The University of Southampton

The Department of Electronics between 1963 &1974, by Professor Geoffrey Sims, O.B.E FREng. Head of Department 1963-74 This memoir has been written (in 2009) without recourse to the archived documentation for the period, which is no longer readily available to me.

I apologise to anyone who feels that their part in the adventure should have been given greater prominence, or is in other ways incorrect. I hope that they will contribute their own recollections to make the record more accurate.

Introduction

In 1963 The Robbins Report recommended that universities should expand to be able to offer places to all students capable of benefiting from Higher Education. In 1970 the government commenced a policy of attrition of funding, the effects of which are still evident as I write.

The department was assisted in its early growth by the first of these factors, as shown by the following numbers of our academic staff in successive academic years.

9 in 1963-64
12 in 1964-65
16 in 1965-66
22 in 1966-67
25 in 1967-68
27 in 1968-69
28 in 1969-70
30 in 1970-71
33 in 1971-72
33 in 1972-73

For the universities generally the period 1963-74 offered both opportunity and initially-unperceived threat. Southampton University, with only some 1400 students in 1966, agonised between a desire on the part of some old stagers to stay small and cosy and a determination to expand by the more realistic majority, who saw genuine and exciting opportunities – not to mention the more general social benefits which would follow nationally.

When I was appointed to the Chair of Electronics in 1963 I was conscious of the reputation of my predecessor, Professor Eric Zepler, an engineer of great distinction, but at the same time not a thrustful man. My inheritance, therefore, had received little help from the university, which had singularly failed to capitalise on the uniqueness of the department he had founded. Thus I arrived to find a small but competent team which could in any circumstances be forgiven for not seeing the true extent of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead, in a future in which their importance was to assume a new and startling relevance.

In 1963 we had only seven academic staff, with research activities divided broadly between “microwaves” and “microcircuits”. The microwave side was well established and formed the seed from which the department’s prominence in “opto-electronics” and lasers was to grow, while two of the three members of staff working on “microcircuits” would form the nucleus of the team that was to see the department as the national leader in silicon technology. These two areas certainly grew unbelievably in importance, but by the end of the period we had thirty three academic staff overall, enabling significant efforts in a number of other fields, which I shall touch on later.

Alec Gambling and I had both been candidates for the Chair and I was always immensely grateful for the way he behaved when the lot of headship fell to me. I valued his friendship and admired the way in which his single mindedness led to an international position in the opto-electronics field. We worked harmoniously together, and despite several offers from me for him to take over the Headship of the Department he always declined, preferring to develop his research interests which undeniably added greatly to the Department’s reputation overall.

Teaching and Courses

Throughout my tenure S W (a.k.a. Wally) Punnett was the lynch-pin of the Department’s teaching work, organising our courses immaculately while contributing as a superb teacher himself. He showed little appetite for research in my time, though earlier things had been different – yet, like other perfectionists I have known, he could never bring the work for his thesis to a point where he felt it worthy of submission.

We all benefited from his standards and wisdom, but would have equally wished him a more tangible academic recognition of his excellence.

The Department had always treated its teaching seriously, and at that time it offered two undergraduate courses with slightly different emphases, one in “Electronic Engineering” in the Engineering Faculty and the other in “Electronics” in the Science Faculty. They were unique in the country at the time of their inception – though as world awareness grew that electronics was becoming a major force in life, other universities followed suit – often coming to us for advice in the process. We attracted a very high calibre of students, and virtually all student applicants of promise were interviewed by members of staff of the department, before acceptance, to ensure that they had the necessary mental and reasoning capacity to cope with their chosen courses. By the middle of my period our reputation had grown to the point that one applicant, the son of an F.R.S., with 4 A’s at A-level (quite an achievement in those days), came to interview me with a view to confirming that the department was more appropriate to his needs and standards than Cambridge. I “passed” my interview and he went on to become one of three particularly brilliant “firsts” in his year.

All of our courses included an important “Project” component, although we were not alone in seeing this as a good way to encourage and develop original creativity in students. We published a number of papers in the field of project-assessment, which we believed led to fairer and more reliable ways of assessing merit, whilst helping examiners to perform more objectively and uniformly in the process. We were also among the pioneers of “continuous assessment” – a new concept at that time which, though it had its virtues, did not always lead us to the conclusion that it either improved standards or encouraged students to work more effectively, on their own initiative, in the fields which we covered.

We continued to run the existing one year Diploma/MSc course in Electronics for some twenty or so students, many of whom were chosen from among the junior officer ranks of the RAF. These latter always performed well – after all their careers depended on their success! The course also proved attractive to more mature overseas students, many of whom were also Servicemen and were also sponsored to come – although of course there were no high fees for overseas students in that period.

