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Oral-History:Eric Ash

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About Eric Ash

Eric Ash is an electrical engineer who has specialized primarily in electron optics and ultrasonics. He received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Imperial College in 1948 and received his Doctor in Science degree in 1952 from Imperial, working with Denis Gabor. After holding a Fulbright fellowship at Stanford, Ash returned to London in 1954 where he did research on microwave tubes and acousto-electronics at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory (STL) from 1955 through 1963. In 1963 he became a professor of electrical engineering at University College in London, continuing his ultrasonics research there; in 1985 Ash became Rector of Imperial College. He is currently retired.

The interview begins with Ash's early years and education at the University College School and Imperial College, with particular emphasis on Ash's affiliation with Denis Gabor. After discussing his experiences with applied physical electronics at Stanford University in the early 1950s, Ash describes his work on microwave tubes and acousto-electronics at the industrial laboratory at STL. He then discusses the circumstances of his becoming a professor of electrical engineering at University College and compares industrial with academic research; he also outlines some of the consulting work he did for various companies, including a sabbatical with IBM in 1969-1970 and work with General Electric in Schenectady. He discusses the difficulty of predicting technological development and the considerable "internationality" of research in ultrasonics. He describes his work as Rector of Imperial College primarily in terms of the management and administrative work this position required; he notes that by 1989 he had no real hands-on contact with research or teaching. He discusses at length his association with the IEE publication Electronics Letters and compares it with the IEE Proceedings and the IEEE Transactions. More broadly, he discusses his membership in and committee work for both IEE and IEEE. He discusses books and persons he has found to be particularly influential. The interview concludes with a discussion of various consulting positions he currently holds.


About the Interview

ERIC ASH: An Interview Conducted by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, 25 August 1994

Interview # 231 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, Rutgers - the State University, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Eric Ash, an oral history conducted in 1994 by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


Interview

INTERVIEW: Eric Ash
INTERVIEWER: Frederik Nebeker
DATE: 25 Aug 1994
PLACE: London

Family Background and Education

Nebeker:

This is the 25th of August, 1994. I'm talking with Dr. Ash at his office in London. This is Rik Nebeker. You were born in 1928.

Ash:

Correct.

Nebeker:

In Germany?

Ash:

Correct.

Nebeker:

Where?

Ash:

In Berlin.

Nebeker:

I understand that it was in 1938 your family emigrated.

Ash:

That is correct, yes.

Nebeker:

Can you tell me about that, briefly.

Ash:

Well, really for some years it was evident that we were going to emigrate. My father was the head of the legal department in A.E.G., and he subsequently said that his colleagues almost killed him because he kept on saying, "For God's sake, don't worry about this chap Hitler. He is just a temporary phenomenon, it will all blow over." But by 1938 I think he decided it really wasn't safe, and so he took his family to England.

Nebeker:

Was your father a lawyer?

Ash:

Yes.

Nebeker:

And not an engineer.

Ash:

Not an engineer. Because he had the experience of changing countries as a lawyer, which is quite difficult —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

Because every word matters in legal language, he really encouraged me to take on a career which was transferable. Actually I think it is one of the great joys of engineering that it really is a rather universal language.

Nebeker:

Were you interested in science as a youngster?

Ash:

Yes, I was. Things like Meccano fascinated me, and I built a crystal radio set. This would have been around about 1943, or thereabouts. I made it work. So yes, I was quite fascinated by science.

Nebeker:

Was it clear to you that that was the direction of your education?

Ash:

I wouldn't say absolutely clear. I think I could have gone into any branch of science, even medicine, but at that time my parents were quite hard up, and it didn't seem like a good time to embark on what was a very long study. But I was very happy to go into electrical engineering.

Nebeker:

Where did you live, in England at first?

Ash:

In London.

Nebeker:

And what was your educational course here?

Ash:

When we first came to England my parents thought that total immersion was a good policy, so they put me into a boarding school. That really worked very well. I quite enjoyed that. Then I went to University College school, which actually has no connection now with University College where we are sitting at this moment, but it did in the last century. When I graduated from there I went to Imperial College.

Nebeker:

In engineering?

Ash:

Electrical engineering, yes.

Nebeker:

Do you have brothers and sisters?

Ash:

I have one sister, who is older.

London During World War II

Nebeker:

And how were the war years for you and your family?

Ash:

University College school, oddly enough, was one of the few schools that was not evacuated from London. We stayed in London throughout the war. And so we did spend a certain amount of time, around 1940 and 1941, in shelters during the night.

Nebeker:

What sort of shelters?

Ash:

We lived in a block of flats and stayed in what was basically the cellar. And, indeed, the building we were in was hit by a bomb, which knocked off a corner of the building. I remember seeing the great fire of London. I am vague on dates. I think it was 1941 when the city of London went up in smoke. And then I took what one would now call GCSE examinations (the examinations you take now at the age of 16), sitting in the crypt of University College school because that was the time of the V1 weapons. They were never terribly effective weapons. They never killed more than a few thousand people altogether, but they were embarrassing all the same, and slightly nerve-wracking.

Nebeker:

Yes. Is the V1s coming in something you heard a number of times?

Ash:

Absolutely, yes. The rule was that you don't worry as long as you hear them. When the engines stopped you knew they were coming down.

Nebeker:

You knew they were coasting down.

Ash:

Yes.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

I always remember being at a bus stop once when this happened. The engine stopped, and there was a chap in a city suit behind me who put his umbrella up! It didn't seem like a very obvious defense to whatever might have happened next.

Nebeker:

Were there any V2s that hit your part of London?

Ash:

Not terribly close to where we were, but yes.

Nebeker:

And you built the crystal radio you mentioned during the war?

Ash:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Were you able to pick up any non-British stations?

Ash:

No. I'm absolutely sure you couldn't. You could barely get the BBC. It wasn't even a good crystal, as crystals go. But of course on the normal radio we were avid listeners to what was going over to German broadcasts.

Nebeker:

I see, so you did receive those.

Ash:

Oh, absolutely. I am nearly bilingual, so it was easy listening to the German broadcasts.

Nebeker:

Did they also broadcast in English for propaganda purposes?

Ash:

Yes they did.

Graduate Work with Denis Gabor

Nebeker:

I see. So you completed the engineering degree in 1948?

Ash:

That's right.

Nebeker:

And then stayed on for graduate work?

Ash:

Yes, to do some research. My first year was almost a false start. I was working with a particular lecturer on antenna problems, which didn’t have enough ideas in it. But one year later, Denis Gabor, [who] subsequently won the Nobel Prize for invention of holography —

Nebeker:

Yes, I see.

Ash:

He came from industry to Imperial College. I then became his student and I worked with him for the next three years.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

I did my Ph.D. under him.

Nebeker:

So it was clear to you after one year of work on this problem that was not a very good one, and —

Ash:

Yes, yes.

Nebeker:

You saw the opportunity to work with —

Ash:

Right, right. Yes. I can't remember exactly how the transfer happened. It was that sort of thing.

Nebeker:

How was Denis Gabor to work with as a thesis advisor?

Ash:

He was one of the great influences on my life. He was one of only two or three people I have met that I would describe as a genius. He was warm, but he was an awful supervisor.

Nebeker:

Oh?

Ash:

For a number of different reasons: First of all he didn't communicate well with people. He had difficulties, communicating on the same wavelength as ordinary mortals. Secondly, he was clearly a physicist, although he had been brought up as an engineer. He had the illusion that he was an engineer, which is the inverse of what one expects. You will find engineers who think they ought to discover a new relativity theory, but this was really the inverse.

Nebeker:

Do you mean that he wasn't terribly practical?

Ash:

He was absolutely hopeless on experiments. His approach to any bit of experimental research was like this: He had a big drawing board in his office, and he used to spend a week drawing out a complex bit of equipment. Then he would get a student to make the thing. And then he would switch it on. And, of course, anybody who has ever worked in a laboratory knows that life isn't like that. The right way to do things is to start off with the simplest possible thing and evolve from that. It took me a while before I discovered his advice on anything experimental should be ignored. He was quite difficult in other ways, too. One of my colleagues got close to having a nervous breakdown, and in fact left without his doctorate as a result. It is a long story. I don't know whether you want to hear about it, but he was put onto a project where the preceding experiments looked as though they were confirming what Gabor had foreseen. This chap had then discovered that it was actually a fallacy, that there was another reason why they were seeing the effect they were seeing. He failed to persuade Gabor that it wasn't working. Gabor was not an easy person. For many years I enjoyed the reputation of being the only chap who got a Ph.D. out of him.

