis sensors and electronics were to be situated in manholes at the base of the last telephone pole and fed by power over the lines as is normal with telephones (at least until about 2025 when power will be withdrawn). Because it was using telephone lines and going via normal telephone circuits the electronics had to pass the Post Office specifications, which are pretty stringent, and gave me a lot of satisfaction to design the transmission system and go to the Post Office lab and have them tested and to pass. I’d got all the electronics designed and prototypes built, and was looking at the skeleton of the massive recorder I’d had made, and wondering how on earth I was going to get it to work. I decided that at this stage before I built the actual equiment I needed to go and look at all the seismic sites and get an idea of where it was all going. When I asked, the sub contractor stalled repeatedly, and I pressed as I know that it is important to get an overall impression before proceeding. Eventually I was told that one of the farmers on whose land one seismic station was to be sited was insisting that we needed planning permission to build a manhole and put up a telephone pole. This of course presented the powers that be with a problem, because in applying for planning permission they would have to reveal what they were doing, and hence that there was a risk to the power station from an earthquake – so instead of finding another station they called off the whole project. Another 5% discount job, which was quite a relief because I could forget about the recorder, and not have to build all the equipment – I did though, have to give them all the expensive seismometers I’d purchased for the job, but I suppose that was fair!
Just in case you get the impression that everything I did was aborted, I made a lot of systems for the Scott Pilar research Institute in Cambridge for use in measuring Ice properties – we made a number of short, 1m long strainmeters to bolt to the ice to measure strain in glaciers in Antarctica, and at one point on a large floating iceberg. These of course had to work down to pretty cold tempreatures. I built a series for BP to instrument an artificial island they were constructing in the Arctic to house a drilling rig, for which the spec was that the electronics had to work down to -18 C. This presented a bit of a problem as commercial chips and transistors are not specified at those temperatures, and even military spec devices I could get only go down to about -10C. I realised that they were all basically the same devices, so the difference was just the mil. spec ones were tested at low temperature so I bought a supply of the commercial ones and built a simple test rig and put them in an environmental test chamber that I had access to, and checked ;them at -20C They all worked – although some were a bit low in gain so I discarded those, and built the equipment from the ones that were OK – when I tested the equipment it all worked at -20, just as well I did as the first thing BP did was to test them at low temperatures. Several of the devices I built for use on the Ice had data loggers, and for some years I developed a range of very low powered data loggers baded on the RCA 1805 microprocessor – the sucessor to the 1802 that I had first used in the heat flow equipment.
At about the time I retired from the labs I got involved with the Geotechnics section of the Engineering Department at Cambridge, who were needing some better data loggers to run on their experimental centrifuges………………..