In 1997 Professor Bob Spence interviewed Dr Colin Vickery, a colleague of his from the Department of Electrical Engineering. The intention was to show the video during an Alumni event that Colin was unable to attend. I hope that maybe some of those same Alumni will watch that video once more.
Colin Vickery has very kindly sent me some words to put the video into context, so most of this is his hard work and not mine! And Bob Spence has provided me with the excellent photos that were taken at Bob’s 80th Birthday celebration in 2013, that I also attended.
Colin was, at the time of the interview, running a postgraduate section on microprocessor applications. Bob Spence and Colin Vickery had shared a flat during the time that they were doing PhDs under Roy Boothroyd who was Prof Colin Cherry’s Reader. Colin Vickery had come back from industry where he’d spent a couple of years with the Plessey company working in a small research unit in Romsey and was appointed as a lecturer for a period, working for Cherry/Boothroyd and was then invited to join Prof Bruce Sayers in his Engineering in Medicine section where he stayed for many more years. Prior to this, he’d travelled to Houston, USA, where he joined a summer school which was run for a mixture of Medical and Engineering people. There he learned basic physiology, while the medical people learned basic electrical engineering.
Eventually, Bruce Sayers became Head of Electrical Engineering and Colin was given a postgraduate section devoted to microprocessor applications, working alongside colleagues Dick Wilde and Bill Cutler who were both on his staff. After a year or two they were appointed as consultants on the government Mapcon scheme (Microprocessor application consultants) and did a variety of feasibility and implementation studies including small hydroelectric projects, such as Wookey Hole and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. He joined with Prof Anderson in a project, for a firm in Horsham, de-boning bacon backs using robotics. It was exhibited in the exhibition at the college in 1985 (City and Guilds Tech2000) which Margaret Thatcher opened and then toured; telling them all that, ‘..she knew all about bacon’ (her Father was a grocer)!
In June 1998, a year after this interview, he suffered a stroke, but continued to work for the college part time until 2010 when he was 75 years old. This interview is a reminder of those times now long past and some of the people that made up the college in the 1950’s and onwards.
Professor Patrick Purcell (1929-2007) was described in his Times obituary as “Pioneer of computing and design“. As far as I know, this is the only interview made with Patrick, whom I got to know during his time as visiting professor of human computer interaction at Imperial College London. I had actually known him prior to that via LIVE-NET Video Conference from Northern Ireland linking through to Imperial.
Until his death, he worked along side Professor Bob Spence, who commented after Patrick’s death “…when I realised that Patrick Purcell was approaching retirement from his appointment in Northern Ireland I immediately suggested to the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering of Imperial that he be invited to be a Visiting Professor. A very selfish act, no doubt, but one I have never regretted…”
At my suggestion, this interview was recorded for an outside company called Lantec and was in the occasional series called Video Interface. Because of Patrick’s depth of knowledge of all things ‘digital’, this was the obvious first question posed to him at the start of the interview by Steve Bell. It was recorded in the Imperial College TV Studio in June 1995.
For the centenary of Dennis Garbor’s birth on 5th June 1900 we recorded this retrospective discussion between Professor Igor Aleksander and former Imperial Rector, Professor Sir Eric Ash. Eric Ash graduated from Imperial with a first class honours degree in electrical engineering in 1948 and received his doctorate four years later in 1952. His Ph.D. supervisor was Dennis Gabor, so he has first hand knowledge of the man and the research he was carrying out at that time. Eric Ash and Igor Aleksander have both been heads of Electrical Engineering Departments, Ash at University College London and Aleksander at Imperial College London. In this recording they discuss the work of Dennis Gabor that lead to him receiving the Nobel Prize in 1971 for his invention of Holography. I met Gabor just once, when he very briefly discussed with me his previous (unsuccessful) ideas for a flat TV tube (at the time, we were standing in the TV Studio in front of a Sony Trinitron colour TV).
This recording was made in the Imperial College TV Studio in May 2000.