Nebeker:

That was true for many years?

Ash:

That was true for quite a few years. And sadly thereafter he got worse and worse students, and he really could no longer work with top-class students. So it was a bit of a tragedy in a way.

Nebeker:

Was he the sort of a supervisor who kept in constant touch with your work?

Ash:

Yes, he was always interested. The worst experience was if he tried to stand in front of your equipment and twiddle the knobs. That was usually fatal!

Nebeker:

Can you briefly describe your thesis work?

Ash:

It had a global title, called "Electron Interaction Effects", but it really divided into two main themes. One was the use of electrons in electron optics. Electron optics work on the use of electrostatic lenses and magnetic lenses, with a vacuum in between. And it was proved in the 1930s by A. Scherzer that you could never compensate for the spherical aberration of electron lenses in contrast to optical lenses, where you play games so that the positive spherical aberration of one lens cancels the negative spherical aberration of another. You can't do this with electron optics. At least you can't do it in a vacuum. If you put electrons in then you can. So one of the things that I was involved with was creating a lens which was in fact an electron lens which did its focusing by having a cloud of electrons in the right place. So we won that battle, but lost the war. The loss of the war was that I then did a calculation that showed that although this lens had the attributes of a negative lens with a negative spherical aberration, the individual scattering of the electrons was enough to create new defects in the thing. In other words, the electrons just weren't transparent enough.

Nebeker:

Where did the idea come from for this way of eliminating spherical aberration?

Ash:

It came directly from Gabor. It was entirely his idea. He had tried to persuade industry earlier than this to do some research and to use lenses of this kind.

Nebeker:

But you actually implemented that idea?

Ash:

I actually found a new way of doing it, and it was the first time that anybody demonstrated such lenses.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

The second theme was concerned with plasma, and particularly oscillations in the sheathes around the plasma. If you have a fluorescent tube, for example, you have plasma in it, but there is a sheath where all sorts of exciting things happen just between the plasma and the glass wall. There are oscillations within this. This was in the very early days of plasma. Indeed, the external examiner for my thesis was Thoneman. I remember Gabor and Thoneman discussing over lunch, after the viva, and Gabor saying, "Well, I think really plasma has had its day." And Thoneman said, "It is just starting." This was when the idea of plasma fusion was still classified.

Nebeker:

Was that also an idea of Gabor's, to work on that?

Ash:

The subject was his idea. He was concerned about some phenomenon, which hadn't been fully explained: why, when you disturb a plasma which has a well-defined electron temperature, does it so rapidly reestablish temperature again? He had written a paper in the 1930s on this, trying to explain it. It was not valid. I think he was trying to stretch something to explain this phenomenon, and didn't hold water. We got some of the explanations in this work. But at the same time, I did other things that were not anticipated. For example, I think I was the first person to measure the field distribution in a sheath.

Nebeker:

Was that a very difficult technical problem?

Ash:

It seemed to me to be so at the time. Yes, I think it still is.

Nebeker:

Did that correction create any conflict?

Ash:

No, we didn't really refer to that. I mean, I think he was convinced it wasn't quite right either.

Nebeker:

What were your relations with him after you were finished?

Ash:

Oh, very, very good. Subsequently I went to Stanford, and he also visited there. I saw a lot of him there, and in London [background noise — a police siren] Also I saw him a few times, during a subsequent time I spent a sabbatical year in the States, with IBM, whilst he was in Connecticut.

Stanford Research Fellowship

Nebeker:

What year was it you completed your doctor of science? 1952.

Ash:

Right.

Nebeker:

That was also the year that you went to Stanford, as a research fellow?

Ash:

Correct.

Nebeker:

How did that come about?

Ash:

I wanted to get some experience in the United States. I wrote to about fifty universities, I think, and some of them replied positively. I then picked the ones that seemed to me were in an attractive part of the country. And Stanford won.

Nebeker:

Because of the non-academic attractions of that part of California?

Ash:

Well, both. Stanford was one of the Meccas in my field at that time, so it was tops on the academic side, but also I loved the idea of spending some time in California.

Nebeker:

I see. How would you have described your field at the time? Electron optics?

Ash:

Well, ______ physical electronics —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

Applied physical electronics.

Nebeker:

I see. Who was at Stanford? Of course, I know of Terman.

Ash:

Terman was still there.

Nebeker:

Who else was there at Stanford at the time in that general field?

Ash:

Well, Dean Watkins, who subsequently started the firm Watkins-Johnson, and which is still thriving. And I think he is still active on the board, if that's the right word, of the University of California.

Nebeker:

Board of regents?

Ash:

Yes, something like that. Although, oddly enough I haven't met him since I left in 1954. But we wrote a paper together, which I think we were both fairly pleased with at the time.

Nebeker:

Was he the main person that you worked with there?

Ash:

Yes, he was one of the people. One of the other people was Donald Dunn. He was there for many years working in this kind of field, and then subsequently switched over to — I'm not even sure how one would describe the field, but it is, sort of, engineering econometrics, or sociology, and really using engineering ideas in discussing much wider issues than engineering.

Nebeker:

How long were you at Stanford?

Ash:

Two years.

Nebeker:

Was that planned from the beginning?

Ash:

Yes. I got a Fulbright scholarship, and I think that was actually on a two-year basis. I can't quite remember. I could have stayed on longer if I had wanted to, but in the meantime I had got myself involved with Clare Babb, as she then was, who claimed that the only reason that she wanted to marry me was to get to London. And so we went to London!

Nebeker:

How did you like your two years in California?

Ash:

Enjoyed it enormously. I have remained in contact with Stanford in one way or another ever since.

Standard Telecommunications Laboratories

Nebeker:

I see. So in 1954 you moved back to London?

Ash:

Right.

Nebeker:

What did you do then?

Ash:

I spent one year, in which I was treading water. I was in part of the University of London, Queen Mary College, as it then was, in a laboratory working on linear accelerators, dielectric loaded linear accelerators. It was just a job that sort of came up, but after a year I then went into industry, and spent the next eight years in industry.

Nebeker:

How did that come about?

Ash:

I think I applied for a sequence of jobs, and that particular one was the one that worked out best.

Nebeker:

Standard Telecommunications.

Ash:

It was S.T.L., Standard Telecommunications Laboratories at the time, it was the main European laboratory for the I.T.T. In the meantime there has been a fair amount of shuffling around, corporate shuffling, and that lab became part of I.C.L., International Computers Limited, but is now part of BNR, ___________.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

It exists still in very much the same form, but is now part of the Bell Northern.

Nebeker:

What was the job description of the position you got?

Ash:

It was entirely concerned with research on microwave tubes, initially, and then subsequently it went to more solid-state kind of things.

Nebeker:

Microwave generators?

Ash:

Amplifiers, oscillators, detectors, the lot.

Nebeker:

I see. Had you worked on that before?

Ash:

Yes, at Stanford. That was the main theme of my work at Stanford.

Work at Stanford on Microwave Tubes

Nebeker:

I see. And can you describe briefly the work at Stanford, in microwave tubes?

Ash:

The work at Stanford was mainly concerned with the development of something called the back-wave oscillator. Does that mean anything to you? Well, it was actually a very important invention. I think there was some debate as to who got there first. Thomson C.S.F. was involved, and to some extent Bell Labs. But it turned out that a tube called the traveling wave tube, which persists to this day in certain applications, could be run in a rather different way so that it would produce oscillations. But, very importantly, these oscillations could be tuned in a very wide frequency range, and that was important for some civil applications, but most importantly, for some military applications.

Nebeker:

Communications applications?

Ash:

Well, communications, countermeasures, a whole range of things. And, indeed, that was an interesting dimension to it, because I was actually working some of the time on defense projects. Being British I didn't have a security clearance. And so I found myself having to process tubes in a classified area, having to get special permission to go into that area, and then subsequently writing a report on this work which I was then not allowed to see!

