Oral history of British science

Brett-Knowles, Richard (Part 1 of 14). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's daughter's home, London

  • Interviewees

    Brett-Knowles, Richard, 1924-2015 (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Remarks on: changing name to Brett-Knowles; wartime experience at Telecommunications Research Establishment [TRE], name chosen to disguise radar work; lack of German knowledge of British radar due to using same frequencies as BBC Empire transmissions; birth on January 29th 1924 on father's farm; father's work on nutrition; farm in Essex at Manifold Wick, near Tiptree. [02:50] Remarks on father Frank Knowles: ran firm of produce surveyors; made RBK's toys; appearance; rarely smoked, unlike former nurse mother; helpful, wicked sense of humour; enjoyed making and repairing things; anecdote about RBK biting a Belgian child who was stealing a home made toy; details of father's work as a produce surveyor, awarded CBE for wartime work designing rations; RBK inheriting his practical bent. [08:10] Remarks on mother: nurse at St Thomas' hospital; smoked heavily; anecdote about mother on ward; encouraging to RBK; Edith Anne Knowles, nee Knowles; Frank Knowles second wife, RBK's half-siblings, such as Ruby; rename to Brett-Knowles to disassociate with half brother; playing piano, a talent RBK has not inherited. [11:10] Remarks on: RBK church attendance; grand father's religious nature; death of father from dementia in 1933, RBK not seeing him after 1932; memories of father; lack of electric on farm, RBK learning to ride horse, anecdotes about later horse riding; description of farm, impressions on later visits, chickens and crops grown; anecdote RBK about hiding in the chicken run; father's work activities, leaving bailiff to run farm; RBK early radio experiences, Uncle Mac, crystal sets, 2LO; early government policy in radio and television broadcasting, anecdote about Baird and Lord Reith, visit to low frequency navy radio site, anecdote about visit to Alexander Palace in 1949; [20:30] disguise of early radar work by television transmissions; nearby radio station at Chelmsford while RBK was a child. [21:55] Remarks on childhood: walks, animals, Meccano; Tiptree jam factory; relatives; dog, which delivered newspaper from railway; building things from Meccano, mains electric motor, clock, help of nanny. [26:50] Remarks on: grandfather working in finance; father's background, became chairman of Honourable Company of Butchers and carved meat for Edward VII at coronation; father company, Messrs Perfect and co; parents meeting at Liverpool Street station; RBK acquiring Irish accent whilst Drogheda where father was setting up a company branch; grandfather taking them in after father's death. [30:20] Remarks on grandfather Henry Rogers: family history investigations of cousin; death of uncle Reverend Murray Rogers; strict, religious grandfather; living in Croydon; RBK being told off for cycling to Crusaders youth group on Sunday; maids. [33:15] Remarks on: RBK's nanny, teaching; reading 'The Wonder Book of Why and What'; RBK being an inquisitive child; RBK uncle Howard running aircraft accessory business; Uncle Howard, privately educated, wide interest, lived at Weybridge near Brooklands. [36:33] Remarks on RBK radio experiences: becoming interested when they moved to Weymouth; unsuccessful with crystal radios, receiving a valve set; anecdote about grandfather thinking wireless was unholy until he discovered he listen to the cricket scores; story about first QSO, conversation by radio; description of how a valve works, history, uses in amplification; [41:50] RBK limited knowledge of theory of radio as a child; visit to the Science Museum to get ideas; making a wireless set in holidays from prep school in Eastbourne, anecdote about poor opinion of science at school. [45:35] Remarks on: religion in childhood, going to church because everyone did; activities with Crusaders youth group, teaching respect, camping in Islay; visiting Empire exhibition. [48:20] Remarks on school: primary school after return from Ireland, wireless, learning tables; prep school in Croydon; move to Purley; anecdote about operation for appendicitis performed by Brigadier Cowell; anecdote about school friend Robert Cowell. Remarks on prep school: prep school's one period of science a week, theories of the cooling of a cup of tea; making fireworks at school; bullying of non-sporty children; fellow children's backgrounds; RBK bullied; RBK poor hearing; RBK enjoying walks and science; good education in maths; other subjects, history, Latin, French, anecdote about later trying to speak French at le Havre; disliking history; [56:50] enjoying biology and swimming; description of science class, mostly chemistry, well taught by Mr Smith; boarding at school, advised to move to school by the sea for his health; childhood illnesses. [1:00:10] Remarks on: encouragement of mother; experiments at home in radio and chemistry; war diverting RBK from becoming a research chemist; making a home-made transmitter, friend Hawkes with similar interests, RBK using TRE components to make things; experiences making things as a child, workshop in garage, making a game from 'Practical Mechanics' and canvas canoe; reading 'Practical Mechanics', edited by FJ Camm; workshop experiences at Oxford. [1:06:05] Remarks on: reading adventure stories as a child, series of 'Heroes of Modern Adventure' books and Robinson Crusoe; reading 'Practical Wireless' in library to improve knowledge of theory; Oxford lectures; mathematics at prep school; move to Preston, near Weymouth in 1938. [1:09:15] Comments on Wellington school: engineering public school; good headmaster, workshops filled with his creations; possibilities of attending Oundle School instead; RBK doing more science instead of art, allowed to work alone in lab; learning about safety, anecdote about an experiment explosion; anecdote about a dangerous experiment combining potassium permanganate and sulphuric acid; making Bakelite from phenol and formaldehyde. [1:14:50] Remarks on: history of polythene at ICI; transfer of polythene ideas to wartime Germany; anecdote about how radar magnetron fell into German hands, comparison of German and British radar; radar's wartime secrecy. [1:18:25] Remarks: being an obvious engineer before school; making a woggle for his sea scout uniform; wanting to be an electrician or a research chemist, radio only a hobby as child.

  • Description

    Interview with electronics engineer Richard Brett-Knowles

  • Related transcripts

    Richard Brett-Knowles interviewed by Dr Thomas Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

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

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