Eric Laithwaite was the first person to present the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on television in 1966 on BBC2 (in black and white). The New Scientist photo below is the front cover from December 1966 previewing the forthcoming lecture series. That lecture series was called The Engineer in Wonderland. In my previous blog on Eric Laithwaite you will find references to both that lecture series and also the second series he was asked to give in 1974. I was present at some of the lectures in both of those years. Now, the Royal Institution has made available, via their web site, all of the 1974 Christmas Lecture series The Engineer Through the Looking Glass. For those interested, it’s a treat to see him at his best, in front of a live audience! You will see below a list of the six lectures in that series.
You may recall that there was some controversy over the content of lecture six where Eric Laithwaite demonstrated his theories of gyroscopes and how he thought he may have found that gyroscopes violated the law of conservation of energy. It appears that Laithwaite was waiting for the sixth and final lecture with something new and controversial, possibly breaking these laws of science. I have recently found the BBC archive pages of past editions of Radio Times. In them, I found the references and listing for the 1966 RI Christmas Lectures (The Engineer in Wonderland), the first to be televised and also given by Eric Laithwaite. The listing for the sixth and final lecture is interesting. Although I was actually present at that lecture I don’t remember the content, but the listing reference is very, very interesting it reads “Professor Laithwaite tries a completely new experiment which he hopes will break one of the laws of science. All the text books say it cannot be done. Will the experiment succeed?“. So, here we are again in 1974 with the sixth and final lecture (It’s my own invention) and once again Eric Laithwaite is trying something new, controversial and possibly breaking the laws of science in the process, is this a repeat of his idea from 1966? I must admit I hadn’t realised this until now! Maybe only he remembered the wording from that 1966 lecture? We’ll never know….
Lecture 1 LOOKING GLASS HOUSE
Lecture 2 TWEEDLEDUM AND TWEEDLEDEE
Lecture 3 JAM YESTERDAY, JAM TOMORROW
Lecture 4 THE JABBERWOCK
Lecture 5 THE TIME HAS COME THE WALRUS SAID
Lecture 6 ITS MY OWN INVENTION
Colin Grimshaw January 2014 (revised November 2016)
I have rediscovered a fascinating interview with Professor Bob (Robert) Spence, Professor Emeritus of Information Engineering & Senior Research Investigator in EEED. Today, Bob turns 80 and what better way to help him celebrate than bringing to your attention this interview from 1994. At the time, the TV Studio was still in operation and I was making a monthly video for a computer company called Lantec. A former TV Studio colleague of mine, Steve Bell, who worked for Lantec, asked me if we would make these videos for distribution to their company clients. The result was a programme we called Video Interface. This video is from Edition 13, from December 1994 and Steve is talking to Bob about his research work. I take no credit for the remaining text below, as it comes from Bob’s own personal web page at Imperial. I have added however a few links to videos I made with Bob on some of the subjects mentioned.
Bob’s research has ranged from engineering design to human-computer interaction and often with the manner in which the latter can enhance the former. Notable contributions, usually in collaboration with colleagues, include the powerful generalized form of Tellegen’s Theorem; algorithms for improving the manufacturing yield of mass-produced circuits; and, in the field of Human-computer Interaction, the invention of the first focus+context technique, the Bifocal Display (aka Fisheye lens). The novel Attribute and Influence Explorers provide examples of novel information visualization tools that have wide application, including engineering design. Interactive computer graphics allows the electronic circuit designer to sketch the familiar circuit diagram on a computer display. This potential was pioneered by Bob and his colleagues in the late 1960s and eventually, in 1985, led to the commercially available MINNIE system developed and marketed by a company of which Bob was chairman and a founding director. More recently, Bob’s research has focused on the topic of Rapid Serial Visual Presentation in which a collection of images is presented sequentially and rapidly to a user who may be searching for a particular image. This activity is similar to the riffling of a book’s pages.
And yet more news about Bob in April 2014 is that he has now achieved 51 years of service at Imperial College. See this article and scroll down to read about it. In the article Bob says “I’ve always said that if something is fun, it’s worth doing – and I’ve certainly had a lot of fun over the past 51 years. Imperial has always had a fantastic community, and it boasts some exceptional students. They are the reason I continued to teach after my retirement – I never tire of working with them….”
