Oral history of British science

Humphreys, Colin (1 of 9) Oral History of British Science

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  • Subjects

    Materials Science

  • Recording date


  • Recording locations

    interviewee's office, Cambridge

  • Interviewees

    Humphreys, Colin, 1941- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Remarks introducing self: materials scientist and professor at Cambridge University; born 24 May 1941 Luton; poor family; father's background and move to Luton for work where he met mother, war work for SKF ball bearing company; terraced house in Luton. [01:40] Comments on father Arthur William Humphreys: work measuring roundness of ball bearings by noise; pride in associate members of Institute of Mechanical Engineers; appearance; regular churchgoer, ran Sunday School; features of Baptist faith, CH baptism aged 15; personalities of parents. [05:10] Comments on CH childhood illnesses: birth defect with feet corrected by operation, leaving him leg irons until 12; anecdote about curious ankle bones; corrective footwear; electric shock therapy in hospital. [07:58] Comments on childhood street gangs: fights with air pistols; CH leg irons and short sightedness leaving him disadvantaged in fights; searching for bird's' nests; stealing apples from gardens; friends; CH move aged 8 to Ascot Road, closer to father's job and better school. [12:30] Anecdote about CH first day at new school and streaming arrangements. Remarks on: CH friends; CH recent visit to primary school to encourage children; father's wartime post as fire officer during air raids. [15:18] Remarks on Luton: Vauxhall, Electrolux, and SKF factories; anecdote about hat-making and Luton Town Football Club; poor area; Wardown Park. [17:13] Comments on CH childhood interest in collecting butterflies and moths: collection at local museum; Watkins and Doncaster company providing mail-order moths eggs for CH to grow in a hatchery; researching suitable foot stuffs; large moths; parents tolerating moths, caterpillars and cocoons in living room; net catching butterflies; killing moths for mounting with chloroform or syringe oxalic acid, CH coming to dislike killing; Morphos butterflies. [25:47] Remarks on: collecting cheese labels and cigarette cards; playing cricket and basketball at school; CH playing piano in school concerts and orchestra at Luton Grammar school, abandoning piano later in life, enjoying showy music rather than Bach; piano allowing expression in spite of shyness and loneliness of being only child; preferring moths to Meccano; anecdote about reading Arthur Mee's 'Children's Encyclopaedia', enjoying ancient history and articles about how things worked; anecdotes about curiosity as child. [32:55] Anecdote about PH following father's creationism by arguing creationist case in biology classes at school. [34:25] Comments on father: interest in Church, holidays in Christian guest house; supporter of Ian Paisley; mild mannered; CH never discussing his later belief in evolution with creationist father; lay preacher; marriage to mother, CH born whilst mother in early 40s. [38:20] Comments on mother: Olive Annie Harton; family background, including inventor of Boracic lint, anecdote about Indian ancestor; household activities, tin bath in first home. [40:50] Remarks on: homes in Dale Road and Ascot Road; playing out with friends; typical evening at home, playing piano, no television. [43:25] Remarks on religion: family church attendance, CH taking part in services; conscience about gang activities; not enjoying Boy's Brigade; parent's lack of political activity. [46:10] Anecdotes about short sightedness and wearing many jumpers to school on mother's insistence. Remarks on: childhood illnesses; no recollections of being bullied; anecdote about gang fights and protection from gang; later group of friends named General Activities Society; anecdote about more gentile nature of life after move; parents not knowing about his behaviour in gang; parents' hopes for CH to go to university. [52:25] Remarks on schools: poor conditions at Dallow Road School; form teacher Miss French at later school. [54:10] Comments on: extent of being poor in childhood; activities on yearly sea side holidays in Burnham on Sea. [56:20] Further remarks on school: progress in new school; being bad at art subjects; winning O-level prize in Latin and English and Religious Knowledge; passing 11plus to go to Grammar school; CH position in Grammar School; description of Luton Grammar School. [57:30] Comments about developing interest in botany thanks to botanical walks with teacher Dr John Dony, author of 'Flora of Bedfordshire' and 'Flora of Hertfordshire.' [1:04:12] Remarks on school: interest in natural world; anecdote about hierarchy of sixth form subjects; A-level subject choices, favouring mathematical subjects; anecdote about careers advice from headmaster dissuading him from engineering; reasons for studying physics; attraction to studying maths for problem solving, enjoying pure maths; [1:10:20] interest in being engineer from father, and combining maths and physics; quality of teachers at school; freedom to use school laboratory chemistry experiments, anecdotes about pranks using explosives and making fireworks; school science classes, changing standards of school health and safety, such as playing with mercury; anecdote about daughter chewing end of mercury thermometer; [1:16:24] Description of CH as teenager: shy; hobbies, sport; anecdote about keeping cricket scores, enjoying collecting. [1:18:50] Comments on girlfriends: anecdote about first kiss; anecdote about parents influence on his poor dress sense at school; anecdote about studious nature. [1:22:15] Comments about process leading CH to Imperial College: preparation for Cambridge entrance exams at Luton Technical College; anecdote about Imperial interviewer John Pain luring him away from going to Cambridge; parents' keenness for him going to University, winning state scholarship. [1:26:00] Remarks on digs in Chiswick: house mates Paul Pibworth and Michael Goldfinch; use of French language in house with French and Greek owners; anecdote about excellent food from landlord, a chef at the Carlton Club; anecdote about breaking no girls in the house rule; [1:29:45:] Comments on religion: CH's scientific education turning him away from young earth creationism; Elvis Presley lookalike Paul Pibworth's popularity with girls; CH re-evaluation and reaffirming Christian faith, but with belief in evolution; better chances of meeting girls at Church than Imperial; [1:34:35] process of CH leaving creationism ideas, study of Bible; CH not discussing religious doubts with parents; CH outlook on being a Christian, chairmanship of Christians in Science, writing books for children, impressions of creationists.

  • Description

    Interview with materials scientist, Professor Sir Colin Humphreys

  • Related transcripts

    Colin Humphreys interviewed by 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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