Nebeker:

But you were able to publish?

Ash:

Oh, yes. There was a scientific side to it, which was publishable. But this was the height of the McCarthy era and there was a certain degree of hysteria, which Stanford escaped more than, say, the University of California at Berkeley, but didn't wholly escape either. And, indeed, it was an unhappy period for the United States. You're obviously too young to remember it. I have subsequently come across situations in this country where people are concerned with academic freedom and where there has sometimes been a feeling, "Well, really we don't have to worry about that thing. After all, we are the West, and we don't have problems like that." It is, I think, worthwhile reading the history of the McCarthy era to see that it is quite possible for a civilized country to hit a rough patch and have problems of that kind. So, for example, that was the period when to continue to be employed by the University of California, people had to subscribe to a loyalty oath. Some people didn't want to do, not because they felt disloyal, but because they thought it was questioning something that really ought not to be questioned by government.

Industrial Research at STL

Nebeker:

So when you got the position at S.T.L., what did you start work on there?

Ash:

Really very much the same kind of thing. You know, a straight continuation of the same kind of stuff that was going on in Stanford. There was at that time a quite considerable technology gap between the United States and the U.K. So I came back from the United States as the wise man who had seen the truth. And it was fairly easy to transfer some of the things I had learnt.

Nebeker:

Now, I don't know that laboratory. How different is that from an academic research lab?

Ash:

It's devoted to supporting the manufacturing divisions of the company, then and to an even greater extent now. I feel that is what industry should be doing. I also think, and advocated this very strongly at the time, that in order to do the best job they can for the manufacturing divisions, they ought to be working at the frontier of the subject, to be publishing papers, and not to spend all of their time worrying that the competition would run away with the silver spoons. I feel that there is an awful lot to be said for a fairly open industrial laboratory. I don't think, on the whole, people lose on it.

Nebeker:

And was that the case there?

Ash:

It was reasonably liberal, yes. We were encouraged to publish, for example.

Nebeker:

How was it for you, working of course for the first time in an industrial laboratory?

Ash:

I didn't find the transition particularly difficult. I am convinced that academics work harder than people in industry. And industry doesn't believe it, but it is absolutely true. Anybody who has been on both sides of that frontier would confirm this. Now, it is possible, in a university, to work half time and get away with it. There are always a very small number of people that do this, but not in high-grade universities. I have been fortunate in being associated with just three high-grade places. One was Stanford, another was Imperial College, and the other was this place here, University College. In those places people on the whole over-work. Sometimes at the expense of families, or their own health. And so working in an industrial laboratory was not an additional strain in that sense.

Nebeker:

How long did you work at S.T.L.?

Ash:

Eight years.

Acoustic and Ultrasonic Amplifiers

Nebeker:

Can you describe your work over that period, briefly?

Ash:

I worked on microwave tubes, and then subsequently got involved with a number of solid-state projects. But in particular I got very much involved with acousto-electrics. There was, for a while, a hope that one might be able to achieve things with acoustic amplifiers, ultrasonic amplifiers, which would be cheaper, simpler, easier than microwave tubes, or solid- state devices. That turned out not to be the case. It was never really competitive as an amplifier, although the development of ultrasonic signal processing, which stemmed from that, has been, highly competitive and is very much used.

Nebeker:

What sort of an ultrasonic amplifier was that?

Ash:

Well, the basic structure was one where you launched an ultrasonic wave in a crystal OP Cadmium sulphide, and applied a voltage. The electrons drift at velocity which is comparable to that of the acoustic wave. If you get things right the acoustic wave gets amplified.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

It is a tiny little thing and sounds very good. The only thing that was wrong with it was that transistors turned out to be better. And the law of the jungle in technology, you know, is always with us.

Nebeker:

You said that did have some application?

Ash:

Well, I think the fact that quite a number of people started thinking about ultrasonics did have an impact on a much wider range of electronics. For example, there is now an acoustic surface wave filter in every T.V. set, sometimes two.

Nebeker:

What was S.T.L.'s interest in ultrasonic?

Ash:

Well, they were interested in microwaves, for all sorts of reasons. Mainly telecommunications. This was a research lab. There was no intention of going into production in these at that time.

Nebeker:

And you had some freedom in choosing new topics?

Ash:

Yes. That was actually quite a surprise to me. When I went into industry I thought I would have a boss, who would say what to work on. I found that does not tend to be true. The program in an industrial research laboratory which has a lot of vitality tends to be created by the people who are in the lab, at the bench, and is not typically imposed from on high. In fact, in a really good research lab the opportunity that the top brass has is to choose between a number of viable options that are put up to them. So yes, there was considerable amount of freedom in choosing what I was going to work on.

Nebeker:

From the beginning in this case?

Ash:

Almost from the beginning, yes.

Nebeker:

Did you change job titles in those eight years?

Ash:

Yes I did. After three years in 1958, my boss at the time, Bill Beck, went off to Cambridge to become an academic. I took his job and I became the head of the high-speed devices group, as we were called.

Nebeker:

How large a group was that?

Ash:

I think it was about thirty, or thirty-five people. I think I was most probably the youngest person at the time. I don't think that bothered anybody terribly much. It didn't bother me.

Move to University College

Nebeker:

And then in 1963 you left?

Ash:

I left to go to University College.

Nebeker:

And how did that come about?

Ash:

I got a phone call from the then head of department, Professor Harold Barlow, asking me whether I might be interested in a job. I replied immediately that I would not be interested because I was happy with what I was doing in industry. This was on the Friday. I thought about it over the weekend. I was thirty-five at the time, I think. I thought that if I tried the academic track and didn't like it I wouldn't really have any great difficulty getting back into industry. On the other hand, if I hit forty in industry it would probably be quite difficult to make an entry into the academic world. I thought I ought to give it a try. I rang him back on Monday and said maybe I would give it a try. The other less honorable reason for doing it is that we were then, as now, living in Islington. The S.T.L. research laboratories had in the meantime moved from London to Harlow, a new town about twenty-four miles away. My wife said she'd divorce me if I ever suggested moving to Harlow. Since we got on all right otherwise, I had to commute! On the other hand, University College was ten minutes on a bicycle. That played a role in my decision-making.

Nebeker:

But it wasn't the case that you had your eye on an academic position before?

Ash:

Not really, no. Obviously one kicks things around as to what one might do when one grows up. I'm still doing that. But I hadn't seriously applied for an academic position.

Nebeker:

How was that transition to university?

Ash:

It was odd. First, I was given an enormous amount of freedom, to spend some money. Universities actually had some money in those days. Second, I had freedom to decide what to teach. I also found that I think I was teaching a class of six people. Having spent some time in industry this didn't seem to me to be cost effective. I was told, "Not to worry about it, that is the way the world is." And indeed that is the way the world stayed for a few more years until the pressure was applied to universities, quite rightly in my opinion, around about 1970. The universities have been squeezed mercilessly ever since. I think something of the same sort went on the United States. I am suggesting that the squeeze from 1970 to maybe 1980 or thereabouts was justified. It then became a government habit to squeeze. The squeeze since that time has been damaging and not justified. You were asking how I got on. I found that very liberating, and very interesting to start off with a blank sheet of paper. It is the only time in my adult life that I can remember when I actually had some time. For some reason, I have never quite recovered that situation since.

Nebeker:

How much teaching were you doing?

Ash:

I think that, throughout my time there, I taught something like sixty lectures a year, which was not very much.

Nebeker:

What does that come to in terms of courses?

Ash:

Well, putting it in those terms is quite difficult. The idea of the course is quite difficult. The courses that we tend to teach tend to be in units of about thirty lectures, so it would be one full course and two half courses. But the system here is heavily based on tutorial teaching as well. And so a large part of the teaching was on a much smaller group basis.

Nebeker:

And how much did you deal with graduate students?

Ash:

I worked up to having typically about five doctoral students working for me. It went up to eight one time, and just about killed me. My advice has been for people not to have probably more than four. But it depends very much on the subject.

Research at University College

Nebeker:

What research did you undertake when you started at the university?