During my period as Head of Department the number of departmental staff nearly quadrupled and the research effort increased apace, bringing the need for a competent full-time administrator to be added to our strength. In 1970 we were fortunate to persuade Commander Ron Broom to occupy this role. He himself was a first rate electronic engineer, respected by all, with a sense of order and detail that lifted many a burden from the shoulders of the other staff, all of whom accepted his wisdom and authority.

Research

By 1974 there were not only significant groups in the areas of opto-electronics, lasers and microelectronics, but also in various aspects of medical electronics, microwaves, pattern recognition and computer architecture, too. Because of our expertise, we were formally linked with several defence establishments along the South Coast, especially the Admiralty Surface Weapons establishment on Portsdown Hill from which we had a number of research contracts.

We did not do “classified” work though some members of staff had been cleared to high security levels. With such work one had to be scrupulously careful and I suppose it was some sort of criterion of success that we actually had a member of the KGB “planted” in one of our research groups, where he remained until he was discovered by the security people and removed from the country.

Over the period we also developed many active, less hazardous, links with other European Institutions, especially in France, including two Grandes Ecoles. We also had working links with Bucharest, Cairo, Japan and the Netherlands.

By 1974 we received more than two thirds of our income from outside sources, whilst per capita support from the University Grants Committee was declining in universities everywhere. Much of our research was thus paid for by grants from the Science Research Council, which were mostly of a short-term nature and not conducive to long term planning – but I shall return to this subject later. For the moment I shall confine my remarks to an outline of some of the more significant research that we undertook.

Opto-Electronics and Quantum Electronics

On the opto-electronics side our main achievements were in the field of glass fibre technology led by Alec Gambling, the work of whose team was to be honoured nationally and internationally, including his own election as a Fellow of the Royal Society and to the Royal Academy of Engineering. The group remained a world leader as the field moved on into coated and doped technology, attracting the attention of many world-wide companies including Nippon Sheet Glass and Pirelli.

At various times the team held the world record for fibre quality, achieved by a cleverly constructed precisely controlled drawing rig in which fibre diameter and uniformity were controlled to a degree that had yet to be matched by others. A key member of the team throughout, who became Pirelli Fellow in 1971, was David Payne, who, like Alec, was also to become an FRS and FREng and has recently been honoured by his nomination for the international Millennium Technology prize. This recognised his work, with others, on the development of the “erbium-doped fibre amplifier” which has helped usher in the information age by enabling information to be carried over glass-fibre cables for hundreds of miles.

The quantum electronics and laser group was led by Bob Smith, later to become the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Kingston. Inter alia the group did important pioneering work on tuneable infra-red lasers. This part of the team was largely accommodated at this period in an array of old army hospital wards, which had escaped demolition after the First World War. Nonetheless, they were home to some first rate scientific work. Unfortunately they succumbed to a disastrous fire in 1971 that caused, inevitably, some loss of momentum in that work. Much valuable equipment, as well as many research records, was lost in the fire, and on the morning after only one smile was to be seen – on the face of a Japanese research student who when asked to explain said “yes” he had lost his notes, but fires were so common in Japan that he always kept a duplicate set in his lodgings just in case!

Microelectronics

Microelectronics at the beginning was mainly concerned with thin film circuits and had yet to experience the real impact of silicon technology. Nonetheless, one of the most active minds in the department was already working on technologies which would come to play an important role in the future. Ken Nichols’ unconventional path into a lectureship had nurtured a variety of skills, which were to see the department early in the field of electron beam machining and precision mask making equipment. Ken’s enthusiasm, complemented by Greville Bloodworth’s commitment, soon to be joined with that of Henri Kemhadjian from Mullards, was to be crucial to our future.

Towards the end of the 60’s we had the first professional standard clean roomin any university in the country, enabling us to process silicon technology and devices: this facility was also required to be made available to assist other universities wishing to do device work. The achievement of this facility was monumental, as funding had been put together in small packages from a number of contracts and only an outstandingly dedicated and gifted team could have done it. Other staff who were associated with the group included John Beynon, who was to pass through Chairs at UWIST and the University of Surrey before becoming Principal of King’s College London, as well as Arthur Brunnschweiler and Jim Smith who stayed in Southampton.

Mention should be made at this point of the University of Edinburgh, which was a little later than us in the field but was seeking to follow a parallel path. We had a very close relationship with their Electrical Engineering Department, led by Professor Ewart Farvis with whom we had the most friendly of gentleman’s agreements, which ensured that we would always seek to work in complementary ways rather than compete. It was gratifying that Edinburgh too prospered.

Prosthetics and other Research Topics

In 1965 a new chair was created, in Control Engineering, to which Jim Nightingale was appointed. Jim was a good natured gifted colleague of many talents, who, though not renowned for getting to meetings on time, always worked with an enthusiasm which truly inspired his research students – indeed his work in the field of medical electronics was ground breaking in its day.