In recent months, whilst the blog has been on hold, I gather there has been great interest in the late Professor Eric Laithwaite’s research work. To see all the videos available that feature him, you may wish to go to the Imperial College YouTube Archive Playlist.
Some while ago I came across footage of the experimental tracked hover train that was built at Erith in the UK. He had expanded his original designs of the Linear Motor, with support from a government grant of £5 million. The result was a prototype for the world’s first magnetically levitating train. The ‘Tracked Hovertrain’, as the prototype was called, was a high-speed, wheel-less vehicle which was propelled by the force of a magnetic field. Early trials of Laithwaite’s model looked promising with the prototype reaching speeds of up to 100mph, yet in 1973 the government cancelled the project, blaming high costs for little return.
I know very little about the project, but after the Government brought it to a halt there were bitter exchanges between Eric Laithwaite and Government Ministers. Around 1974 Eric Laithwaite asked me to make a recording (in audio) -in his own words- of what really happened; who said what and why. In front of me, that audio tape was put into an envelope, sealed and signed and was then to be held in his bank until his death. That tape DID surface again after his death, I personally unsealed it and transferred the contents into digital form! I did not keep a copy of this tape or digital transfer.
Imperial College does not hold any RTV31 footage or photos related to that project. However the footage I did come across is held by the ITN Source Library in the UK. It’s really only available to buy but people can see a preview of the footage, which is good enough to see what the vehicle looked liked and how it operated. The video is located on the ITN website and can be seen via the link below. I have also given the ITN information related to the clip at the bottom.
The two colour photos on this page were taken by me in December 1966 and are seen here for the first time. In was later in this month that Eric Laithwaite presented the first televised Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, so the Linear Motor being made and the model train too, could have been for that event.
I was about to make this new entry live when, by chance, I came across this video on Youtube. It seems that the RTV31 shell still exists, although it’s painted very differently to the original footage you’ll see from ITN. It’s housed at Railworld, Oundle Road, Peterborough, PE2 9NR. The Youtube video is in French but it has Youtube ANNOTATIONS added in English. So ensure the Annotation options in the player window is set to ON (it should be a RED square when the video runs).
Test run of Hovertrain TX 7.2.1973 ENGLAND: Huntingdonshire: Erith: Demonstration of experimental hover train along concrete rail at speed. Michael McNair Wilson MP (Conservative: Walthamstow East) interview with Keith Hatfield (Reporter) about applications of technology for fast surface travel. Table-top model being demonstrated by Professor Eric Laithwaite (Imperial College). Hovertrain on track.
This is an additional and brief entry to mark the recording of a video I made 30 years ago this very week. The video was “The Office of the Professional” made with, and for, Professor Bob Spence from Electrical Engineering. You’ll find this video and others in the section about Bob’s work, but I thought it worth repeating. I saw Bob recently and we both recalled the making of the video and how complicated it was. For example, the various TV screens seen running were in fact fed from different video players, so making these all run in sync was not easy. In fact, along with the recorder that was actually recording the video from the camera, we had 3 machines all needing to be run at the same time. This was early days for us and our colour camera (yes camera, as we had only one) which needed a lot of light to give good pictures.
The video was shot during this week in December 1980 and edited, after the Christmas holiday, in January 1981. Bill Buxton in his 2007 book Sketching User Experiences is quoted as saying, in reference to the video that this “is the first example of an envisionment video that I am aware of” and that it was “remarkable for its insights”. As I have already detailed in the previous full entry about Bob, the office desk that was constructed was faced in cardboard and green felt. One oversight was perhaps the telephones, we never attempted to change these to anything futuristic, so they look a bit odd now. The video also captures parts of the college long since changed and Alumni may remember: the main entrance, the steps and the original walkway going towards Electrical Engineering. These shots were taken on a dark and wet December afternoon back in 1980.
It’s not until you start to look at individual tapes in our archive that you realise how many different videos have, or could have, a link between them. In this latest blog I’ve found an example of that with two research videos made for the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department ( Electrical Engineering Department as it was when these were made). We’ll also be seeing something of the actual department from the past. I should also point out that until 1976 were part of that department (a departmental facility) and as such located within the building. Our first location was on the 3rd floor moving to the main walkway level 2, where many of you may remember us.
