So long, Sid

On January 30, 2015

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As we get older, one aspect of the festive season becomes increasingly evident, an issue that younger readers may not have considered. It concerns the Christmas cards that do not arrive. Or, alternatively, they do arrive, but with a short note sadly informing us of the demise of a loved one. This year we had three; two were, I guess, not unexpected. The third, he being virtually half my age, sadly, was a surprise. But I want to tell you about Sid.

We first met in 1977. I had applied for a postgraduate course in microwave engineering, and Sid was the course leader and he interviewed me. I was nervous. Microwaves was the area I was most enthused by, but, academically speaking, I was not the sharpest Dirac-Delta curve in the function box. I was confident on connecting up test equipment, carrying out measurements and interpreting the results, but this was a postgraduate degree I was aspiring to. They would surely ask me about Bessel functions and their application to circular waveguide, or quantum buckets and their application to IMPATT diodes, for which they would ask me to solve the Schrödinger Equation in three dimensions, at the very least.

Sid didn’t. He asked me what I most enjoyed about the subject and why, what my experiences had been up to that point, what I wanted to do in the way of a future career and, finally, where I would be staying when I started the course. What? That easy? Great! Of course at the time, I was 21 years old, while Sid was 60… or 90… or something. Well, anyway he was old, in much the same way as I considered anyone over 40 to be.

The course was made up of two terms of academic lectures (plus practicals and exams), followed by a six-month period working in industry (plus a thesis). Of all the lectures, Sid’s were the most practical. To me, the theoretical and mathematical elements were grounded in concrete reality and verified by experimental laboratory work. I loved it. When it came to my industrial placement, Sid suggested I worked at a company called Standard Telephone and Cables (STC) in Paignton, Devon. I was soon to learn that he himself had worked there during the war, and that he had left quite an impression.

During my work experience, he visited me at STC to monitor my progress, both on the workbench and in my developing thesis (Cassegrain antennas, since you asked). I proudly showed him the SHF communication kit I was working on, which was umbilically connected to a network analyser, spectrum analyser and sweep frequency oscillator, as well as a lot more expensive gear. There was some sort of fault with the circuit and I explained all to him. But this was after Sid had been on site for some time, and he was not alone: three or four of his former wartime cronies had heard of his visitation and were in tow, eager to exchange news of the intervening post-war years.

However, the thought of a young lad with a microwave circuit board problem was too much for them and they all delved in, eager to ‘sort me out’. Frank suggested tweaking a variable resistor; Dave, replacing a thermistor. But it was Arthur who pinpointed the fault: “Shove an Avo on the bias of that tranny. What does ee read? Right then, it’s that bleddy PIN diode innit. They’z always blowin’.” (He was raised, and still lived, on an arable farm at the back of Paignton.) For those who have never heard of an ‘Avo’, they were a simple and robust (actually, almost indestructible) multimeter, manufactured in their tens of thousands during the Second World War and, at the time of this story, were available in army surplus stores for about a tenner. That would be less than the cost of the umbilical cable looms that connected all the other tens of thousands of pounds worth of test equipment.

These boys were old school. They knew stuff you could never learn in any form of structured learning environment. I swear, if they were around today, they would have no trouble waking up the Philae Lander given an Avo, a Boley screwdriver and soldering iron. I felt special and privileged to be under their tutelage.

When Sid had seen enough, he asked me if I knew if a certain Doug Savage was around. “Do you mean the Doug Savage as in the Site Manager, Doug Savage?” I asked tentatively. He said he expected so. I explained that this man, this manager of three thousand people of whom I was one of the youngest and least experienced, lived on the third floor of this two-storey building. That is, there was quite literally a tower over a rather magnificent Art Deco entrance foyer, containing only his office suite and his supporting entourage. I suggested we first phone his secretary. “Blow that! Doug’ll see me. Where’s the stairs?”

So I escorted him up to see ‘God’. Few employees, even the long-term established figures, will have made it beyond the base of those stairs. Sid ignored the secretary at the gate and knocked on the great beach doors to his office. Not waiting for a reply he strode right in, I meekly behind waiting to receive my permanent notice of dismissal from the premisses. ‘God’ looked up from his billiard table-sized desk and expleted a noise that sounded like a cross between a squeal and a growl. He arose and walked around the desk and they both hugged with such ferocity I thought all four legs would leave the ground.

They then both sat on a massive sofa while I, for the moment forgotten, sat on a small upright chair in the corner of the office-tower, hoping to remain invisible. There then followed a series of vignettes of microwave engineering post-war life. Stories, I suspect, from when they were about my age: how long-defective communication systems had been terrorised into action, how, contrarily, other functional equipment had been sabotaged for reasons best known (and, probably, kept) to themselves. One salutary tale I remember well described the novel way in which radio engineers would stay warm during the winter months. They would stand in front of the transmitting antennas. It was, they thought, a most efficient heater even though they did notice the onset of tinnitus following a particularly prolonged irradiation. But they also divulged activities involving dead spiders, cotton thread and young secretaries, activities involving smoked fish and a hot thermionic Klystron oscillator. To say they acted like aspartame-overdosed hyperactive kids at a birthday party would be doing children an unspeakable injustice.

The time came for us to leave. As Sid and I left the office, the site manager put his arm around my shoulder and, bringing his mouth close to my ear, he whispered: “Not a word. NOT A BLOODY WORD. You understand?” And now, almost 40 years on, for the first time I convey this tale. Believe me, I am afraid: very afraid.

I continued for ten further, happy and instructive years at STC until Sid informed me of his impending retirement. You’ve probably guessed where this tale goes next, so to keep it brief: yes, I replaced him and continued teaching his courses that I enjoyed so much myself as a student. The devices were, of course, updated: less emphasis on thermionic and more on solid state, the blackboards gone, replaced by white boards, OHPs, and in later years, visualisers. As many of you will be aware, at around the time of the millennium, a ridiculous lack of foresight across the academic sector led to the closure of many physics departments across the country, including my own. I was threatened with redundancy and then moved into the department of … well, let’s not go there.

I retired a few years ago, and a strange process I believe some like to term the ‘Cox effect’ led to the reversal of the closures of some of those departments. Today, Sid’s course is, in turn, being taught at my university by one of my protegees, a student I supervised in the 80s. Of course, thermionic devices probably no longer feature at all, being replaced by semiconductor and, increasingly, microwave integrated circuit components. (And white boards and OHPs will have been replaced by PCs and Powerpoint.)

But, as I reminisce over the legacy this jovial, quietly spoken gentleman left us, I’d like to believe there are some characteristics which have sustained through the generations. We microwave physicists are not, in general, bleeding-edge academic theoreticians. We have a more practical engineering inclination, and yet are still dependent on a solid knowledge of applied mathematics. Above all, we know when to use a sweep frequency oscillator and spectrum analyser, and when to use a multimeter. Oh, and if one of our colleagues should play a practical joke, we know how to keep our mouths shut – for the most part.

Image: A large satellite dish. Cassegrain antennas were the subject of Colin’s thesis. Credit: Shutterstock/gyn9037

About Colin White

Colin White began his career as a software engineer working on guidance systems before joining the academic fraternity as a physics lecturer, teaching microwaves and computer science while researching ferrite applications. He branched for a short time into geology to work on climate models, and latterly into sports science working on the dynamics of breast motion and sport projectile dynamics. He is the author of Projectile Dynamics in Sport – Principles and Applications, published by Routledge. He is supposed to have retired three years ago, and yet strangely still finds himself with project students, tutorials and lectures. He happily draws the line at marking though!