Archive for December, 2009

Research and Innovation: Eric Laithwaite

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Eric Laithwaite

Eric Laithwaite

For this second blog we’re going to look at an inventor, innovator and communicator of science on TV and in the classroom. Eric Laithwaite (1921-1997) came to Imperial College in 1964 as Professor of Heavy Electrical Engineering.  His specialist work was on Linear Induction Motors. Prior to his arrival at Imperial, he had appeared on TV many times, so he was no novice to the whole process of making both TV programmes and, as was the case with ICI’s Millbank Films, science learning materials for schools. He made a whole series of films for ICI such as “Motors Big and Small”; “Shaping things to come” and “The Circle of Magnetism”.

He was also the first person to present  an entire Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series on TV, that was on BBC2 in 1966. Since that time every RI Christmas lecture has been televised. Once again though he made history by being the only person to present a Christmas lecture a second time and that happened in 1974. It was, however, not simply a repeat of the one in 1966!

Colin Grimshaw circled at the RI 1966

Colin Grimshaw (circled) in 1966

How do I know all this you may ask? Well, I’m biased because for a short period of time I worked with him and was present during the recordings of the 1966 Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution. If anyone still has his book from the series “The Engineer in Wonderland” you’ll see me in a photo on page 155.

 

By the time of the 1974 series “Engineer through the looking-glass” I had moved on to do video production. So I was surprised to receive a visit from Eric Laithwaite in the early summer of 1974. He wanted to chat about ideas for talking backwards. Programme number 3 was to be “Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow” and he wanted to see what we could come up with for the reversing of time and speech.

Christmas Lectures 1974/75

Colin Grimshaw with Eric Laithwaite RI Christmas Lectures 1974/75

I must have come up with a good idea because when he heard what I’d done with “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” (backwards of course) he said “Right I’d like you to present that during the lecture”.  My credit in his book of the series says “…Colin appeared ‘officially’ in the second lecture taking over part of the lecture in effect”.  Because of media interest in the advanced publicity for the 1974 series both myself and Eric Laithwaite were interviewed on BBC Radio about the speaking backwards idea. It was only recently that I had the opportunity to get hold of a DVD copy of the original videotape still held in the BBC archives. The quality is still amazingly good too.

 

Armed with all of this background knowledge, in 1980 I recorded an archival interview (link above) with him in his lab office in Electrical Engineering. Part of this interview was used in a special IEEE memorial lecture given by his colleague Barry Owen.

Eric Laithwaite’s work continued with linear motors of all types. The ‘Magnetic River” was a short video (link above) I shot for him in March 1984. It features his now familiar model of a levitated and propelled train by means of magnetic induction and was the very last video I made with him. A few years earlier this same linear motor had appeared in the James Bond film “The Spy who loved me”. It was another of “Q’s” gadgets that was demonstrated to Bond. I just happened to be going to Pinewood Studios and took the demo film to Eon Productions for them to decide whether  to use it or not in the production. They did use it and Eric Laithwaite’s technician Cliff Johnson was seen operating the Magnetic River in the actual Bond film. Buy the DVD of the film to see what I mean.

As well as its uses for tracked transport the ‘Mag River’ had other potential. In this 1980 example (link above) its use as a metal sorter, sorting out aluminium from other scrap materials, is being demonstrated. Materials were painted various colours to show what was being separated.

A video I shot with Eric Laithwaite in May 1983 (link above) was a demo for an American film company who were considering making the “Silver Surfer”. The idea was to levitate someone on a huge aluminium sheet. As you’ll see from this video, it was a rather daunting task and as far as I recall, never happened. All the humming is coming from the huge electromagnetic field coming from the coils.

His research in later years into Gyroscopes was, and still is, a topic of much discussion within the scientific community. Here, he demonstrates the principles of a gyro using a rather large and heavy wheel (link above). It’s spun up to speed with a normal household drill! We recorded this video in our TV Studio in May 1983  and needless to say, I stayed well back from both him and the wheel! It was always ‘fun’ working with Eric Laithwaite and I recall him sliding off a chair in the studio as he laughed so much when we tried speaking backwards into a taperecorder. He once said to me that when a job is no longer fun, it’s not worth continuing with it. The last time that I spoke with Eric Laithwaite was when he was telling me about the concept of a linear motor launcher for NASA rockets/vehicles, I never saw his again…

Colin Grimshaw December 2009

Places: Southside 1963-2006

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Southside Royal opening in the Upper Refectory 1963

For this first blog entry we’re going to focus on places and in this case, Southside. The Southside halls were opened on 8 October 1963 with a Royal ceremony with Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden in attendance. Due to the forward thinking of past members of staff the whole thing was audio recorded and then transferred to an acetate disc. Things like this are held in the main archive and recently I transferred it from the disc into a digital format. On the right is a photo of the process happening a few months ago.

SOUTHSIDE OPENING 1963

Click the link above to listen to what was said and because this is audio only I’ve included some photos taken during the ceremony rather than leaving you with a blank screen. The whole thing runs for about 20 minutes and you can skip forward if you so wish.

In 2005 the lifetime of the Southside halls had come to an end and something new was required. So on 6 October 2005 Sir Richard Sykes, as Rector, held a ceremony to officially start the process of demolition.

A few days before, along with some colleagues, I walked around the building with a handheld video camera to capture some last moving images for the archive. If you remember the building, a few memories may come back when you watch it. Some people liked it, whilst some hated it. Me? I hated it! Never did get used to the ‘shuttered’ concrete design and I always got lost on those stair cases.

SOUTHSIDE DEMOLITION CEREMONY 2005

So, I suspect it gave great delight to Richard Sykes to sit in the cabin of the digger and start the whole process of demolition. As always, we captured the ceremony on video and just before it started I’d given some of the Princess Margaret opening ceremony photos to the Rector, so you’ll hear him refer to that in the video. I must admit that I’ve been to a lot of openings before, but never a closing, so this was interesting and also the first as such in the archive.

SOUTHSIDE BOTTOMING OUT CEREMONY 2006

Champagne presentation

Champagne from Richard Sykes

There then followed something that was also new to me, that is a “bottoming out ceremony” where you all celebrate the completion of the foundations.  And as usual we were there to record the event…but with a difference! A competition had been run to find objects to place into a time-capsule to be planted within the building.

I glibly suggested a DVD of the most recent Albert Hall ceremony and another with the Princess Margaret opening and Richard Sykes closing events. It ended up being one of two selected ideas and you’ll see me being presented with a bottle of champagne by Richard Sykes (whilst wearing safety gloves and also trying to do sound, my colleague Martin Sayers took over the camera)

SOUTHSIDE TOPPING OUT CEREMONY 2006

The final of the three events was the Topping Out ceremony held on 5 October 2006.  This saw the end of works on the new Southside complex and the imminent demolition of Linstead, but that’s for another blog page where we have things like the Linstead Hall evening dinner. So if you remember those, then please come back for more soon.

Topping out ceremony (Colin on camera)

Colin Grimshaw December 2009