Ash:

I pursued further the work on ultrasonics. I got involved in work on acoustic surface waves. I think I was one of the first people to suggest the use of acoustic surface waves for signal processing. I also worked on filters, correlators, and something which turned out to have a limited capability, acoustic surface waveguides. I spent a lot of time working on that. I also worked on ultrasonic imaging, a number of different modes. But the key invention in that field was made by Calvin Quate, at Stanford University, who invented the modern form of acoustic microscope. We did a lot of research on acoustic microscopy using the basic Quate idea.

Nebeker:

How were laboratory conditions here?

Ash:

Primitive to start off with, but in fact it was quite possible to get the funding to make them competitive with other places. In fact, it has been one of my principles that if you cannot afford the equipment for a particular line of research, you shouldn't be doing this research. The competition in research is worldwide, and not just some other little university next door. It really is very unfair to get Ph.D. students to work with one arm tied behind their backs. So I think that in the work that we were doing we were well equipped, and not badly off for technicians either.

Nebeker:

Now, you were in a physics department?

Ash:

No, electrical engineering.

Nebeker:

Were any of the graduate students employed in industry while they were working on their degree?

Ash:

Not part-time, but in fact there was a scheme, university-run, where people could do a Ph.D. while working in industry. I supervised several people like that. I personally do not believe it to be a good mode for doing it.

Nebeker:

How did it work out in the cases that you dealt with? The graduate student, I suppose, would be working on a project related to their research?

Ash:

Yes, but that's precisely the problem because industry doesn't really work in three year time cycles. And if somebody is working on something at one moment, which he decides to develop for a Ph.D., he might not be able to continue that line for long enough. That's one of the problems. The other problem is that once people get into industry they tend to do silly things like getting married and having babies, which is a great distraction from writing Ph.D. theses in the evenings! But I remember one student that worked out extremely well. He was not quite in industry. He was working in a medical research center, Mill Hill. He was interested in clinical measurement of eardrum movement as a diagnostic tool using optical techniques. He was a very bright student, as it happens. Other students didn't work out too well.

Nebeker:

I could imagine though that it might be stimulating for you to be in touch with industrial research?

Ash:

Well, it is stimulating. One of the things, however, that tends to happen is that one gives free consultancy to the industry. One wouldn't mind giving free consultancy if it was matched by that company, let's say, sponsoring some research programs in one's laboratory but quite often that didn't happen either.

Consultancy Work for General Electric

Ash:

I might say that through the last dozen years that I was there, I was also a consultant to the General Electric Company in Schenectady.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

And that, for me, was a very helpful connection, in a number of different ways.

Nebeker:

Could you tell me about that consultancy?

Ash:

Well, I suppose that the main mission was to keep Schenectady up with the more exciting things going on in Europe. And so it led me to go to more conferences than I would otherwise have gone. More importantly, it kept me awake while I was there — as you know it is not always easy in a conference — because I knew that I had to write a report on it. I would visit laboratories in different parts of Europe, and I would go to the United States typically a couple of times a year. Some of those times I would spend a week in Schenectady or do specific work within Schenectady.

Nebeker:

What people were you working with there?

Ash:

There are several thousand people there, so had contact with a lot of them. I had contact with the director of research for the laboratory at the time. For example, I was given the task of making an audit of their work on medical ultrasonics. I talked to everyone who was working on medical ultrasonics there and tried to assess the thrust of what they were doing and pinpoint any weaknesses. It enabled me to buy shoes for my children, and that sort of thing. Academics in this country are not paid very well.

Nebeker:

When did this consulting work begin?

Ash:

I was consulting, mainly for S.T.L., the firm I had left, from 1958 to I would say around about the mid-1960s. I started consulting for G.E. in 1970. I had not started when I spent a sabbatical year at I.B.M., which was 1969 to 1970. But I made contact with G.E. at that time.

International Research in Ultrasonics

Nebeker:

I was trying to get to the question of how international this research area was, and what the main centers of it were.

Ash:

Oh, I think it is very international. It is a niche subject, ultrasonics, ultrasonic imaging, and some of the other things I got involved with, holographic elements, and opto-electronics. It's not like working on semiconductor memories. But I would say that the conferences, for example, the IEEE ultrasonics conference, got a very good window on what was going on in significant places all over the world. Not a very secretive part of industry.

Nebeker:

And it wasn't a case that Europe was behind the U.S.?

Ash:

Not in this particular field, not in ultrasonic signal processing. There were centers in Plessey, in this country; Philips, Siemens in Germany; and very, very importantly in this country was (the R.S.R.E., as it was then known) the Royal Signals and RADAR establishment, in Malvern, a government laboratory which I don't quite know what one would compare it to, maybe Cambridge Air Force Centre, or something. They were a very important influence on us. Thomson C.S.F. was important.

Nebeker:

Were Japanese researchers active in this area?

Ash:

Yes. They got in a little later but they were, yes.

Sabbatical at IBM

Nebeker:

How did this sabbatical at I.B.M. come about?

Ash:

Well, there is a sabbatical scheme in this country, which, oddly enough, an awful lot of people don't avail themselves of. It's not a sabbatical scheme by right. But I don't know of many cases of people who have asked for a sabbatical year after seven years and not got it. So I asked for it. Universities sometimes drive you mad, because nobody is in charge, and nobody knows what they are doing, or why they are doing it. It's all marvelous, but a bit disorganized. I find industry, in a sense, refreshing. At least they know what they are trying to do, which is to make money. So I thought, given a sabbatical I would like to spend it in industry. I thought I would like to go to the United States. I had some people I knew in the I.B.M. research laboratories in Yorktown Heights, and they kindly invited me to spend a year out there.

Nebeker:

What work did you do there?

Ash:

Again, I was working on ultrasonic signal processing entirely, in fact.

Nebeker:

Working on your own, or in a group?

Ash:

In a group.

Nebeker:

Who was leading that group?

Ash:

Well, I suppose the leader was Bob Pole, who was tragically killed a few years later. He flew his own airplane, and flew it into a mountain.

Academic Research and Applications

Nebeker:

In all of this research at University College, did you have applications in mind for most of your research efforts?

Ash:

Yes. I thought that it was a mistake for universities to get too close to applications, because that really is the role of industry. On the whole when universities go in for developmental work they tend to do it badly. They don't have the discipline which is needed in order to get something out the door. I regard engineering as applied science, and to my mind applying science, rather than inventing new science. If there is no objective at the end of the day, it is an absurdity. Engineers ought to be concerned about applications.

Nebeker:

I imagine that interesting questions might arise about some phenomenon or device that a person operating in a scientific mode might want to investigate, but in an engineering mode might say, well that may be interesting, but it is not likely to be vital to getting something to work.

Ash:

All I can say is that the record that people have for predicting what is going to be important, and what is not going to be important, is pretty poor, and so it isn't easy to know whether what you are working on is likely to have applications or not. There are examples where it is exceedingly unlikely, although it has been argued fiercely on the other side. And that is particle physics. I believe that whenever you start talking about energies of more than a few kilovolts you are rapidly getting yourself out of the range of materials and chemistry, which is what makes life work. It is extraordinarily unlikely that anything usable or sensible will come out of particle physics. Not impossible. There was even a glint at one time about this new catalyzed fusion possibility, but that didn't work out. When you come to the kind of things we were doing, it really is very, very difficult to predict. Whenever I think I can predict things I always like to look back to the time when satellites first appeared as serious possibilities in 1962 or 1961. There were two types that were seriously considered for communications; one was basically large metallized balloons, which would be used as reflectors.

Nebeker:

Echo?

Ash:

Yes, echo. And the other one were the active satellites. I went on record as saying that it would be at least another decade before the active ones were seriously considered. For the foreseeable future it would have to be the passive ones. The active ones were just too complicated to put up there. Well, that was totally and utterly wrong. I don't think my comment was stupid, it was just wrong. It is very difficult to predict how a technology is going to go. So, for example, in my latter years here in the department we worked on photo-thermal imaging, and I was particularly interested in possible clinical applications. I still think that there are opportunities in photo-thermal imaging that may come into their own. It really hasn't gelled yet, but I think it might. And I don't regret the time that we spent working on it.

Nebeker:

Are you saying though that in the case of your work on the ultrasonic acoustics, that questions didn't arise? If scientists and engineers might explore some area in different ways.

