Category: Research

Departments: Electrical and Electronic Engineering

Electrical Engineering 1962
Electrical Engineering in 1962

It’s not until you start to look at individual tapes in our archive that you realise how many different videos have, or could have, a link between them.  In this latest blog I’ve found an example of that with two research videos made for the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department ( Electrical Engineering Department as it was when these were made). We’ll also be seeing something of the actual department from the past. I should also point out that until 1976 were part of that department (a departmental facility) and as such located within the building. Our first location was on the 3rd floor moving to the main walkway level 2, where many of you may remember us.

In February 1981 Professor J.C Anderson (“Andy” Anderson 1922-2001) asked me to make a video showcasing the research in his Electrical Materials section within the department.  I can’t recall the exact reason why we made the video, but am assuming it was to do with an open day, or similar, for Postgraduate research students, hence his references to getting PhD’s at the end of the video. The research going on at that time is shown and he makes reference to the work by Mino Green on Electrochromic Displays, but more on that in a moment.

Andy was very keen on the use of modern technologies for teaching, research and promotion and was the Chairman of the “Educational Technology Committee” (long since disbanded). It was his idea that I should be the only non-academic (although I was on the ‘academic related staff’) member of that committee to be able to update and advise on matters relating to the use of video within Imperial. He was not afraid to appear in front of the camera or, as in this case, record a voice-over as well. So here is the video we made with him: “Electrical Materials Research at Imperial College”

In the previous video, mention was made of the work by Professor Mino Green (then Dr) on Electrochromic Displays. This work was already being carried out at the time of the previous recording. In fact the first video on Electrochromic Displays was made a year earlier in April 1980. We made some 7 videos on the subject with the last being in March 1993. I gather that Professor Green’s work has now moved away from such devices, but the concept was interesting and novel. The video itself is an example of how to show large numbers of people the research work being carried out by a small dedicated group. Even as long ago as 1980 we were having copies made into the American NTSC TV system to enable research work to be showcased in the USA, Mino Green’s was an example of this. Here is the video from 1993 on “Electrochromic Displays and Windows”.

Mino is now Emeritus Professor of the Science of Electrical Devices. His current webpage desribes his work as “…The interplay of solid state physics and chemistry, particularly physical chemistry, has been an abiding interest. This has led through many areas, including semiconductor electrochemistry, chem- and physi-sorption on semiconductors, thermoelectric systems, solid state photo-and e-beam-decomposition, and transition metal oxide electrochromic systems. Now my main interests are in the larger end of nano-systems…”. In 1980 STOIC recorded an interview with Mino where he explains his area of research, you can see that video above.

Ampex Video Recorders
Ampex Video Recorders in use in TV Studio number 2

Finally for this particular blog I’ve pulled something out of the archive from 1978 and you’ll see that in just a moment. It was a video made to showcase the whole department rather than a particular division or research project. Again, I can’t recall the exact reason why we were asked to make the video, but assume it was either an open day or event with alumni for example. Open day is more likely as the video is dated June 1978. It was a major task to make too, as editing was primitive on our old Ampex open spool one-inch tape machines. Nothing was automatic and edit points were marked with white (‘chinagraph’) wax pencils onto the tapes directly, spooled back and then run up to speed for editing. Recently I re-discovered a tape, made in 1974, where we are showing what the studio could do. So, before we see that 1978 video, here I am in our original TV Studio number 1, showing briefly the Ampex recorder in use, which I can assure you was as heavy as it looked!

At this time, we had no real means to record outside of the studio. One option though was to link from a location back to the studio by cable. And, because we were located in the Electrical Engineering, the whole building had video cables running from the ground, to top floors. We then had the ability to run from a location point on each main floor, down to the studio and potentially elsewhere. In the end, cables were available to and from many different buildings around the South Kensington campus. However, by this time we had already gained the ability to record outside of the studio having just moved into colour operation on the U-matic tape format. Portable battery operation was then made possible. The video that follows is an example of this.

So back then to the video I made for Electrical Engineering . The video did require a voice-over, but could I get anyone to volunteer to record it for me? Well the answer was no and being at a stage of needing to start the editing I had to do it myself. That aside, the video is a unique record of the department showing its teaching and facilities. I was asked to make specific reference to the fact that every lecture room was equipped with an ‘overhead projector’, how times have changed! The department also had its own glassblower, electronics servicing and draftsman. Here then is a snapshot (in black and white) of the department as it was in the early summer of 1978.

