Oral history of British science

Smith, Norman (Part 1 of 6). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's home, Surrey

  • Interviewees

    Smith, Norman, 1924- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Norman Smith [NS] born 31st March, 1924, Tooting, London, United Kingdom [UK]. [0:25] Story of father’s life, including work as decorative artist. Comments on life at sea of paternal grandfather. [2:01] Further comments on father’s career in photography, decorative art. [3:26] Comments on mother’s early life, work as seamstress; circumstances of parents’ meeting. [4:17] Comments on maternal grandparents. [5:11] Comments on/stories of relations with paternal grandparents. [6:10] Comments on tendency for father to work away from home; time spent walking with father at weekends. Story of father’s interest in radio, Morse code, contemporary science stories, including discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. [9:24] Description of father’s appearance. [9:59] Comments on relations with mother, including involvement in cooking, mother’s making of clothes. Story of talking to mother about death of older brother Jack [JS]; mother’s keenness for NS to listen to radio broadcasts of Reverend Dick Sheppard [DS], St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London. Mentions family radio. Comments on DS; mother’s explanation of JS’s death. [12:49] Further comments on father’s interest in radio. Story of buying accumulator for radio’s pentode heater. Mentions ‘HT’ battery. [13:48] Description of Tooting home. [15:36] Comments on childhood making of detailed/working models with cardboard from boxes of Tate and Lyle sugar, birthday present of glue Sekatine. Comments on brothers. [18:51] Comments on walking in locality of home, including lavender fields. Mentions move to Worcester Park [WP], London [1932]. Comments on freedom to cycle long distances. [19:49] Story of building own bicycle. [20:39] Story of making own radio with bedspring aerial. [21:15] Description of WP home. Story of learning to drive family car, linked to step-mother and later driving of RAF (Royal Air Force) truck. [23:19] Comments on memories of mother’s death, 1935; relations with step-mother, step-sister; father’s reaction to mother’s death, remarriages. [26:04] Comments on childhood friend. [27:19] Brief comments on primary school. [28:18] Story of taking extra mathematics classes, Stoneleigh East Central School [SECS], WP. Very brief comments on science teaching, SECS. [29:44] Comments on interest in physics of everyday life, including story of lawn mower. [31:47] Comments on interest at SECS in damping of moving coils. [32:56] Story of mathematics teacher Burt Card [BC], Kingston Technical College [KTC], Kingston upon Thames, London (attended from 1938; aged 14). Mentions subjects taken, KTC, including electrical and mechanical engineering. Story of reading aloud essays. [36:42] Story of making balsa wood model planes. [37:47] Comments on reading habits, noting engineering focus. Story of making/flying glider with pendulum weight. Comments on procurement of plans/materials. [40:36] Comments on nature/extent of father and step-mother’s political engagement; own and father’s lack of religious faith. [42:45] Story of leaving KTC, applying for draftsman/designer jobs, including post in Admiralty Research Laboratory [ARL], Teddington. [45:48] Story of use of home as air raid wardens’ headquarters, WW2 (World War Two). Mentions father/step-mother’s view of WW2. Story of sights/sounds of war, WP. [48:11] Comments on commute to ARE; digs near ARE; earnings from fire-watches. [49:32] Story of first seeing ARL. Mentions role in Measuring Room [MR]. Story of Superintendent, ARL commenting negatively on NS’s status as technical college student. Mentions membership of Group X (miscellaneous); majority of work completed for Group H (magnetics) and Group E (infrared detection; run by Dr Lee’s). [51:49] Story of signing of the Official Secrets Act [OSA]. Comments on dress for work, including stiff collars. [53:13] Comments on reporting to Mr Cooks; MR; equipment in MR; measuring work. [55:57] Description of work, Group H, concerned with magnetic mines. [1:03:05] Comments on lack of knowledge of who in power was ultimately directing the work of Group H; Group leader Mr Butterworth; status as Laboratory Assistant to Experimental Officer Peter Wright. [1:05:33] Description of work for Dr Edward Lee in Group E (infrared), concerned with ‘wobbling thermocouple’ [WT], connected to parabolic reflector, for detection of distant ship funnels. Comments on awareness of where the WT was used; own contribution to WT. [1:10:02] Positive comments on role in developing allied military technology. Mentions not speaking to parents about work, due to OSA. [1:10:48] Story of first flight with Alan Cobham’s flying circus. Discussion of this flight. [1:13:00] Comments on canteens of ARL and NPL (National Physical Laboratory); NPL social evenings. Story of seeing Barnes Wallis firing ping-pong balls across a tank at NPL. Comments on relative informality of NPL; own informal working relations with NPL during WW2; distinctive cultures of NPL/ARL; relations at ARL between workers of different grades; increase in paperwork after WW2. Story of Sir George Deacon [GD] illustrating friendly relations between senior and junior staff. Comments on use of first names. [1:20:33] Detailed comments on roles of female staff, ARL. [1:21:40] Story of joining RAF, including basic training, selection for RDF (radar) training; interview for secret position on Air Chief Marshal [ACM] Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s [TLM] aeroplane. [1:26:47] Description/stories of duties on ACM’s aeroplane, including monitoring of IFF radar/ ‘G’ navigation. [1:31:21] Comments on content of RDF training. Description of in-flight radar navigation. [1:34:33] Story of missing flight which crashed, killing TLM.

  • Description

    Interview with electronics engineer and oceanographic technician Norman Smith

  • Related transcripts

    Norman Smith interviewed by Paul Merchant: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

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

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