His greatest achievement was the first design of a forearm/hand prosthesis, which, working off residual nerve potentials in the patient, was capable of picking up an egg without dropping or cracking it. He worked on other aspects of medical electronics too, including a highly original Compton-scattering imaging device. His team included Tariq Durrani who was later to move to a Chair in Strathclyde and also subsequently to be appointed to a Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Alan Newell also achieved some notable firsts in the para-medical area, in the field of “captioning for the deaf”, and had the distinction of being invited to install a special aid for a prominent member of the House of Commons. On his first attempt to gain entry to “The House” Alan failed, as the officials refused to believe he was not a salesman, and higher authority had to be sought to convince them that they should let him in! Alan subsequently left us to fill a Chair in the University of Dundee.

We were fortunate enough, also, to have Doug Lewin on the staff for some years, who did some seminal work on associative processors whilst with us, as well as contributing to our computer teaching in a major way. He was a truly original thinker and soon moved on, first to a Chair at Brunel and then to be Head of Computer Science in Sheffield, where his untimely death saddened us all.

Others who succeeded to Chairs elsewhere included Bruce Batchelor, who left the pattern recognition group for UWIST, and Adrian Bailey who, after a two year secondment to ESTEC in Belgium where he worked on positioning thrusters for satellites, succeeded Professor Bill Bright as leader of the Electrostatics Group in the Electrical Engineering Department. That group included among its achievements a solution to the problem of why, unaccountably and apparently spontaneously, super-tankers blew up and grain silos exploded.

These were only a few aspects of the work of what was a lively and committed department, which had a strong team spirit and thrived on innovation.

Collaboration with Industry

It had been our policy from the outset to try to make our work relevant to the needs of industry, and many of our student projects derived from industrial needs. In 1968 both Edinburgh and ourselves competed successfully for grants from the Wolfson Foundation for resources which would enable us to offer our expertise to industry – on a commercial basis – in any electronics fields in which we had special competence. Our Wolfson unit, led by Tony Dorey (who subsequently left us to go to a Chair in the University of Lancaster) was modestly successful, but Industry was facing many problems at that time and our success was not as great as we would have wished.

University-Industry collaboration was being heavily encouraged at that time by the then Ministry of Technology, which in 1966 published the “Bosworth Report” under the title “Graduate Training in Manufacturing Technology”. That report encouraged initiatives in various industrial sectors, aiming to produce better trained industrial staff through schemes involving both a university based component and a period of integrated industrial experience.

The first round of schemes produced four such initiatives, one of which, for the semiconductor industry, was based on collaboration between our Department and the Mullard factory in Millbrook (a suburb of Southampton). Graduates were nominated by their employers to take part in a 16 month MSc course in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Technology. They spent three terms at the university, followed by 6 months on a group project in the Mullard factory, where they had their own set of equipment for designing, fabricating and assessing silicon integrated circuits. It was in some ways a complicated formula to get right, but we embarked on it in high hopes. The first course started in 1968 and ran successfully with about a dozen graduates, but then doubts set in on the industrial side. There were two reasons for this: first the highly competitive nature of the various firms we sought to serve led to concerns about their own commercial security (not least Mullards who were providing the industrial training base) and, secondly, financial pressures were then such that firms had become reluctant to release candidates for the course when they could remain “productively” employed at home.

We were proud to have been selected to spearhead the Bosworth concept and saddened that, after so much effort had been devoted to it, it had to be abandoned after only three years. Much of the effort that produced the initial success was provided by Greville Bloodworth and Henri Kemhadjian. Greville was later to found a new and very successful Department of Electronics in the University of York, whilst Henri was to gain a Chair and become Head of Department in Southampton. As I shall reflect in a slightly different context later, the Department was very much alive, but the industry seemed to be lacking in its own “will to live”.

Nonetheless, during the period we ran many short courses in the new technologies for industry both at home and abroad, as well as playing a significant part in national committees intended to make the new technologies better known and adopted. Again many of these committees, including one intended to interest the defence establishments and another to rationalise an over-fragmented inward looking industry, achieved little success at the time. It has to be accepted that the times were not financially propitious for change, but the biggest problem was an innate conservatism that was not conducive to looking to the new technologies of the future.

Accommodation and Funding

In 1963 the Department was housed within the Lanchester Building, but with growth it also occupied part of the new Faraday tower for Engineering, where on the eighth floor our “clean room” was created. Later the Physics Department moved to a splendid new building across the road and we colonised most of their old one – next to the old galvanised “hut” which had housed our Department in its embryonic period.