Colin Grimshaw May 2010

Silwood Park

silwood1In 1982 we made a video that was a co-production between the TV Studio and STOIC (Student Television Of Imperial College). The students had been keen to make a video about the life and workings of Silwood Park, the college’s field station near Ascot in Berkshire. Their resources were limited to allow this and it would have meant that the video would have been made in black and white. So, I offered to work with them to make something better and in colour. I’m glad we went down this route because now we have a unique record of life there in the early 1980’s. We’ll come onto talking about the video later on.

Silwood’s history is quite long and to help me out, here’s a snippet from the college’s page on “Silwood Park – Past and Present”….

“Imperial College acquired Silwood Park and Ashurst in 1947, as a Field Station to provide a site for research and teaching in those aspects of Biology not well suited for the main London campus. The Manor House is the original Silwood Park house, built in 1878, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Natural History Museum in London, South Kensington and Strangeway Prison.  Silwood was requisitioned as a military hospital and convalescent home during WWII, so when the College took it over in 1947 it was surrounded by bleak, but useful, single-storey wards and offices.  Some still survive; the present Refectory, Stores and Field Course laboratories are gems of the period. Presumably no-one in 1940 anticipated a working life of over sixty years for these ‘temporary’ edifices.”

To read the full story on Silwood Park click here.

The estate is some 250 acres in size. To help give you an overview of this, I’ve found some of the aerial shots of the campus taken in 2008. My colleague Martin Sayers went, with a camera crew, on a morning’s shoot around all of the college’s campuses. The pictures were actually shot in high definition using a gyro-stabilised camera, mounted in a twin-engine squirrel helicopter.  The helicopter was flown from Redhill Aerodrome.

I recently discovered a batch of old 8mm cine films shot for various TV programmes made by STOIC. Back in the early days, we, and STOIC alike, had no means to shoot video outside of the TV Studio – other than using very long cables. To be able to show things outside, STOIC resorted to using 8mm movie film. This was cut and run into a programme with a sound commentary added live at the time. As time progressed, a small magnetic sound stripe was added to the film and this allowed a commentary to be synched directly to the film well in advance of the programme being recorded on videotape.


Touchstone weekend 1970

What I found was some film, shot in 1970 (click red icon above). This was from the very first STOIC news programme called “IC Newsreel” recorded on 17 February 1970 (shown the following day in the Junior Common Room).  The item is about a Touchstone weekend that was held at Silwood Park. These came out of an idea by former Rector Roderic Hill and started in around March 1950. The weekends were run with the idea where  “…students could discuss a range of topics (many of current interest) together with experts…”

If you can identify anyone in the film please let me know via the comments option at the bottom of this page. Ken McDowall (1909-1997) was appointed to run General Studies in 1952 and also to take over the Touchstone weekends and you can see him in the film, appearing to be providing some alcoholic relief to some of the students! There is an archive edition of Felix on KEN McDowall click here to take you to the pdf file.

Silwood Park house main entrance hall
Translations made at Silwood Park House

You may have also spotted Silwood Park being used in the video “Translations: Engineering Design 2020AD” which is featured in the blog on Professor Bob Spence. We used the grounds and main house for most of the video. The sequence showing the dinner party was shot in the main entrance hall.

Click anywhere here to take you to the blog on Bob Spence.


Outside the Reactor Centre
Outside the former Reactor Centre


And so now on to that Silwood Park documentary we made in 1982. For those who know Silwood Park and the people who were there at the time this will, I hope, bring back some happy memories. You’ll see Professor Michael Way, then Director of Silwood, talking about the field station and what it does. Also featured are many people involved in research including Professor (then Dr) Graham Matthews who at the time was running the overseas spraying machinery centre. Dr Matthews demonstrates the electrostatic spraying ‘bozzel’ technique developed with ICI and when he operates it you’ll hear a click on the audio from the static charge.

A sequence, shot out in the fields, shows the work being carried out on the ‘black bean aphid’.  At the Reactor Centre (above, right), Dr McMahan discusses the work and role of the University of London centre and we get a unique look inside the reactor whilst it’s operating. Professor (then Dr) Bob Sinden discusses his research work on Malaria. This interview is interesting because it was shot at Ashurst Lodge, sold six years later in 1988. The whole video is a snapshot of life and work at Silwood Park in the early 1980’s. The presenter and interview is Tracy Dudley (nee Poole) who was an active member and presenter with STOIC for many years. You will see more of her in other videos I’ll be featuring from STOIC’s archive that we now house.