In February 1981 Professor J.C Anderson (“Andy” Anderson 1922-2001) asked me to make a video showcasing the research in his Electrical Materials section within the department. I can’t recall the exact reason why we made the video, but am assuming it was to do with an open day, or similar, for Postgraduate research students, hence his references to getting PhD’s at the end of the video. The research going on at that time is shown and he makes reference to the work by Mino Green on Electrochromic Displays, but more on that in a moment.
Andy was very keen on the use of modern technologies for teaching, research and promotion and was the Chairman of the “Educational Technology Committee” (long since disbanded). It was his idea that I should be the only non-academic (although I was on the ‘academic related staff’) member of that committee to be able to update and advise on matters relating to the use of video within Imperial. He was not afraid to appear in front of the camera or, as in this case, record a voice-over as well. So here is the video we made with him: “Electrical Materials Research at Imperial College”
In the previous video, mention was made of the work by Professor Mino Green (then Dr) on Electrochromic Displays. This work was already being carried out at the time of the previous recording. In fact the first video on Electrochromic Displays was made a year earlier in April 1980. We made some 7 videos on the subject with the last being in March 1993. I gather that Professor Green’s work has now moved away from such devices, but the concept was interesting and novel. The video itself is an example of how to show large numbers of people the research work being carried out by a small dedicated group. Even as long ago as 1980 we were having copies made into the American NTSC TV system to enable research work to be showcased in the USA, Mino Green’s was an example of this. Here is the video from 1993 on “Electrochromic Displays and Windows”.
Mino is now Emeritus Professor of the Science of Electrical Devices. His current webpage desribes his work as “…The interplay of solid state physics and chemistry, particularly physical chemistry, has been an abiding interest. This has led through many areas, including semiconductor electrochemistry, chem- and physi-sorption on semiconductors, thermoelectric systems, solid state photo-and e-beam-decomposition, and transition metal oxide electrochromic systems. Now my main interests are in the larger end of nano-systems…”. In 1980 STOIC recorded an interview with Mino where he explains his area of research, you can see that video above.
Finally for this particular blog I’ve pulled something out of the archive from 1978 and you’ll see that in just a moment. It was a video made to showcase the whole department rather than a particular division or research project. Again, I can’t recall the exact reason why we were asked to make the video, but assume it was either an open day or event with alumni for example. Open day is more likely as the video is dated June 1978. It was a major task to make too, as editing was primitive on our old Ampex open spool one-inch tape machines. Nothing was automatic and edit points were marked with white (‘chinagraph’) wax pencils onto the tapes directly, spooled back and then run up to speed for editing. Recently I re-discovered a tape, made in 1974, where we are showing what the studio could do. So, before we see that 1978 video, here I am in our original TV Studio number 1, showing briefly the Ampex recorder in use, which I can assure you was as heavy as it looked!
At this time, we had no real means to record outside of the studio. One option though was to link from a location back to the studio by cable. And, because we were located in the Electrical Engineering, the whole building had video cables running from the ground, to top floors. We then had the ability to run from a location point on each main floor, down to the studio and potentially elsewhere. In the end, cables were available to and from many different buildings around the South Kensington campus. However, by this time we had already gained the ability to record outside of the studio having just moved into colour operation on the U-matic tape format. Portable battery operation was then made possible. The video that follows is an example of this.
So back then to the video I made for Electrical Engineering . The video did require a voice-over, but could I get anyone to volunteer to record it for me? Well the answer was no and being at a stage of needing to start the editing I had to do it myself. That aside, the video is a unique record of the department showing its teaching and facilities. I was asked to make specific reference to the fact that every lecture room was equipped with an ‘overhead projector’, how times have changed! The department also had its own glassblower, electronics servicing and draftsman. Here then is a snapshot (in black and white) of the department as it was in the early summer of 1978.
