Memoirs of a Boffin

Chapter 5: Foreign Mission (1944-1945)

Once in Washington, we found to our surprise that our colleagues had booked us into the bridal suite of the Blackstone Hotel for two weeks until we found somewhere to live – which was not easy in wartime Washington. The digs we found at the end of the two weeks were not very salubrious, just a room in a rooming house, with a bathroom down the corridor. It was certainly a comedown from the Blackstone. The place was full of suspicious looking characters and we were not encouraged when, one day, we heard that there had been a murder in the parking lot next door. My office was in the Directorate of Radio Engineering at 1610 New Hampshire Avenue, close to where the Dupont Plaza hotel now stands. The Director, Fred Barton and a colleague, Richard Davies rallied round to help us find a home.

One evening Richard invited us to a small party at the flat of one of his acquaintances, a self-styled authoress called Madeleine. Our plight was mentioned in the course of the evening and Madeleine insisted that she would lease us her flat and go to live with her sister in Chicago for the duration. We rented the flat furnished for $69.50 a month! We were overwhelmed. We lived there for the whole year we spent in Washington. The flat, at 1666 Park Avenue, was close to the then Mount Pleasant street car terminal near 17th and Lamont and handy to the big public library on 16th street. It was the top flat and, in the Washington summer, very warm. The heat from the refrigerator kept the kitchen at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit on the worst days. We slept under a single sheet and sometimes had to change it for a dry one two or three times a night.

My responsibility in Washington was to interpret the requirements of the UK Armed Forces for IFF Mark V and negotiate with the design authority that had been located in the US Bureau of Ships and with the Combined Research Group now established in the Naval Research Laboratories in Anacostia, on the Potomac. At the same time there was work to do at the Hazeltine Corporation in Long Island. Now that I was in the United States, they were anxious to use me as a consultant (at the expense of the British Government, of course; no reward to me) in their engineering of a version of the Mark III transponder using US components. I had used a superregenerative receiver operating in the linear mode, at the suggestion of F.C. Williams. We held the patents on automatic gain stabilization and other circuits used in Mark III. This greatly interested Harold Wheeler of Hazeltine, one of the pioneers of radio and television.

Although we knew how to build them, no-one had ever developed a complete theory of superregenerative receivers up to that time. An exchange of information with Harold Wheeler left a spark of an idea in my mind which led, after the war, to the publication of a mathematical theory of superregeneration, with a TRE colleague, G.G. Macfarlane and to my writing a book on the subject. Harold Wheeler included an excellent article on superregeneration in one of his “Wheeler Monographs” after the war. I still have the copy, which I treasure in memory of a brilliant, charming and modest friend of that year in the United States. We shall never forget visiting him in his Long Island home. Incidentally, it was Harold Wheeler and Fred Barton, the head of our Directorate of Radio Engineering, who jointly proposed me as a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in 1945, a body of which I am now a Life Member. I became a Chartered Electrical Engineer in the UK (IEE) at about the same time.

I commuted regularly by air from Washington to La Guardia, from which it was only a short ride to the Hazeltine Corporation. The airline used DC3s. It was often foggy as we flew across Manhattan and I remember several times peering through the mist and glimpsing people in their offices in a skyscraper, apparently at our exact height. My impression was probably correct, because I still have a copy of the Washington Post with a picture of an aircraft sticking out of the side of the Empire State building. It cut an elevator cable and there were a number of casualties. I used to stay in New York at an hotel on 46th Street and spent many hours exploring the city alone on foot; something I love to do in any city that is new to me; that is why I feel comfortably familiar with the major cities of several countries.

Nesta was encouraged to join the British Air Commission at an office on Connecticut Avenue. There was no tax agreement between the UK and the United States at the time so we had two incomes plus my relocation allowance tax free for the time we were there. It enabled us to set ourselves up quite well with household goods that were cheaper, better or more readily available at the time in the USA.

Nesta near the Capitol
(The very first colour positive we ever processed ourselves)

I spent a good deal of time in NRL Anacostia discussing the design of the IFF Mark V System with the heads of the Combined Research Group (CRG). CRG was headed by my former boss Dr. B.V. Bowden of TRE and Dr. Claud Cleeton of the USA. Several of the small British contingent became division heads, probably because they had already had considerable experience of this type of development, under pressure. Even 20-year-old Andrew McLatchie, who had left his Public School (Oundle) at the age of 17, became head of the radar beacons division. Vic Rumsey, another former member of our IFF group at TRE, headed the antenna division. He had gained a star tripos from Cambridge at the age of 19 and was about 22 when he went to Washington. Bowden and our TRE colleagues brought to the Combined Research Group a wealth of experience of operational requirements in wartime conditions as well as systems engineering, then in its infancy. Also, particularly, the readiness to make decisions quickly which had been acquired through the exigencies of a war that was uncomfortably close.

In spite of the fact that the war ended, inconsiderately, before IFF Mark V was operational, the speed with which it was developed was remarkable. Without the leadership of men like B.V. Bowden, with his no-nonsense approach to governments, industry and military alike, British or American, and Hanbury Brown, with his directness of approach and clarity of mind, such progress would not have been possible.

