Today marks the the centenary of my grandfather Bertie’s birthday (that’s him on the left above, along with my dad, Gran and uncle pictured in around 1948).
Grandad was a physicist. After completing his education at Queen’s University in Belfast, he headed over to the mainland to work for GEC. This was in an era before “rockstar” engineers, and his work was mostly in the anonymous way that the big companies worked in those days. An Internet search surprisingly though does reveal a few mentions of Bertie: work from his time at Queen’s, and also some research published around the time of the photo when he was working for GEC in Wembley.
During the war his work apparently focused on analogue computing – developing pre-digital electronics to do things like track missile trajectories for timing detonation. Not a particularly nice thing, but kind of important given the nature of the times.
After the war, his work moved into the world of telecommunications: he designed valves (the DET22 was his), and then went into satellite technology. The first couple of decades of transatlantic television went through circuits he designed at Goonhilly Down.
In the early 1970s he went out to Zambia, and the trip we took to visit Gran and Grandad out there in 1975 form many of my earliest memories; it was quite an expedition, touring around game reserves in Central Southern Africa in the summer before I started school. It was also where he yet again did work of national importance.
After one final job, working for Lyons in London in the later 1970s, he retired, and he and Gran moved down to the West Country. He was a fearsomely bright man, completing The Times crossword every day until his eyesight made it impossible. He passed away in 2004.
It’s easy for us to think that our world is constantly changing and that that change is greater than has ever seen before; Bertie’s life spanned a time from when horses were still the predominant form of transport and telephones were a minority novelty through to the emergence of radio (as a medium), television, satellites, and digital computing. Whilst I don’t know if he ever used the Internet, I do know that he was sending text messages in his later years.
Bertie is the inspiration behind my new project Stamp. The year of his 100th birthday will hopefully see that work emerge into something very interesting…