Next came an additional set of “Portakabins” in part compensation for the fire-loss of the old hospital wards, and also a number of houses in Highfield Road. In all, by 1974, we were housed under more than 20 different roofs in these locations and I was left wondering where the new “electronics building”, that at my interview in 1963 I was promised by 1968, had gone! It eventually arrived some 20 years later only to suffer, some years on, the most expensive fire in any UK University’s history – another departmental record – but not the sort you would seek to achieve! We felt distinctly undervalued during the period about which I am writing, though morale stayed high and the department remained united. On one occasion I explained our plight to (the late) Lord Jackson of Burnley, when he was visiting Southampton, and his response still lives with me “Never mind Sims” he said, “a little bit of hardship never did anyone any harm”. A Job’s comforter?…....certainly, but he was probably right.

We remained under-funded by the University, too, probably in part a consequence of the modesty of the Department in its early days. All departments were funded individually by the University’s centre at that time and there were some dreadful anomalies, based more on historical perceptions than the reality of the times. When I became Dean of Engineering in 1967 I managed with the support of the other Professors of Engineering to persuade the system to give the Engineering Faculty a block grant, which we ourselves would then share out between the departments to reflect our different needs. A formula was devised and accepted between us and, with several departments prepared to sacrifice considerable sums to help the more needy, the position of our department was improved dramatically. I cannot speak too highly of the Engineering Professoriate at that time – such altruism is a rare quality!

Long term Funding and other National Issues

All this time our prominence through our semiconductor processing facility had made us an essential part of the UK semiconductor device research field yet – though it was seen inter alia as a national research service facility – we had no guaranteed source of regular funding to run and maintain it and pay its staff.

Towards the end of 1973 Henri Kemhadjian and I decided that we must make a new and determined effort to persuade the Science Research Council to treat the problem seriously. Though it took the SRC four years to respond (it of course set up a “committee”) the end result was positive and we became one of four newly designated centrally financed facilities to serve national needs in various aspects of semiconductor technology; coincidentally to my delight so was the University of Sheffield (in the field of intermetallic semiconductors) to which I moved later in 1974. So at last we were facing a more secure future thanks to the excellence and commitment of the members of staff already named.

Working with other National Bodies

Alongside its research work, the period saw the department very much in missionary mode, and over the eleven year period it published at least fourteen papers on “Electronic Engineering Education and the Universities” along with others on “University/Industry relations”. We also ran short courses for schoolteachers. As the world began to wake up to the reality of electronics and computers there was also a spate of National Committees looking at the future of the industry and how to prepare its future leaders.

The newly created “National Economics Development Council” established fourteen “Little Neddies” each serving a key industry, of which “Electronics” was an obvious and exceptionally active one. I was a member of this from its establishment in 1966 until 1975, during which time I was Chairman of its “Manpower Working Group” which published two key reports on “Manpower in the Electronics Industry” and “Electronics and the Schools”. I also chaired its “Manpower Statistics Working Group” and the “Manpower Steering Group” as well as, from 1973, the “Microelectronics Working Party”. This latter Group was tasked with trying to persuade the four major U.K. firms with active interests in the business to recognise the unpalatable likelihood that none of them, on their own, was big enough to compete on the world stage and that the only hope for success in the future was for them to agree to work together and produce a truly nationally significant capability. As has so often happened in the U.K., firms were not prepared to come together and, parochial interests predominating, were to pay the price eventually by disappearing from the world scene.

Simultaneously, I served on various Committees of the “Electronics Research Council” which served the Defence interests of the country. Among these was the “Microelectronics Working Party” which I chaired, a group whose task was to tour the Defence Establishments and to persuade them that they should be seeing their futures in terms of microelectronics. For whatever reasons they, too, showed little interest in what the future would clearly hold, being too concerned that the major problems that they were then seeing were “difficult enough with the present familiar technology”.

My involvement in these activities was time consuming and at times dispiriting, but it was without question recognition of the unique position that our department held at that time.

The Future

In 1974 I was invited to become Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield. I had been through a variety of largely administrative “Offices” in my 11 years at Southampton while remaining Head of the Department, and although the Department had provided one of the most satisfying and exciting challenges of my working life, it was time for it and me to move on.

We were already a world ranking Department in several areas though, for all of our expansion, still remained, numerically, relatively small on a world scale. Some sixteen members of the Department during the period became Professors (a significant promotion in those times) either in Southampton or elsewhere which, while saying much for the quality of our staff at that time, made a significant contribution to the development of University electronics nationally. Included in that number, and thus in a sense “closing the loop”, was Harvey Rutt, a brilliant student in my period who, after wide experience elsewhere, rejoined the Department to press further the boundaries of glass fibre technology and to become Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science in 2007.

The department is now enormous by comparison with my time, and has for some while been rated comfortably within the top ten in the world. It is a matter of great pride and happiness to me that, at a period of revolutionary worldwide change in the development and importance of electronics and computers, I was privileged to play some part in its growth in the University of Southampton.

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