Few people have used the idea of videotape better that Professor Bob (Robert) Spence. Bob joined the staff of Imperial in the 1960’s and is now Professor Emeritus in EEED. His field of work has ranged from engineering design to human-computer interaction and along the way is credited with the invention of the first ‘focus+context’ technique, the Bifocal Display (aka Fisheye lens). You’ll be seeing the Bifocal Display idea in a while.
My first encounter with Bob was way back in 1975 when we recorded a live demonstration of the computer language APL (A Programming Language (link above). This is the oldest surviving teaching videotape we have and was made without the ability to edit and in glorious black and white. However, it does feature a novelty at the time of the recording, that of split screen. This was shot in our TV studio ‘number one’ located then in the Electrical Engineering building.
In June 1979 Bob’s interests were in the area of electronic circuit design. With colleagues, he had devised MINNIE allowing a circuit designer to describe a circuit by drawing it on a screen. Using a ‘light pen’ to interact with the screen, circuits could be created and modified.
The most interesting artifacts (as Bob calls them) were the “on screen pocket calculator” (1973) and the “count-down clock” indicating the process time. The on-screen calculator is thought to be the first in the World and both these functions are now common place. Bob frequently reminds me of the fact that we were about to move into colour TV (1979) and how he halted the removal and replacement of the computer running MIINIE so we could shoot the video in colour. Here’s the end result from June 1979 (link above) and you can see the calculator at 5min 30secs into the video.
By 1980 the idea of ‘focus+content’ had been identified and a solution called the Bifocal Display created, well in mock-up form anyway. Bob wanted to create a video to show this and other concepts to a wider audience. Again, videotape was a solution to this. So, in the week we all finished for Christmas in 1980 we shot a video which is now credited as being the first ever ‘envisionment video’, “Office of the Professional”. For the time, this was a most complicated video to make. Although with converting into colour we had gained the ability to edit, this was like no other video we had made before. Scenarios in an office, external elements and multiple video screens -all showing content- only added to the overall complication.
The office desk was made mostly of cardboard and felt. The buttons seen being pressed were not bright enough to be seen by our early colour camera, so higher wattage bulbs were inserted. This made the buttons so hot you could hardly touch them, let alone press them! The variable ‘zoom’ control on the monitor did nothing and was made of cardboard. The display on the screen was actually running from a videorecorder and Bob had to synchronise his hand movements to the pre-recorded tape. In one scene we needed two screens showing information and therefore need two playback machines, plus the machine recording the output from the camera, so three video recorders were all running at the same time. In one sequence you’ll see ‘pointing’ at the wall and the phrase ‘here’ being used. Bob tells me that this concept is not too far away. Bill Buxton in his 2007 book ‘Sketching user experiences’ is quoted as saying, in reference to the video, “….is the first example of envisionment videos that I am aware of….” and “….remarkable for its insights…and two years before the launch of the Apple Macintosh.” And finally he says of the video “…I have a lot of respect for those who made it.” Bill Buxton’s book is prefaced by Bill Gates. Once again, a small piece of history is recorded in our archive. Oh and the standing joke between Bob and myself is that one or the other of use will have to say the magic word “here” during a conversation. Most of this is very obvious in the 1980 “Office of the Professional” (link above).
Not wanting to make a video any less complicated or involved than previous ones, Bob came up with a gem of an idea in 1994. “Translations” was once again an envisionment video (link above). It shows a dinner party taking place in the year 2020AD and hosted by an eminent engineer, for other engineers who describe, for the benefit of a journalist, how they practice design. The message was concerned with human-to-human communication facilitated by computer. The video took many weeks to shoot as there were several locations used: Silwood Park where the main dinner party took place; 170 Queens Gate in the Rectors flat and the TV Studio. One fascinating thing to look out for are the use of PIG’s, Personal Information Gatherers. See if the concept reminds you of Bluetooth devices, common place today. Also, during the dinner party the idea of a worktable, able to sense what you were doing was suggested. Microsoft has just demonstrated one! One final thing before you watch the video. For those who know me, try and spot where I re-voiced the sound for one of the people in the video, oh and I’m not saying ‘here’ either. Bob Spence plays the butler in the video “Translations: Engineering Design 2020AD”
My thanks go to Bob Spence for the many opportunities to make some great envisionment videos over the years. It seemed that the insights Bob had into the way we interact with machines, was well suited to video as way to show those ideas off and to communicate them to many other people.