During our stay in Washington, the Bowdens’ third child, Robin was born. Nesta was able to help with the other children while Mary Bowden was in hospital. We were sadly reminded of this when Bowden’s elder daughter, Mary, called us to say that Bowden had died on the 31st of August, 1989.

I have referred to Bowden as a man of great enthusiasm, vision, erudition, humour and lack of inhibition. These qualities served to ensure that life with him was never dull. During World War II, he applied his enormous energy to ensuring that all parts of the IFF Mark III System – airborne and shipborne transponders, interrogators associated with ground and shipborne radars, antennas etc. – all came along in phase to create a complete system.

In his book The Challenges of War, Guy Hartcup writes:

“Bowden recalls how the human problem of identification was borne home on him in a particularly poignant way. One Monday morning, about a week after he had been put in charge of the IFF work at Swanage, the Commander in Chief of Fighter Command sent for him. “He told me” writes Bowden “that, on the previous Saturday night, a Stirling, after bombing the Ruhr, had been shot up; it got lost and flew back over Bournemouth with its electrical gear out of action. It was misidentified as hostile and two Beaufighters went up after it. One of them shot it down and was immediately afterwards shot down by the other Beaufighter. The Commander in Chief said to me ‘You are in charge of this system (of IFF) aren’t you?’, to which I replied ‘Yes sir’ and he said ‘What are you going to do about it?’. And I think that was the first time in my life I realized the difference between science and engineering and between war and both of them.”

After the war, Bowden became associated with Sir Robert Watson-Watt in a consulting activity, before joining Ferranti Ltd. as a world-wide ambassador for their computers. In 1950 he was appointed Principal of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). Characteristically he was soon responsible for a plan, which the government adopted, to expand his own and several other similar institutes in Britain. In 1963 he was created a Life Peer with the title of Baron of Chesterfield and in 1963-64 was Minister of State for Education and Science in the British Government. He contributed greatly to the discussion of science policy in the House of Lords in the last two decades of his life. He was a dear friend to both of us.

We left the United States to return to England at the end of October 1945, on the Danish ship S.S. Jutlandia, a motor vessel of about 10,000 tons. This time I was requested once more to pay Nesta’s fare in advance, which I did. As I remember, it came to about £75. The 11-day journey was a holiday in itself. The ship was a freighter, carrying only about 50 passengers, all in state rooms. The meals were sumptuous, with a groaning Smörgasbord every lunch time and elaborate dinners. We sat at the table presided over by the Ship’s Doctor. He cracked a bottle of Schnapps every evening and taught us how to down a shot of it at one gulp. The first time, I remember little sensation as it went down, but it felt like an atom bomb on arrival. However the trick, once mastered, was very useful in later years when I was responding to a long series of vodka toasts in Moscow.

We were in mid-Atlantic on November 1st, 1945, our first Wedding Anniversary. To our great surprise the Captain threw a magnificent banquet in our honour. (In my experience Captains will use any excuse for a party). The surprise unfolded slowly with a group of crew and passengers inviting us for cocktails. The climax was a parade of waiters carrying trays of Souffleé Surprise, (or Baked Alaska if you like) with a large illuminated ice statue on every tray.

The author enjoying the mid-Atlantic weather

When I was cleaning up the administrative leftovers of the US posting at the Air Ministry in London, a few weeks after our return, it was called to my attention that, as the Government had paid for Nesta’s voyage to the United States, they had thereby taken the responsibility for bringing her back. Consequently, the Ministry insisted on refunding the fare I had paid in advance. It was not for several years that we appreciated fully that all the minor miracles associated with that visit – the subsidy of the fare, the privileged treatment on the Mauretania, the bridal suite at the Blackstone – had all been carefully planned as a wedding present by our friends and colleagues at TRE, aided and abetted by Watson-Watt. On our return to TRE Malvern, we managed to get a rambling second floor flat in a building, “Southlea”, rented by TRE in Gt. Malvern. Several of our close wartime colleagues lived in this and the building next door, including F.C. Williams and the Jeffersons.

One of the features of our flat in “Southlea”, was our first television set – a handsome 1939 Ferranti floor console. The BBC had resumed TV broadcast services which had been interrupted for security reasons for the duration of the war. Regular TV broadcasts had started in the London and Home Counties area in the mid-30s. They were shut down at 12.10 pm on September 1st 1939 and resumed at 3 pm on June 1st 1946. There were about 20,000 TV viewers by the summer of 1939 but the trade was expecting this number to grow to 80,000 by Christmas after which the sky was the limit. Therefore, at the time the service was interrupted, production was in full spate. That is why it was possible to buy a brand new 1939 TV in 1946. We were very popular with the neighbours!

My new research group did some of the very earliest work on millimetre-wave radar, using silver waveguides and a millimetre-wave klystron which had been developed at Oxford University . We also made measurements of atmospheric attenuation at millimetre waves, using reflections from a copper sphere suspended from a helicopter. In spite of the fact that the war had ended, there was still freedom to determine the program of one’s own group; also the financial freedom to let contracts to industry without involving higher level administration or very much paper work. TRE was an ideal place in which to do research, but it had left behind it the excitement of the wartime years.