Professor Barrie Chaplin, 1924-2021

  • Date

    Mon 12 Apr 21

G B B “Barrie” Chaplin, whose funeral took place on 11 March, was a British engineer, inventor, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Essex.

He was possibly the last survivor of the group of truly great innovators that represented the golden age of modern electronics which flourished in the aftermath of World War Two.

He was a founding father of modern electronics, having been one of the first to devise circuits for the transistor which, in its initial form, saw the light of day in 1949.

These circuit designs, devised by Chaplin (some with co-authors) principally in the 1950s, have since become standard building blocks for the complex analogue and digital electronic systems of today.

His remarkably creative career continued unabated until retirement in 1989, during which, he pioneered many seminal technology breakthroughs such as the creation of the world’s first transistorised digital computer and the invention and development of active noise and vibration cancellation technologies.

He worked alongside Alan Turing at Manchester University while completing his BSc, MSc and PhD, then after working at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) Harwell he moved into industry with leading electronics firm Plessey.

In 1966 he moved back into academia to establish the Department of Electrical Engineering Science at the University of Essex. He attracted outstanding individuals to his departmental team including Brian Gaines, John Gedye, Ken Cattermole, John Sparkes, John Turner and Rod Smith.

For more than four decades he pioneered many important technological breakthroughs such as the invention of the world’s first transistorised digital computer, the invention of the world’s first transistorised sampling oscilloscope, and the invention and development of active noise and vibration cancellation technologies. His inventive output was prolific and wide-ranging, producing an extraordinarily long list of patents and important technical papers and publications throughout his career.

The public interest around his many inventive breakthroughs meant that they were often featured on national television, on popular science shows such as Tomorrow’s World.

Throughout his career, companies and institutions from all over the world were constantly inviting Professor Chaplin to join them, notably in the USA, including Hewlett-Packard and Stanford University, but he turned their offers down predominantly on the basis that acceptance meant he would have had to move away from the UK on a permanent basis, which he was not prepared to do.

He also received invitations from companies and institutions within the UK, and a particularly notable example of this was in the 1960s when Lord Weinstock invited him to become Technical Director of the British technology giant, GEC (General Electric Company) – a prestigious appointment which commanded an automatic knighthood. However, he declined the offer as acceptance would have effectively put an end to his research work, and that was simply not negotiable as far as he was concerned.

World War Two, Manchester University and working in industry

He served with the RAF during the war, maintaining radar and navigation systems on Lancaster heavy bomber aircraft, an activity for which the squadron leader noted he had a special flair, suggesting he should go on to university when the war ended. He did, after he was released from the RAF in 1947, gaining his BSc, MSc and PhD in Electrical Engineering at Manchester University by 1953.

At Manchester University, he worked alongside the father of modern computing, Alan Turing. He then moved on to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) Harwell in 1953 as Principal Scientific Officer, being promoted to the post of Special Merit Senior Principal Scientific Officer in 1955, before becoming Technical Manager in 1959 at the research facility (Roke Manor) of the influential electronics company, Plessey, where he was promoted to Chief Scientist in 1960. During his time at AERE and Plessey, he worked with the inventor of the modern transistor, William Shockley, and other innovators at Bell Laboratories in the USA such as John Bardeen and Walter Brattain.

Professor Chaplin at the University of Essex

Professor Chaplin was invited to join the University of Essex in 1966 by founding Vice-Chancellor Sir Albert Sloman, where he established the Department of Electrical Engineering Science in that same year, the forerunner of our School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering.

Professor Chaplin devised the four original undergraduate electronic engineering degree courses, and attracted key luminaries to his departmental team including Brian Gaines, John Gedye, Ken Cattermole, John Sparkes, John Turner and Rod Smith.

This team helped build the University of Essex’s international reputation for research in electronic engineering, working with commercial companies and academic institutions throughout the world.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster said: “The scope and impact of Professor Chaplin’s work is incredible. His energy, inventiveness and vision meant he played an important part in creating the technology which now underpins our modern world.

“He has left a lasting legacy at Essex and in the wider world through his research, his inventions and his commitment to developing the next generation of electronic engineers.”

