Oral history of British science

Tootill, Geoff (Part 9 of 12). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Computer Hardware; Electronics

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's home, Wokingham

  • Interviewees

    Tootill, Geoff, 1922- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 9: Comments on leaving Shrivenham: not wanting to be typecast as a lecturer, importance of education for officers, not having time to do as much development as he wanted, building equipment to teach student aspects of digital computing, being short of time and support staff, looking for a new post on the civil service vacancy list. Remarks on being head-hunted by SH to work at the RAE Mathematical Services Division, as a Principal Scientific Officer. Comparison with administrators and view of science within civil service. Remarks on experience teaching at Shrivenham, value of TRE concert party experience in learning to lecture. [05:09] [coughing] Describes first duties at RAE, cancelling a computer development project, based on decatron valves allowing decimal operation. Comparison of decimal and binary devices. Remarks on A. M. Utterly at TRE, who was building a three stage device, which included fault checking. [08:16] Describes process of fault finding and localising faults. Remarks on use of cathode ray tube, oscilloscope, or voltmeter in fault finding. Short story about an RAF man, an ex-television repair man, who fault hunted using a screwdriver to cause short circuits. [12:20] Remarks on TRE, oscilloscope, voltmeter and 'brute force' screwdriver methods. [13:45] Further comments on binary and decimal and intermediate valve stages. [mic noise] Remarks on: designing a diode based stage to store on decimal digit using binary techniques. Further remarks on diodes, building a function generator, pentode valves compared to decatron and printed circuits. [17:07] Mentions growing family and need for a larger salary leading him to apply for jobs outside the UK and getting a job with the European Space Research Organisation [ESRO] through Dr Freddy Lines [FL], a former colleague at TRE. Remarks on ESRO and its international character, headquarters in Paris, use of French, English and German, its change into ESA the European Space Agency. Mentions spending time in Paris planning for the ESRO technical establishments. Short story about multilingual nature of ESRO. [20:20] Remarks on moving to Holland and schooling arrangements: The English School [TES] and the American School in The Hague. Mentions eldest and youngest sons attending TES and middle son wanting going to Pangbourne Nautical College in the UK. Remarks on being transferred to European Space Technical Centre [ESTeC] at Noordwijk near The Hague, to be put in charge of the control centre to manage the ground stations of ESRO. Remarks on American and French ground stations for equatorial satellite orbits, ESRO's concern with polar orbits. Further comments on the home ground at Redu in the rural south of Belgium, the difficulties in placing a ground station due to electronic noise, proximity of Redu to ESTeC, need for an interferometer to calculate the angular position of spacecraft. Mentions other station on the Falkland Islands, using stations in the south of England and French and American stations when possible. [26:30] Remarks on process and problems of placing ground stations, stations at Falklands, Spitsbergen and Fairbanks, Alaska. Comments on the working of the four ground stations, telemetry and telecommand to communicate with satellites, antenna. [30:20]Mentions: the main part of his job being to recruit staff, visiting the USA to view their control centre, being on good terms with the French. Remarks on practising French with a colleague, retaining fluency with French. [31:18] Remarks on cordial reciprocal arrangements with French and Americans being arranged by national delegates rather than engineers, but under the technical advisement of engineers. Remarks on having staff and equipment situation under control at Noordwijk, then being told he had to move the control centre to Darmstadt, Germany. Remarks on move being due to Germany's small work share and the diplomacy involved. Remarks on tearful interviews with Dutch staff about move and strong feelings remaining in Holland about the war. [36:00] Remarks on: being on leave of absence from the British scientific civil service, enjoying a higher salary at ESRO, not wanting to move back to Britain without completing the job, obtaining an extension, pension complications with continuing at ESRO and returning to the UK. Remarks on promotion from principal scientific officer to senior principal scientific officer, being penalised with a headquarters post for being in Europe. Remarks on frustrations of headquarters job for a scientist, such as sitting on committees. [38:57] Mentions: FL being on international committees; being interested in the political situation; attending meetings at ESRO headquarters at Paris, discovering national sentiments and how to work with them. [40:40] Further remarks on French sentiments at ESRO: use of French language, contracts to French firms, problems with ground station at Redu in Belgium rather than French alternative [coughing]. Further remarks on suitability of Redu. Mentions FL was responsible for diplomacy. Short story about dealing with FL's assistant, a French ex-military officer with an atrocious accent. [44:55] Lists other nations he worked with at ESRO: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. Short story about two Italian engineers arguing over the correct way to introduce a subordinate clause in English. [mic noise] [47:45] Remarks on FL: good manager, skilled in diplomatic contacts, pleased with GT, engineer. Remarks on being head of a division in ESRO, with sections beneath him, such as the computation section. Comments on role in choice of computers for ESRO and choosing IBM System 360 for its compatibility, between small computer at Noordwidjk and a large one at Darmstadt. Further remarks on dealing with the German manager of ESDAC the European Space Data Centre. [52:27] Remarks on job being more managerial than technical. Mentions recruiting an Englishman to the head of data reduction. Comments on data reduction's use to convert data from experiments aboard spacecraft into a usable form for scientists. Mentions not being concerned with orbital calculations, and the head of data reduction being anxious to keep GT at arms length. [55:33] Remarks on setting up the ESRO control centre: accommodation, recruiting staff, equipment; having to be careful not to recruit too many Englishmen; German responsible for orbit calculation being at the same level as GT. Remarks on recruiting staff through national scientific civil services, many candidates as salary good. Remarks on being paid less than half his ESRO salary when he returned to the UK, even with promotion. [1:00:10] Remarks on life abroad, expatriates at ESRO, an incompetent Spanish staff member; arduous working life; social life. Mentions learning Dutch. Remarks on information from British Embassy about schools and English speaking organizations. [1:03:38] Remarks on social life and living in rented accommodation.[1:05:30] Remarks on keeping abreast of management, recruiting staff, delegating, doing technical work, similarities of admin work whatever the country. Remarks: on limited bureaucracy in ESRO, keenness of getting on with the job, working with other nationalities, his relaxed managerial style. [1:09:03] Remarks on modular office accommodation at ESRO, donated by Dutch government, moving offices to the Huisterduin hotel after a fire. Remarks on the importance of technical knowledge in managing a technical organisation. Mentions memos and telephone calls and meetings, the dates of his time at ESRO 1963-68. [1:13:03] Remarks on working processes at ESRO: GT handed a launch programme, satellite characteristics worked out by scientists, delegation to other staff. Short story about a launch vehicle exploding on launch. Mentions being at ESRO for ESRO I, ESRO 2, Highly Eccentric Orbit Satellite [HEOS] launches. Remarks on tension preparing for launch, being one step removed from the process, scientists being most worried. [1:17:15] Remarks on trip to Goddard Space Centre comparison of American and European facilities and space programmes. Remarks on contacts with NASA and the French Centre National d'√Čtudes Spatiales. [CNES] [1:20:20] Remarks on relations with industry, choice of IBM computer equipment for compatibility, French minicomputers, buying European where possible, working with national delegates. [1:23:30] Remarks on European nature of ESRO work and privilege of working on international project. Remarks on jealousy within British civil service on his return and being penalised with a desk job. Remarks on living in a flat in Leidschendam in Holland and cycling to work. [1:27:05]

  • Description

    Life story interview with Geoff Tootill, computer engineer who was part of the team that built Baby, the world's first stored program computer.

  • Related transcripts

    Geoff Tootill interviewed by Tom Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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