Ash:

I would say that in deciding whether to undertake a project, I think there would be three things in my mind. One, was I really interested in knowing the answer. If one is not interested, or not interested enough, then one shouldn't be doing it. The second thing, it gets to be a bit more logistic. Is it something which is likely to attract bright Ph.D. students and if it does attract them, is it likely to lead to them flourishing in their Ph.D. work? The third thing is, how much money does it need? If X is the amount of money, what are my chances of getting X from somebody or other for the purpose. I think those were the three considerations, and whether I could see a solid application within, let's say three years, or five years, or ten years, would not have been a factor in my thinking. But, if I couldn't see any applications, if it really seemed terribly abstract to me, then I would not personally have got involved in it.

Nebeker:

I see. You became head of the department in 1980?

Ash:

That's right, yes.

Nebeker:

Did that involve much administrative work?

Ash:

A fair amount. Before that there were three professors: Professor Alex Cullen, the head of the department; Professor Den Davis, who subsequently became the Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough and is now Chief Scientist to the Ministry of Defense; and myself. The years before that we ran the thing pretty much as a sort of a group, so becoming head of the department wasn't that dramatic a change. But yes, it does involve administration, and responsibility. I made the decision when I took it on that I would not cut back on either my teaching or my research. Which was a tough decision, but I am not sorry that I made that decision.

Nebeker:

It didn't lead to overwork and a nervous breakdown?

Ash:

Not a nervous breakdown, no. There are some people who have nervous breakdowns out of overwork, and other people have nervous breakdowns out of boredom. I am more liable to suffer the latter. But, I mean, the way things are done is by delegation. So, for example, I delegated the finances of the department entirely to Den Davis. People asked me how on earth can you run a department if you don't have your hands on the purse strings? As far as I was concerned it wasn't a problem. Den Davis and I spoke shorthand to each other. We got on extremely well, and there was no problem. I did a lot of delegation but even so it is tough going. I think the department did rather well, and I think I left it in good shape when I left.

Rectorship of Imperial College

Nebeker:

Can you explain your connection with Imperial College?

Ash:

After I left Imperial College in 1952, I had no connection with it. In fact I hardly ever remember even visiting the place. There was no alumni system there, so they didn't ever contact me. I didn't really have any serious contact with them until I went back there again in 1985 as the rector.

Nebeker:

I see. Well, that is really a step in the direction of management.

Ash:

Sure.

Nebeker:

Why did you decide to do that?

Ash:

Prior to that I had been asked, I think it was by five, or maybe six universities, whether I would want my name to go forward as Vice-Chancellor. In each case I wrote back rapidly saying "What an enormous honour, but actually not for me. Thanks for thinking of me though." Imperial College got slightly under my skin. First, I was a lad there. Second, I won a scholarship to the college in 1945 when I was seventeen years old. If not for that I don't think I would have gone to Imperial College. I don't think my family would have afforded it. So I had a sort of sentimental attraction to the place. There was a general feeling that Imperial College had been slipping academically. It was really a moment of megalomania. I saw a headline, you know, "Old Student Saves College," or something like that. The other thing was that I thought if I allowed my name to go forward the chances of them picking me were pretty remote. The risk in saying, "Yes," at that stage was not too great. But it wasn't a well thought-out career plan.

Nebeker:

I know that you have recently retired from that position?

Ash:

Yes.

Nebeker:

As you look back on all this eight years or so, how do you characterize that period?

Ash:

Well, it was enormously fascinating. It was a good challenge for a workaholic. My marriage, which is now forty years old, has lasted only because my wife is also a workaholic. Otherwise we would have split up a long time ago. She threw herself into the job, too. Now, this is one of the subtle things about taking on that kind of a job. Your wife doesn't actually get any of the perks, she doesn't get any money, but she is expected, or at least people hope, that she will do things. We did a vast amount of entertaining. There was a residence for the Rector there which leant itself to entertaining. She was fully involved in that. But as far as the college itself was concerned, my management style is bottom-up rather than top-down. That is what Imperial College needed at the time. By the time I left, Imperial College was by the official ratings equal with Cambridge in science, the top in engineering. It was in the black and had quite a good administrative team, which it didn't have when I arrived — to put it mildly. I felt reasonably happy after eight years. I think that the college as a whole thought that it had gone all right. I am not sorry I did it, but it did actually cut me off almost completely from the researcher.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

I did take on one Ph.D. student whilst I was at Imperial College. I saw a number through that were still here [U.C.L.] when I went. I took one person on. That really went very well, mainly because he was a very bright student: Eric Yeatman. He was prepared to see me at eight o'clock in the morning, which not all students are prepared to do. But most importantly, I had an idea before I went to Imperial College that I wanted to work on. When he got his Ph.D. I wasn't going to take on another student, mainly because I hadn't had a new idea. You don't have new ideas if you don't go to conferences, and mope around in libraries, and chat to people over cups of coffee.

Nebeker:

Were you able to continue your own research program?

Ash:

No, not at all. This would have been around about 1989 or 1990. After 1989 I really had no more hands-on contact with research or teaching.

Nebeker:

Can you briefly say what measures you took as Rector to improve the situation there, in terms of faculty management, advances?

Ash:

First of all I do believe in delegation. In a university it is supremely important that one delegates to the head of a department, chairman of department as it is described in the US. It is therefore vital that you pick the right chairman of department. At Imperial College the right to appoint the head of a department rests with the Rector. However, I also believe that you don't impose heads of departments. I adopted a scheme when we needed a head of department, where I would write to every single person in the department, including technicians and secretaries, to ask for their advice. I would have meetings with non-professorial staff, and individual meetings all throughout the process. So at the end, the person that I would come up with would not run counter to any serious opposition in the department. But the criterion for running a department in a place like Imperial College, to my mind, is first that the person must be an academic leader with a world-class reputation. Secondly, they must be able to count, including money — not just joules. In other words, they have got to have managerial skills. That combination is the toughest to find. But I am happy to say that I believe I found it in every single case in Imperial College. In one or two cases I went outside and picked people who were not in the college at all. But it is a very tough assignment these days. People have to be bilingual in their science, or engineering, and in management. That is the first thing.

The second thing is all terribly obvious stuff, but when I came, there were no management accounts. There was no such thing as — as capital investment plans. Buildings were put up, and there was an overrun in one case of one million pounds before I was even told about it. So, if you like, that was the terribly straightforward stuff, at least it would seem terribly straightforward in commerce and industry. It was a little bit rarer in universities, but you simply had to tighten up. We had every reason to tighten up because places like Oxford and Cambridge are enormously rich, but Imperial College is enormously poor. So we had no reserves, very little endowment income. So when the government finances were tightening progressively it was actually vital that we did tighten up. So I think we started doing all the obvious things in that way. Stopping people writing things with a pen. Believe it or not, that was the normal way of communication within administration of Imperial College when I came. Trying to find out what the vast army of maintenance people we had was actually doing, straightforward management stuff. Oh, and the other thing was starting an alumnus organization. When I came there was almost nothing, so we started doing things that to any American person would be screamingly obvious: finding out who the alumni are, and making contact with them. Hoping that eventually they will actually help to sustain the place, but above all, finding out who they are. And that was a very major operation. In the end we ended up with seventy thousand names, and probably about fifty thousand good addresses. Starting off with a few thousand names.

Nebeker:

So that was something that — that started under your Rectorship?

Ash:

Yes. I started that on day one.

Electronics Letters

Nebeker:

I wanted to ask about the journal Electronics Letters

Ash:

Right.

Nebeker:

— how that came about?

Ash:

Well, that was not my invention. The person you ought to talk to about the history of that is Peter Clarricoats. Has that name crossed your —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

Okay. I came on board as a — as an editor very shortly after he had launched it. I think, again looking at American experience, that there was a real need for it. And managed to convince the council of the IEE that it was worth doing. And that was quite an achievement. When I came on board it was not as yet a significant journal, and it was deeply in the red. And its continuation at one time was very far from obvious. One of the things Peter Clarricoats and I tried to do in those days was to see whether we could form some alliances, for example, with the German V.D.I. Verein Deutsches Ingenieure. I'm forgetting my German. Also, with the French. And they all listened carefully. They all worried, I think, about take-over by Anglo-Saxons, and the English speaking countries, and they were particularly worried about the red ink that would have to be absorbed. There was one time, indeed, and I am afraid that I really — I don't think I would have been able to guess when it was, but it would have been, I think, probably the late 1960s, when there was an attempt to join up with the IEEE on it. And that nearly came off, and then in the end the IEEE went away from it.