Professor Chaplin’s son, Andrew Chaplin, said: “Dad’s creativity helped revolutionise much of the technology we now take for granted. His focus was always on progressing his scientific research, coming up with the next concept and making it happen. It was his work in the research laboratory that was his great love. His inventiveness continued unabated until he retired in 1989, enabling him to focus more on his passion for sailing around the East Anglian coast.

“During his abundantly productive career, many of his inventive breakthroughs markedly enhanced the technological capability of the world.”

In 1968, Professor Chaplin founded the UK’s first university-based (self-funding) industrial electronics engineering development centre at Essex, known as the Essex Electronics Centre.

Andrew said: “Dad’s creativity was not just confined to technological innovation. He was concerned that academia and industry should work more closely together.”

Professor Chaplin set up the Essex Electronics Centre specifically to support small local Companies. Discussing its establishment, he said: “The small manufacturing company provides a substantial contribution to our national income, and its continued success is essential to our national prosperity. Almost all small UK manufacturing firms have products and production processes which are predominantly mechanical technology. But owing to their small size, few have the resources to keep abreast of all the electrical, electronic and other non-mechanical technologies.”

Many successful and profitable tie-ups between academia and industry emerged from the Essex Electronics Centre which, through Professor Chaplin’s endeavours, secured research funding from a broad range of Corporations, Companies and organisations, including the Wolfson Foundation. Professor Chaplin also secured research funding from the Wolfson Foundation for projects outside the remit of the Essex Electronics Centre, all proving to be commercially successful. Remarkably, Professor Chaplin secured no less than three highly sought-after Wolfson Unit grants: in 1973 an award of £33,000 to support the Essex Electronics Centre’s liaison with local small industry regarding the introduction of modern electronic techniques, in 1980 an award of £100,000 to set up a Wolfson Unit for solving industrial noise problems, and a further award in 1980 of £60,000 for introducing small computer systems to local commercial and trading concerns.

In total, in the period 1967 to 1982, Professor Chaplin secured 31 research grants at the University of Essex, received from the Wolfson Foundation, the Science and Engineering Research Council, the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, the Electricity Council, and the General Council of British Shipping; amounting to a combined value in the region of £900,000.

A lifetime of invention

In 1953, Professor Chaplin invented the world’s first transistorised digital computer, which he developed while he was studying for his MSc and PhD at Manchester University. In 1955, he invented the world’s first transistorised sampling oscilloscope. Later, he would develop the electronic self-adaptive sound and vibration cancellation techniques that we now take for granted, for instance, in noise cancellation headphones; the impact of this work can be seen throughout the world today in the silencing of noise and cancellation of vibration in a multitude of environments including ships, submarines, torpedoes, aircraft, land vehicles, electricity transformers, electricity generators and buildings.

His work on sound cancellation attracted the attention of visionary science fiction and science fact author, Arthur C Clarke, who wrote to Professor Chaplin saying that he had some years earlier written a short fiction story about an anti-sound machine, inviting him to his home in Sri Lanka to discuss Professor Chaplin’s anti-sound work and his other inventions; an offer that Professor Chaplin was unfortunately unable to take up at the time.

Professor Chaplin applied his inventiveness in so many diverse areas. Here are some highlights:

In 1962, he designed the first integrated circuits used in UK army wireless sets.

In 1971, he unveiled an electronic system for detecting and mapping glaucoma eye disease in hospital patients, developing the system from initial ideas conceived with John Gedye. It was successfully trialled at St Pancras hospital, soon becoming widely used by UK hospitals.

His worldwide reputation led to his help being requested following the Air New Zealand Mount Erebus disaster in 1979, which claimed 257 lives. Professor Chaplin and his team salvaged and analysed as much data as they could from the airliner’s black box to aid the crash investigation.

He worked on food process automation and the development of lightweight batteries for electric traction vehicles with improved energy capacity and power delivery due to his concern about the detrimental global impact of the burning of fossil fuels.

