Oral history of British science

Wilkes, Maurice (Part 1 of 1). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Computer Hardware; Electronics

  • Recording date


  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's home, Cambridge

  • Interviewees

    Wilkes, Maurice, 1913-2010 (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Remarks on choice of PhD topic, lifelong interest in radio, joining ionosphere group in Cavendish laboratory after sitting mathematical tripos. Remarks on supervisor starting research programme on long wave radio, using Post Office station at Rugby in research, being able to hear radio waves. Comments on use of reflected radio waves to study upper atmosphere, measuring temperature in ionosphere. Remarks on J. A. Ratcliffe as a supervisor: enthusiastic, active in research, worked with a small group. Comments on working with a research group under Ratcliffe, consisting of H.G Booker, J.E. Best, F.T. Farmer, cooperative working practices. [06:30] Remarks on weekly colloquium in Ratcliffe. Remarks on being a member of St Johns College Cambridge and camaraderie of laboratory work. Description of laboratory facilities in small hut, also containing photographic darkroom, and a brick hut with austere conditions. Remarks on a photograph of Ratcliffe and Ernest Rutherford in the hut. [10:45] Remarks on doing radio work on the old rifle range on Grange Road to escape radio interference in the Cavendish. Remarks on spending most time in the hut rather than the Cavendish. Description of radio equipment available to them. Remarks on Mr Lincoln the Cavendish storekeeper and Ratcliffe' having him more under control than some other supervisors. [13:30] Remarks on liking Ratcliffe, his being only 7 years older than MVW. Remarks on buying components, such potentiometer, from radio shop, and the previous gift of equipment from the Radio Research Board. Description of using van mounted equipment which was attached to Ratcliffe's car. [15:50] Comments on the Cambridge University radio club: run by J.B. Lewis, who was in the Territorial Army; equipment supplied by the Radio Research Board; lectures from people in industry, such as on cathode ray tubes; visits to GEC Wembley. [20:20] Remarks on growing up between the two World Wars. Comments on joining scheme set up by John Cockcroft and Robert Watson-Watt for university graduates to obtain experience on RDF, radar, stations in case of war, training at Canterbury. Remarks on war making decisions of what to do for him. [23:50] Comments on service in research establishments, reasons for the Telecommunications Research Establishment [TRE] being the best of them, split of technical and administrative decision making between A. P. Rowe and W.B. Lewis. [27:30] Comments on initially joining Air Defence Experimental Establishment [ADEE] and circumstances of his transfer to TRE. Remarks on finding his feet at TRE before joining Ratcliffe's Post Design Services Division [PDSD]. Remarks on work of PDSD and on visiting RAF squadrons, getting on well with RAF personnel, visiting Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, providing technical support and components to RAF. [32:20] Comments on attending Sunday Soviets: meetings on Sunday for convenience of RAF officers, discussions, exchange of secret operational information, no problems communicating with RAF personnel, discussions of potential problems and employment of Radar, influence of meetings. [36:40] Remarks on life at TRE: living in requisitioned hotel, visits to theatre in Bournemouth, cinema society, busy, long working days with many meetings, importance of getting on with the job, RAF personnel at TRE, enthusiastic about work. Remarks on ethical concerns over working on Oboe compared to defensive systems like the Chain stations. [42:05] Remarks on Alec Reeves, communication technology rather than scientific background. Remarks on interest in airborne systems such as ASV, being interviewed on Coastal Command, remarks on effectiveness of late war coastal command systems compared to earlier Chain equipment. [46:30] Remarks on already knowing about electronics before starting work on radar, unlike many others. Story about a visit to a Coastal Command squadron leader with an interesting Latin inscription on his chalkboard, remarks on enjoying working with Coastal Command and being interested in material operations. [49:50] Remarks on being anxious to get back to peacetime work. Remarks on wartime contacts, Eric Mutch from TRE joining the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge. Comments on returning to Cambridge University after the end of the war to head the Computer Laboratory, it's differential analysers, opening of laboratory delayed by war, limitations of analogue computing. [54:00] Remarks on seeing Rutherford as a role model, having little to do with Rutherford as a student, apart from a visit by Ratcliffe and Rutherford before E.V. Appleton joined the laboratory. Comments on aim for Computing Laboratory: digital computing already been done on desk machines, EDSAC intended to be a machine for users, never advertising computers because he knew they would sell themselves. Remarks on: priorities committee where people would apply to use the machine, many early users being students who took computing back to their supervisors. [59:45] Remarks on naming of the computer laboratory as the mathematical laboratory, there never being any mathematics in the laboratory. Remarks on recruiting staff from Cambridge. Comments on importance of laboratory technicians and assistants in the computer laboratory. Comments on few others knowing about computing at the start, bringing back ideas from Moore School Lectures in Philadelphia and spreading ideas to others in the Computer Laboratory. Remarks on being fortunate in his career. Comments on drawing on wartime experience in his role running the computer laboratory, people being eager to learn about computing, Mutch joining the Computer Laboratory. [1:08:00] Remarks on evolution of computer laboratory over his years running it, relationship with other university departments. Remarks on seeing being head of laboratory for a long period of time as the highpoint of his career. Remarks on doing this interview, with reference to a story about Mrs Thatcher giving an interview to a local paper.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes, computer scientist.

  • Related transcripts

    Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes 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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