Anyway, the theme that Peter Clarricoats and I tried to pursue throughout is that the soul of the journal does not rest with the owners — it happens to be IEE at the moment — but with the referees. They are really the people that have the main influence as to whether a journal is respected by the community and whether people want to entrust their best work to it or not. So we worked very hard on referee lists, and I remember at a time that we had — I think it was two thousand referees, or something. Carefully classified, and carefully vetted periodically. I found out that the IEEE at that time, in the Proceedings, was publishing a lot of letters. It had, I think, something like fifteen referees. And most of them were in Bell Labs. And if you asked me how come that the letters section in the Proceedings didn't survive, I believe it was that. If you accept bad letters, and God knows they did accept some bad ones, and reject some good ones, I mean, that is death. So we tried very hard to work on this, and that has been our main theme all the time. Plus speed. We aim to publish within six weeks of receipt. And now, of course, we have go the thing on-line as well. Did you know that?

Nebeker:

No, I didn't.

Ash:

No. Well, we have a demo at the moment, I can show it to you.

Nebeker:

Full text?

Ash:

The full text. I can say a few words about, if you are interested, later on. [?] But people do like to get their stuff published quickly. At one time we monitored referees. We're not doing it the same way at the moment, but I'd still like to get back to it. And we normally have two, or usually three referees, usually somebody from outside the U.K. We get the referees to score from one to five. You know, one is a breakthrough, two is a very good contribution, three is okay, just about worth publishing, four is just about not worth publishing, and five, well ... That's roughly it. We get the referees to score numerically, and give them seventy-two hours to do it, and then you take — let's say you have two referees. Let's say one gives a score of two and the other one gives a score of one. You then mark the referee who gave a one with a minus one, let's say, the one who gave a score of two a plus one. Then when you have used them a lot you can find out whether they are particularly harsh or particularly lenient. And you can also add up the squares of their deviations, if you see what I mean, and that shows whether they are erratic or not.

Nebeker:

Right, right. It allows you to calibrate the referees.

Ash:

Yeah, that's right. And if you find somebody is very erratic, or always terribly negative about something, then you can try to eliminate him. But that's really the battle, to do that. But — I mean, the result is, as you know, that in a number of fields, and particularly opto-electronics, it is the key journal in the world. The best work in the States, and in Japan, and the world gets published in Electronics Letters. And also it is embarrassingly in the black. I am embarrassed. The IEE isn't! But — I don't think we ought to go into figures, except to say that the profits, if that is the right word, is about half of the turnover. And I might say, neither Peter Clarricoats nor I share in all of this marvelous money that it gets. We get a very small, modest fee. But it is a fact that it has sustained a lot of IEE publications.

Involvement in IEE

Nebeker:

Yes. Could I ask at this time about — about your connection with IEE? When that started, and what activities you have been involved —

Ash:

Oh, I joined the IEE as a student. I think it is a very valuable organization to belong to anyway, but particularly valuable if you happen to be in London. You were in the IEE building yesterday, so you see it is really quite a nice building, with a very nice library. They do have lots of lectures, among them some that are scintillating. And even as a student you can go there and fill yourself with muffins, or whatever they serve for tea beforehand, and hear the great and good talk. And so even — I have always encouraged my students to — to join, too. I suppose I didn't actually have much to do with them whilst I was in industry, and that was partially because I was working out of town. When I came back to London in 1963, I — I got more involved with it. I can't remember the exact sequence, but I became a member of the electronics divisional board, eventually the chairman, and then I, at some stage, became a vice-president and then eventually the president. I — during that time I chaired a number of committees, the most important one as far as I was concerned was the publications committee. And that actually lead to the complete revamp of the IEE Proceedings. I — I mean, it gradually evolved from that time, but — this was the early 1970s, I suppose. But I think that the present structure of the IEE proceedings did take place at that time.

I also at one time chaired the qualifications board. One of my main interests was to reduce the time it takes to join the place. And to give them more internationally minded — I always remember an occasion when we had an applicant from an American, to become a corporate member of the IEE, and clearly he had all the right responsibilities and jobs, published a lot, and so on, and so forth. But they also hadn't assured themselves of his educational qualifications, and that really meant a degree in a university that was on their list. Well, this chap hadn't yet made it, and when I asked which university it was, the answer was Harvard. So I suggested that it was really quite appropriate to be put on the list. It's not a bad university, as universities go! And that is an extreme example of how parochial at one time the IEE was. I'm glad to say that they are really internationally minded now.

Nebeker:

I'll leave it to the IEE historical effort to learn more about your — your presidency and other activities there, and move to your IEEE connection. I could see from —

Ash:

Let me say one thing about the presidency. I think the important thing one does in the IEE is chair various committees before one becomes the president. When you become the president, the odds are that you will be making speeches and — and — at various dinners and hold forth, and you — you might like to have, except that I don't know if I can lay my hands on a copy at the moment, is a copy of my inaugural lecture. Because that actually says quite a lot about — I ought to have a copy somewhere or other. I'll see whether I can dig one out later on. The IEE can certainly give you a copy of that. It was called "The Universities, Government, and Industry. New rules for a menage á trois." And I sweated blood on that, and it is actually, I suppose, a fairly detailed account of how I saw the world at that time. But I think — I think the only thing that happened during my year of presidency, which I worked on beforehand too, of course, was that we merged with the British I.R.E., the Institute of Radio Engineers. Well, that was one step in — in getting larger groups together, which has continued for fifteen years since. But other than that the president is turning up and reading speeches, abroad, too. I spent a year — you do a trip abroad. My wife and I went to bits of Africa at the time.

Nebeker:

I do know that IEE is quite international —

Ash:

Yes. It has got more so since, really. It is quite international. The present president, Alan Rudge is certainly pursuing that with great vigor.

Connection with IEEE

Nebeker:

I could see from the IEEE directory that you joined in 1952, 1953, I've forgotten now. While you were at Stanford. Was that the IRE, or the AIEE that you — you joined? The Institute of Radio Engineers, or the —

Ash:

It would have been IRE. When did it become the IEEE?

Nebeker:

They merged in 1963. 1963.

Ash:

Oh, as late as that?

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

It would have been the IRE.

Nebeker:

Do you recall why you joined?

Ash:

Oh, sure, to get the journals. And that's the reason why I have recommended to most of my students to join. The IEEE journals are supreme. And — I mean, I honestly think, and this may sound arrogant, but I honestly think the only one where we do better is on Electronics Letters. But the Transactions, I mean, they — they really are the — the world repository of information in the electrical sciences.

Nebeker:

What about conferences?

Ash:

And conferences, yes.

Nebeker:

That's a thing you —

Ash:

I very regularly used to go to the ultrasonics conference, for example. No, I mean, I have the greatest respect for the IEEE.

Nebeker:

And you remained a member?

Ash:

I remained a member. I am a member now. As a matter of fact, when I hit sixty-five I got a letter from the then president saying, "Having been a member so long, and been so eminent," or some flattery phrases, "we hope that you will stay so, and you don't have to pay your sub any more."

Nebeker:

Oh, so you're a life member?

Ash:

I'm a life member, yes. That was very nice.

Nebeker:

Oh, you’re probably a Life Fellow?

Ash:

Life Fellow, yes, yes. I thought that was very nice of them. I'd like to encourage the IEE to do as much for me!

Influential Publication in the Field

Nebeker:

I wonder if I could ask you about books or articles, apart from those you've written yourself, that have been — meant a great deal to you in your career. Any textbooks, or handbooks, or particular articles that have really meant a lot to you?

Ash:

Oh, that's a difficult one. But, I mean, just thinking aloud, in electromagnetics there was a book by Stratton, which was published around about the time I graduated which was — I thought it was a marvelous book, and very influential. And subsequently a book that I have used an enormous amount for lectures, and myself, is Ramo and Winnery. Do you know the book?

Nebeker:

Yes, I know the book.