Colin Grimshaw February 2010

Research and Innovation: Bob Spence

Bob Spence

Few people have used the idea of videotape better that Professor Bob (Robert) Spence. Bob joined the staff of Imperial in the 1960’s and is now Professor Emeritus in EEED. His field of work has ranged from engineering design to human-computer interaction and along the way is credited with the invention of the first ‘focus+context’ technique, the Bifocal Display (aka Fisheye lens). You’ll be seeing the Bifocal Display idea in a while.


My first encounter with Bob was way back in 1975 when we recorded a live demonstration of the computer language APL (A Programming Language (link above). This is the oldest surviving teaching videotape we have and was made without the ability to edit and in glorious black and white. However, it does feature a novelty at the time of the recording, that of split screen. This was shot in our TV studio ‘number one’ located then in the Electrical Engineering building.

In June 1979 Bob’s interests were in the area of electronic circuit design. With colleagues, he had devised MINNIE allowing a circuit designer to describe a circuit by drawing it on a screen. Using a ‘light pen’ to interact with the screen, circuits could be created and modified.

The most interesting artifacts (as Bob calls them) were the “on screen pocket calculator” (1973) and the “count-down clock” indicating the process time.  The on-screen calculator is thought to be the first in the World and both these functions are now common place. Bob frequently reminds me of the fact that we were about to move into colour TV (1979) and how he halted the removal and replacement of the computer running MIINIE so we could shoot the video in colour. Here’s the end result from June 1979 (link above) and you can see the calculator at 5min 30secs into the video.

By 1980 the idea of ‘focus+content’ had been identified and a solution called the Bifocal Display created, well in mock-up form anyway. Bob wanted to create a video to show this and other concepts to a wider audience. Again, videotape was a solution to this. So, in the week we all finished for Christmas in 1980 we shot a video which is now credited as being the first ever ‘envisionment video’, “Office of the Professional”. For the time, this was a most complicated video to make. Although with converting  into colour we had gained the ability to edit, this was like no other video we had made before. Scenarios in an office, external elements and multiple video screens -all showing content- only added to the overall complication.

The office desk was made mostly of cardboard and felt. The buttons seen being pressed were not bright enough to be seen by our early colour camera, so higher wattage bulbs were inserted. This made the buttons so hot you could hardly touch them, let alone press them! The variable ‘zoom’ control on the monitor did nothing and was made of cardboard.  The display on the screen was actually running from a videorecorder  and Bob had to synchronise his hand movements to the pre-recorded tape. In one scene we needed two screens showing information and therefore need two playback machines, plus the machine recording the output from the camera, so three video recorders were all running at the same time. In one sequence you’ll see ‘pointing’ at the wall and the phrase ‘here’ being used. Bob tells me that this concept is not too far away. Bill Buxton in his 2007 book ‘Sketching user experiences’ is quoted as saying, in reference to the video, “….is the first example of envisionment videos that I am aware of….” and “….remarkable for its insights…and two years before the launch of the Apple Macintosh.” And finally he says of the video “…I have a lot of respect for those who made it.” Bill Buxton’s book is prefaced by Bill Gates. Once again, a small piece of history is recorded in our archive. Oh and the standing joke between Bob and myself is that one or the other of use will have to say the magic word “here” during a conversation. Most of this is very obvious in the 1980 “Office of the Professional” (link above).

Not wanting to make a video any less complicated or involved than previous ones, Bob came up with a gem of an idea in 1994. “Translations” was once again an envisionment video (link above). It shows a dinner party taking place in the year 2020AD and hosted by an eminent engineer, for other engineers who describe, for the benefit of a journalist, how they practice design. The message was concerned with human-to-human communication facilitated by computer. The video took many weeks to shoot as there were several locations used: Silwood Park where the main dinner party took place; 170 Queens Gate in the Rectors flat and the TV Studio. One fascinating thing to look out for are the use of PIG’s, Personal Information Gatherers. See if the concept reminds you of Bluetooth devices, common place today. Also, during the dinner party the idea of a worktable, able to sense what you were doing was suggested. Microsoft has just demonstrated one! One final thing before you watch the video. For those who know me, try and spot where I re-voiced the sound for one of the people in the video, oh and I’m not saying ‘here’ either. Bob Spence plays the butler in the video “Translations: Engineering Design 2020AD”

Recording a sequence in "Translations"
Recording a sequence in “Translations”

My thanks go to Bob Spence for the many opportunities to make some great envisionment videos over the years. It seemed that the insights Bob had into the way we interact with machines, was well suited to video as way to show those ideas off and to communicate them to many other people.

Colin Grimshaw January 2010

Research and Innovation: Eric Laithwaite

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