Another passion was synthesising sound, and in particular emulating the sounds of musical instruments, such as the pipe organ, using the synthesis techniques he had developed for his anti-sound work. His vision was to be able to synthesise any of the world’s classic pipe organs in one instrument, taking up little space, at a fraction of the cost of the creation and installation of a real pipe organ, and effectively with no maintenance cost. Today, musical synthesis is an integral part of the professional and amateur music industry.

Throughout the 1980s, Professor Chaplin invented and developed technologies for the active cancellation of noise and vibration for numerous applications, for both localised and wide area situations. The concept was revolutionary, Professor Chaplin coining the term ‘negative time’, and it was intelligent, in the sense that systems could adapt quickly to a changing noise or vibration environment in order to continually suppress it, and furthermore, the cancellation was selective, enabling wanted sound such as speech to easily be heard in the midst of extremely high-level noise environments.

Applications included noise and vibration cancellation, in for example, ships, submarines, torpedoes, aircraft, land vehicles, electricity transformers, electricity generators and the cancellation of noise in factory environments. His various noise/vibration cancellation patents were subsequently licensed for numerous applications throughout the world.

He realised that his techniques to reduce noise and vibration would have numerous applications not just in civilian settings, but also in the military world, and unsurprisingly the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) became very interested in his work. He consulted for the MoD on various applications using active sound and vibration cancellation, including submarines and torpedoes to reduce their sound and vibration signatures, and helicopter’s rotor heads to reduce mechanical vibration and accordingly reduce noise signatures, as well as lengthening the life of airframes. He also proposed a solution using active vibration cancellation to nullify a vibration resonance problem that was significantly limiting the top speed of the Invincible Class of aircraft carrier ships that the Royal Navy had newly introduced into service at the time.

Inspiring the next generation of electronic engineers

Professor Chaplin had always been very conscious of the need to develop the skills of young people to fulfil the enormous potential of electronic engineering. In particular, he was concerned that science taught in schools was being left behind by technological advances.

In 1968, with the help of the National Electronics Council, Professor Chaplin set up a Link Scheme to link any interested school with its nearest electronics firm, to foster electronic projects within the school. Professor Chaplin, as national co-ordinator of the Scheme, secured the engagement of all the major electronic firms and organisations in the UK, including the Post Office, BBC and ITV. Subsequently, more than 130 successful school links were created in the UK.

In 1969 he devised an Electronic Systems A-level, subsequently spending ten years fighting the Schools Council which refused to approve it on the premise that engineering was too vocational. However, with close support and guidance from Lord Mountbatten, who at that time was chairman of the National Electronics Council, and with whom a firm friendship quickly developed, Professor Chaplin finally convinced the Schools Council to allow a trial period with the A-level being taught at selected schools. The first of these schools was the Colchester Royal Grammar School, its trial class successfully completing the course in 1975. In 1979, the Schools Council finally approved the A-level for the UK’s broad national school curriculum.

His Legacy

Professor Chaplin profoundly influenced and accelerated the development of electronic technology in the world. He was one of those very rare individuals who had an enhanced vision and perception that enabled him to see a potential future with great clarity, and perhaps more importantly, he possessed the ability and drive to make that future a reality.

For Professor Chaplin, it all started with the invention of the transistor. He even created one of the world’s first crude transistors using point-contact crystal diodes that he had salvaged from his wartime service. The world scientific view at the time was that the transistor was not much more than an interesting ‘solid state’ device that might one day replace the thermionic valve which was the mainstay component of electronic systems. But he had the vision to see that to take existing valve-based circuits and essentially attempt to replace the valves with transistors, would hugely limit the much wider potential that he could see for the new device. He could see all those decades ago how the transistor could pave the way for what in time would become known as integrated circuits, thousands or even millions of transistors crammed into one tiny integrated circuit.

Consequently, he embarked on inventing circuits for the transistor ‘from scratch’, circuits that exploited the unique strengths and capabilities of the transistor; and indeed, his circuits are still right here with us today, for instance, in everyday devices we take for granted: computers, phones, radios, televisions, music systems. Just this early stage of his long profusely creative career was quite possibly responsible for foreshortening – arguably by several decades – the development of the modern electronic capability that we all enjoy today.

His legacy and influence will be felt for many more decades to come.

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