Ash:

Okay. That was extremely influential as far as I was concerned. And then, I have to say, Shockley's book on holes and electrons, which, I think, has not been superseded in some respects to this day. And I — I thought — still think — that that was a remarkable book, and a remarkable style, because — do you know the book at all?

Nebeker:

Yes, I just know of it. I haven't read the book.

Ash:

Well, I mean, it was sort of first in the field, but what he did was he covered the subject three times. Once in a hand-waving argument kind of way, with some celebrated diagrams showing a garage analogy to holes and electrons in semiconductors. Showing one floor of the garage is absolutely full of cars, too many cars to move, that sort of thing, on that style. And on the second section, where he did it in what I would call good engineering style, mathematical. And then the third time around doing it as a highfalutin physicist, or in quantum mechanical — quantum mechanical calculations. I thought that was a marvelous book. Then — all right, since we're talking about quantum mechanics, there was a book by David Bohm, B-O-H-M, who died recently —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

— on quantum mechanics, which I think — to my mind was the best book on quantum mechanics. I used to teach quantum mechanics, and it was a textbook that I encountered on the subject. His name is quite an interesting one at the moment because he was — well, he was a McCarthy victim as a matter of fact. He came to England at that time. But he was also really fairly isolated because he, subsequent to writing that book, developed a new concept of quantum mechanics which didn't find favor with the gurus at the time. And — I'm not really into the subject enough to know, but my impression is that his views are regarded as rather more respectable now that they ever were then. As a matter of fact, when I first came to University College he was giving lectures on solid-state theory right next door at Birkbeck College. I used to go to those.

Nebeker:

Was he a good lecturer?

Ash:

Competent. Not brilliant. Then I have to cite a book which was everybody's bible at the time in microwave tubes, and that was John Pierce's book on traveling wave tubes. That made an enormous impression. Yes, then I think — do you know — these are all American books, and there is a reason for that. I'll come to that in a moment. There's Goodman's book on Fourier Optics, which is another book which I think — twenty years old, or something like that —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

— which I don't think has really been superseded.

Nebeker:

What is the first name? Goodman —

Ash:

I ought to have it here somewhere.

Nebeker:

I just don't know that book.

Ash:

Here we are. I know the bloke; I really ought to know his name. Joseph Goodman. The book is called, An Introduction to Fourier Optics. That was extremely influential. When I left Imperial College I thought I would get rid of all my books. I didn't really think I'd be active in detail subsequently. I couldn't let myself do that. So I have kept the books that have really meant something to me. So all of these books are books that at one time or another, you know, have been important to me.

Nebeker:

Well, I've had engineers say things like Terman's radio engineers handbook was a bible for them, and —

Ash:

That's true actually. And again that was when I was a PhD student, and that was certainly a book that I — I used a lot at the time. Well, we could go on at this. I'll tell you one other — you asked about papers. Well, papers sort of tend to be, you know, articles, and there's one that actually had quite a lot of influence on me, and that was by Shockley, and it was published in the Proceedings of the I.R.E. I suspect it was called "The Statistics of Individual Creativity in Research". And he demonstrated that creativity in research had a log normal distribution. It worked whether you took papers published, or patents published, or whatnot. But if, let's say, in a research laboratory, half the publications are attributable to ten percent of the people there, then half of that half, a quarter, would be attributable to one percent of the people there, and half of that to a tenth of a percent of the people there. And it only saturates when you get to the point where people have so many ideas coming so fast that the physical job of simply writing down their ideas is what limits them. And I believe that to be a true perception.

But the other thing that was interesting to me, and again I think there might be a little truth in it, was that he had a theory as to how this comes about. And he said, "If you want to invent something, you really need to be able to carry a number of ideas in your mind all at the same time," and he gave the example of the starter motor in a car. I can't remember the set of ideas that he had, but, I mean, one — the internal combustion engine is not self-starting. Secondly that you could have an electric motor that would do it. Thirdly, that you could put a battery in to drive the electric motor. Fourthly, the alternator to charge the battery. Fifthly, a disengaging gear, so that having started it retracts. Anyway, so I think he said you need five or six ideas in your mind. You really do have those ideas in your mind more or less simultaneously. Let's say it was five ideas. So if you are a chap who can only carry four ideas in your mind at the same time, you have zero chance of inventing the starter motor. If you can carry five ideas you can — you have a chance. If you can carry six ideas, you may have five fruitful ones and one irrelevant, but you probably have six times the chance of doing it. If you can carry seven ideas, probably you have forty-two times the chance of doing it. Okay, I mean it a hand-waving kind of an argument —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

— but I suspect there is a — an essence of truth in — in that. And I think it accounts for —

Nebeker:

People who are able to retain ideas and understand —

Ash:

Well, this is just memory —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

— but I'm sure it applies to other things. And I happen to believe it applies very widely in music, you know. Over the last three centuries, I could live if we only had retained twenty of the composers who had ever lived, you know. I would be perfectly happy with that. Not because I'm a square, but I think most people would not find too great a loss —

Nebeker:

Right.

Ash:

— if we only had twenty composers. Being a composer is difficult, and being a scientific genius is also very difficult.

Nebeker:

Yes. I want to ask you about — you told me a little bit already — about your consulting to industry.

Ash:

Yes?

Other Consultancies

Nebeker:

Have you had other connections, besides —

Ash:

Oh, yes.

Nebeker:

— G.E., S.T.L., and —

Ash:

Yes. I still consult for quite a number of places. I will say one thing, and that is that I have not usually consulted for more than one company at a time. I think it is perfectly possible to do. I mean, you can, you know, you can keep things separate and all that. I just found it more comfortable not to have to worry about it. And, indeed, one of the things I liked about consulting for G.E. was that I was not consulting to any companies in the U.K. at that time, which meant that when it came to discussing with my students where they might work when they leave, or where we might get support from, I didn't have a personal axe to grind.

Nebeker:

I see.

Ash:

Yes, I have at different times consulted for a number of different companies.

Advising the Government

Nebeker:

You've also been an advisor to government?

Ash:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Could you tell me about that?

Ash:

Yes. Well, I suppose, really, there are three areas where — where I have been involved in an advisory role. One was in defense. I sat on various defense committees for quite a number of years. Mainly concerned with microwave tubes and that sort of thing. Secondly, I was on committees of the S.E.R.C., as it was, the research council — Science and Engineering Research Council. And I was on that for a great number of years, and at one time Chairman of the solid-state committee. And this is concerned with selection of grants from proposals that have come from the universities. The third thing was something that started much more recently, I would say. I'm just trying to remember when it was, but — it probably started — I think actually it started in 1984. And that was a very specific thing. The government wanted to investigate particle physics, because historically a large part of our science budget had gone on particle physics, and people had woken up, in my opinion a decade or so too late, that this wasn't entirely appropriate.

And there was a committee formed under Sir John Kendrew, to advise the government on future expenditure in particle physics, particularly at C.E.R.N. The qualification for sitting on this committee was that you should know nothing about particle physics, and I qualified. That was a very stimulating few months that we spent, and I think we came up with some fairly sensible proposals. Subsequently I was asked to join A.B.R.C., the Advisory Board for Research Councils, which has just ceased to exist in its present form. The government has changed its structure, since the 31st of December, in fact. A.B.R.C. was a body which sat over — above the research councils. The research councils were the Science and Engineering Research Council, the Agricultural and Food Research Council, Economics and Social Research Council, and Medical Research Council. And the total amount of money that was spent by these organizations was of the order of a billion and a half pounds, a billion dollars, and the job of the A.B.R.C. was to advice the government on the expenditure, both total expenditure and the division of expenditure between the research councils. And we gave our advice on it to whichever minister it was that year, and they normally ignored everything we said about the quantity of money that was spent, but on the whole the advice on the division was rubber-stamped. I mean, in other words, although it was notionally an advisory committee it was in practice executive.

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

And that was demanding work, and very interesting work.

Nebeker:

Yes. A lot of pressure was brought to bear, I imagine.

Ash:

Oh, sure. Yes. And there were various subcommittees. I was Chairman of the supercomputer subcommittee, which had to advise government on expenditure on supercomputers. Things went on until the 31st of December, and — yes, that was a — a slightly hot seat, both in facing the academic community, and in facing the manufacturers.

