A recording of interviews of retired BTH Research Laboratory staff, made around 1957, has recently been discovered by the family of the original interviewer and a digital version of these interviews has just been donated to the IET Archives. An image of the interviewer, K J R Wilkinson is shown above.
British Thomson-Houston (BTH) Research Laboratories came into existence in 1924 when BTH completed a new building (no.52) at its Rugby works. The first staff, which only numbered 18 people, came together by combining the earlier Experimental Electrical and Insulation Laboratories and the group was led by R C Clinker as Chief. A photograph of the Research Laboratory staff in 1929 is shown below.
Many well-known scientists and engineers passed through the doors of the Research Laboratory over the years and the facility had many noteworthy achievements. Amongst other things BTH Research Laboratory engineers produced the first 16mm sound film in Great Britain, exhibited in 1931, and undertook pioneer work on fluorescent lamps with the first high wattage mains voltage lamps being designed and made in the Research Laboratory.
Discovery of the recording of the interviews
The recordings were made circa 1957 by K J R Wilkinson who had worked at the BTH Research Laboratory and who in the late 1940s was in charge of the Special Investigations and Measurements Section of the Electronic Engineering Department (this department was split off from the Research Laboratory in 1946).
Mr Wilkinson, later to become Dr Wilkinson, FIEE, sadly passed away in 1985. However his tape recorder survived and had been left untouched until recently when his family came to repair the machine at which point they came across this recording of interviews.
Contents of the Recording
The recording consists of 9 interviews plus a 1956 BBC broadcast made by Charles Clinker about R C Clinker (1874-1931), the first Head of the Research Laboratory. The 9 interviews are quite remarkable, not only giving an insight into the Laboratory and the people that worked there, but also recording the voices of some famous individuals and their stories from their time at BTH.
Sir Hugh Warren (1891-1961) is one of the interviewees. Sir Hugh was initially the Deputy Chief of the Laboratory when it was created but became the Head of the Research Laboratory in 1929. Professor C J Milner, who worked at the Laboratory from 1936 to 1952, and later became Chair of Applied Physics at NSW University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, is another interviewee.
Professor Milner recounts the work at BTH on the klystron working together with Sir Mark Oliphant, Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham. Professor Milner said that during WWII it was policy for BTH to work with and cooperate with Oliphant and his team at Birmingham, with BTH Research laboratories trying to make models of Oliphant’s Klystron. It was deemed vital to the war effort to do something in 3 to 4 weeks. However, BTH couldn’t make a model to Oliphant’s design. After two weeks, the BTH team was split in two and they proceeded to work 24 hours a day for the next 9 days but still to no avail. This work then came to a halt as it was overtaken by work elsewhere on the cavity magnetron for radar microwave generation.
Other BTH Material
This recording is not only the earliest oral history recording (excluding films) that is held in the IET Archives but it is also an important addition to the BTH material that is already held amongst the archive collections. In addition to a range of BTH publications such as, ‘BTH reminiscences: sixty years of progress’, published in 1946, the IET Archives holds an extensive collection of BTH Rugby photographs and glass plate negatives (28 albums and 13,000 glass plate negatives) relating to machinery produced from 1902 onwards at the Rugby site. Two of the images from this collection (archive reference NAEST 74), are shown below. The first image is a District Line train and the second image is of a Croydon Corporation Purley and Thornton Heath Tram.
The IET Archives is also very fortunate to hold a silent 16mm black & white film made by BTH in the late 1920s (archive reference IET/SPE/3/6/56) showing the work carried out at the BTH Research Laboratory on the process of adding sound to film. A still from this film which has now been digitised is shown below.
The BTH Research laboratory oral history recording (archive reference NAEST 237), and other BTH material can be consulted by appointment at the IET Archive Centre, Savoy Hill House.