For this second blog we’re going to look at an inventor, innovator and communicator of science on TV and in the classroom. Eric Laithwaite (1921-1997) came to Imperial College in 1964 as Professor of Heavy Electrical Engineering. His specialist work was on Linear Induction Motors. Prior to his arrival at Imperial, he had appeared on TV many times, so he was no novice to the whole process of making both TV programmes and, as was the case with ICI’s Millbank Films, science learning materials for schools. He made a whole series of films for ICI such as “Motors Big and Small”; “Shaping things to come” and “The Circle of Magnetism”.
He was also the first person to present an entire Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series on TV, that was on BBC2 in 1966. Since that time every RI Christmas lecture has been televised. Once again though he made history by being the only person to present a Christmas lecture a second time and that happened in 1974. It was, however, not simply a repeat of the one in 1966!
How do I know all this you may ask? Well, I’m biased because for a short period of time I worked with him and was present during the recordings of the 1966 Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution. If anyone still has his book from the series “The Engineer in Wonderland” you’ll see me in a photo on page 155.
By the time of the 1974 series “Engineer through the looking-glass” I had moved on to do video production. So I was surprised to receive a visit from Eric Laithwaite in the early summer of 1974. He wanted to chat about ideas for talking backwards. Programme number 3 was to be “Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow” and he wanted to see what we could come up with for the reversing of time and speech.
I must have come up with a good idea because when he heard what I’d done with “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” (backwards of course) he said “Right I’d like you to present that during the lecture”. My credit in his book of the series says “…Colin appeared ‘officially’ in the second lecture taking over part of the lecture in effect”. Because of media interest in the advanced publicity for the 1974 series both myself and Eric Laithwaite were interviewed on BBC Radio about the speaking backwards idea. It was only recently that I had the opportunity to get hold of a DVD copy of the original videotape still held in the BBC archives. The quality is still amazingly good too.
Armed with all of this background knowledge, in 1980 I recorded an archival interview (link above) with him in his lab office in Electrical Engineering. Part of this interview was used in a special IEEE memorial lecture given by his colleague Barry Owen.
Eric Laithwaite’s work continued with linear motors of all types. The ‘Magnetic River” was a short video (link above) I shot for him in March 1984. It features his now familiar model of a levitated and propelled train by means of magnetic induction and was the very last video I made with him. A few years earlier this same linear motor had appeared in the James Bond film “The Spy who loved me”. It was another of “Q’s” gadgets that was demonstrated to Bond. I just happened to be going to Pinewood Studios and took the demo film to Eon Productions for them to decide whether to use it or not in the production. They did use it and Eric Laithwaite’s technician Cliff Johnson was seen operating the Magnetic River in the actual Bond film. Buy the DVD of the film to see what I mean.
As well as its uses for tracked transport the ‘Mag River’ had other potential. In this 1980 example (link above) its use as a metal sorter, sorting out aluminium from other scrap materials, is being demonstrated. Materials were painted various colours to show what was being separated.
A video I shot with Eric Laithwaite in May 1983 (link above) was a demo for an American film company who were considering making the “Silver Surfer”. The idea was to levitate someone on a huge aluminium sheet. As you’ll see from this video, it was a rather daunting task and as far as I recall, never happened. All the humming is coming from the huge electromagnetic field coming from the coils.
His research in later years into Gyroscopes was, and still is, a topic of much discussion within the scientific community. Here, he demonstrates the principles of a gyro using a rather large and heavy wheel (link above). It’s spun up to speed with a normal household drill! We recorded this video in our TV Studio in May 1983 and needless to say, I stayed well back from both him and the wheel! It was always ‘fun’ working with Eric Laithwaite and I recall him sliding off a chair in the studio as he laughed so much when we tried speaking backwards into a taperecorder. He once said to me that when a job is no longer fun, it’s not worth continuing with it. The last time that I spoke with Eric Laithwaite was when he was telling me about the concept of a linear motor launcher for NASA rockets/vehicles, I never saw his again…