Nebeker:

This would apply mainly to the defense advising you have done, but — one criticism I have heard in the United States is that there are too many physicists on these boards, rather than engineers.

Ash:

I don't think that was true of the defense committees that I sat on. And we have a rather different process in this country. There aren't enough engineers who sit on the boards of companies. Much less so than in the United States, and I think that is something that is being cured rather gradually at this ______.

Ration of Geniuses

Nebeker:

Besides you — your thesis advisor, have you, in your career, come across people who have greatly impressed you?

Ash:

Yes.

Nebeker:

In one way or another?

Ash:

Yes, certainly. I mean, I think the person I would put at the top of that list is Calvin Quate at Stanford. He is a remarkably inventive person, and, you know, has a number of really quite sparkling firsts to his name. But above all, I mean — I mean, he is to my mind a supreme example of a lateral thinker. He is not a great analyst, but he simply looks at a situation and puzzles about it and comes up with, sometimes, remarkably simple answers. I would put him in the genius class. I'm talking entirely about people I have personally encountered, you know.

Nebeker:

Right, that's what I am asking you about, rather than —

Ash:

You'll see a lot of books there [indicating his bookshelf?], and — all of which published in the last year. There is a science book prize given in the U.K., and I was one of the judges this year, so I have read a great deal. So, I mean, I have no doubt in my mind that Steven Weinberg is a genius, but I have never met the bloke.

Nebeker:

Well, I am interested in those that you have known personally.

Ash:

The second person I would cite is Rudy Kompfner. I don't know if that is someone that you —

Nebeker:

Yes, I know the name. I —

Ash:

Yes. I mean, he died quite a few years ago.

Nebeker:

I can't think why I know the name —

Ash:

Well, I mean, very briefly he was a refugee from Austria, trained as an architect and a radio ham, a sort of amateur radio chap in his spare time. He sat in the library when he came here to London and wrote a paper in a fairly lowly journal called Wireless World which the Admiralty picked up, and recruited him to work on defense during the war, and he invented the traveling wave tube. He also invented a great number of other things too.

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

And he again was a sort of inventive genius type.

Nebeker:

And how did you come to meet him?

Ash:

I suppose I first met him — he left the U.K. and went to Bell Labs, and I first met him when I was working at S.T.L., and I visited Bell Labs. That was my first personal encounter with him. But I got to know him very well, and indeed socially later. And when he retired from Bell Labs, he divided his time between Oxford and Stanford, and so I got to know him quite well during his Oxford times as well. So I think I would put him into this class. And — and a third person, without any question in my mind, is George Porter. Do you know who he is at all?

Nebeker:

No, I don't.

Ash:

Okay. Well, he was a Nobel Laureate. He is a chemist. I got to know him in detail because he was the Director of the Royal Institution in London, and I became a member, and was in fact the secretary of that institution for a number of years, so I got to know him well. And, indeed, whilst I was there I was told that being the secretary didn't involve much time. What they didn't tell me was that if you lose the Director you have got to find a new one, and George Porter became the President of the Royal Society, and so we had to find a new director. But at that time he said that he would be winding up his research work, which he was doing [while] in the Royal Institution — he was a photochemist — and become an elder statesman. I told him that I simply didn't believe it, and that what he really ought to do was take his team and bring it to Imperial College. And I eventually persuaded him to do that, and he is there to this day with a very viable team doing extremely good work in photosynthesis using laser techniques. But — I mean he is a — a genius in the sense that he invented a new branch of chemistry, high-speed photochemistry, which he got the Nobel Prize for. But he is also a fantastic portrayer of science to the lay public. What is now called the public understanding of science, which he in fact evolved during his time of presidency of the Royal Society. It was very much his pitch. And, of course, he came from the long tradition of the Royal Institution. I mean, the first person that started there was Michael Faraday. He first started their discourses, which were discourses given to the public at large.

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

I think that is my ration of geniuses.

Nebeker:

That's very interesting. I think I have — have asked what I — what I intended to — to ask about. Are there any things you would care to comment on, or —

British Telecom, The Amp Corp. and Bosch

Ash:

Well, one thing that perhaps might be worth touching on. You asked about my industrial consultancy. For the last six years, until last year, I was a — a member of the board of B.T. [British Telecom], and I found that absolutely enormously interesting. I mean, I don't know how much you know about B.T.?

Nebeker:

Not very much.

Ash:

I mean, it was a public utility, and was privatized in about 1983, I think, and it is one of the privatizations which in — to my mind, has been a roaring success. I am not a very political animal, and I have voted for all three political parties at different elections, never very happily. But I think that what the Conservatives did in privatizing B.T. was absolutely right, and — and from being a rather sleepy government agency it has become a very dynamic company. It is a company with a — I think — I'm quite bad at numbers, but with a turnover of something like — getting on for twenty billion dollars a year, something of that sort. Embarking on a very exciting time in communications technology, being on the board of that company was — was, to me, absolutely fascinating. One normally doesn't serve for more than six years on — on the board, so I retired after six years. I am about to join another board in this country, the Student Loan Company, which is — is responsible for student loans, and I sit on the national advisory board of the Amp Corporation in the States. Do you know about them at all?

Nebeker:

No.

Ash:

Okay. That is a fascinating part of my life at the moment. The Amp Corporation is a three billion dollar a year company, mainly known for plugs and sockets, so the things on the back of that machine are probably Amp plugs and sockets. It is high technology of an old-fashioned kind, if you see what I mean, and making plugs and sockets that work is quite difficult, especially if you've got sixty-four contacts to make.

Nebeker:

Right.

Ash:

It's not so easy. But, nevertheless, it is just a plug and socket. They have announced that they want to be a ten billion dollar a year company by the year two thousand, and the way they are doing it is with — with new high-technology products, specifically in opto-electronics, a very major part of their thrust. And they have an international advisory board. Well, it's not very international; I'm the only non-U.S. chap on it, but an advisory board anyway, which meets four times a year. There are various things we do, also in Europe. I find that very interesting. And I also sit on the international advisory board of the Bosch Company, in Germany.

Nebeker:

Oh, yes.

Ash:

That really is international. There's one chap from each country. Incidentally the chap from the United States is Henry Kissinger, which is rather fascinating to meet him in the flesh and —

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

He is a — enormously impressive on this sort of thing. Probably _______. He gave his own lecture each time on the state of politics each time in the United States. Even if one reads, you know, the obvious journals fairly regularly you get a completely different insight such a direct contact. Anyway, those are the things I am doing with industry.

Family

Nebeker:

I see. And — And you — you have enjoyed this, being on — on boards of directors?

Ash:

Yes. I enjoy it enormously. The other thing is that I approve of making money. Now, academics don't make much money, and by the time they're pensioners the pension scheme doesn't tend to be terribly generous. Having been Rector of Imperial College I haven't done too badly, but actually I have found money is rather useful stuff! I mean, I have never gone out to get loads particularly, but being on boards is a help in that direction. I have five daughters, who are or will get married at one stage or another, which is an expensive form of fun, and — and they keep on having babies these days. But they are all, sort of well off my hands, except one of them has, sort of, decided that she needs to get an M.B.A. from the London Business School, and so the fees in that are fairly expensive. So there are reasons for having money rather than just gathering the stuff.

Nebeker:

Yeah, sure.

Ash:

Do you have children?

Nebeker:

Two children.

Ash:

That's a sane, sensible sort of family. We had two daughters and then we had a third that we didn't particularly remember inviting, and then my wife had this very odd idea that three is an odd number and really we ought to have a fourth.

Nebeker:

Yes.

Ash:

And that's when we had girl twins! So at that point we decided that was it.

Nebeker:

Well, thank you very much.

Ash:

Oh, not at all. As you know, academics like nothing more than talking about themselves. I suppose most people do actually. I'll always remember, once [tape pauses for a second] —

Nebeker:

Unless you'd rather not.

Ash:

No, that's okay. But in industry — I can't remember the circumstances. When I was working in microwave tubes, we were going to visit a competitor's laboratory. We had some reason to talk to them about this. And I said, "Surely they won't tell us anything?" And the person I was with, who was older and more experienced, said, "The real problem will be to get them to shut up! Engineers love talking about things."

Nebeker:

Yes.