Who Was Alan Dower Blumlein?

Alan Dower Blumlein - 1903-1942

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Who was Alan Dower Blumlein?
What did he do?
Why have I never heard of him?

These are the three questions which are most commonly asked whenever the name of Alan Dower Blumlein is mentioned. It is hardly surprising however, as Blumlein's name does not yet rank among those of other great British engineers, scientists and inventors in the history books, nor will you find his plaudits recounted in carved words on elaborate memorials.

The truth is that Alan Blumlein, though possibly the greatest electrical engineer of all time, and certainly a genius without parallel in the 20th century, would have been forgotten completely, were it not for the dedication and continual hard work of those who knew him, his family who loved him, who determined to bring his name from utter obscurity to the forefront of public attention.

So who was Alan Blumlein? Well, if you lived in the 20th century and listened to and enjoyed music reproduced from record or CD, if you watched television or travelled safely in an aeroplane from one country to another, then the life and work of Alan Blumlein has touched you; for it was he who made these things - and more - possible.

The Life & Works of Alan Dower Blumlein

Born in Hampstead, London in June 1903, Blumlein had graduated from City & Guilds in 1921 with a first class degree in Heavy Electrical Engineering. This in itself would not bear mention were it not for the fact that by age thirteen the precocious and often eccentric young Blumlein could still not read and write. He simply found no need for the skill and, as with all things in his life up to this time, if he saw no need, he showed no interest. It was only through sheer determination upon realising that in order to advance his passion for everything electrical, that Alan Blumlein set himself the task of learning to read detailed reference books on his chosen subject.

Alan Blumlein aged twelve in 1915

Alan Dower Blumlein, aged 12, 1915

His career initially took gradual steps. In 1925, he co-published a somewhat elementary paper on basic electrical principles in Wireless World. Though presented the following year to the IEE and subsequently awarded for the work, Blumlein would only return once to the printed word in order to enlighten the world of his thinking. Following a short but eventful career with Standard Telephones & Cables, during which he applied for the first of his 128 patents, Alan Blumlein applied for a position at The Columbia Graphophone Company in early 1929. There he would meet his employer, mentor and later friend, Isaac Shoenberg (later Sir).

Shoenberg was looking for an engineer to design and construct a recording mechanism which could overcome the patent which Bell Laboratories were imposing upon everybody in the record making business. Blumlein set about designing the elements of a recording and reproducing system which, by 1930, had successfully bypassed the Bell system and would go on to earn Columbia a fortune. One day in 1931, while at the cinema with his fiancée Doreen, Blumlein enquired of her if she had noticed how the voice for the person on the screen only ever came from one place. Not being of a technical nature, Doreen said that she had not. "Well, I have a way of making the voice follow the person", Blumlein replied. This casual remark was the first indication of the train of thought which would lead to Alan Blumleins 'Binaural Sound' patent, arguably his best, and certainly to become one the most important advances in audio engineering of the twentieth century.

Alan & Doreen Blumlein  - wedding day - 22 April 1933

Alan & Doreen Blumlein on their wedding day, 22 April 1933

Binaural Sound is of course known today as stereo, and works on the basis that human beings have two ears which, because of their orientation on the head, receive sound at slightly different times. This basic principal was ingeniously incorporated by Alan Blumlein in an electronic method which reproduced this effect at two output loudspeakers. Unfortunately, it was so far ahead of its time in 1931, that many of his colleagues at EMI, did not realise its full potential (EMI had been formed earlier the same year when Columbia and HMV had merged). Blumlein continued with this work for several more years making the first stereo recordings and also the first stereo films before binaural was shelved for a more enlightened time.

EMI had, by this time, become involved in the quest to develop a feasible television service. In 1934, the government had formed a committee to investigate the potential of television and this had concluded that a British television service should be developed by the end of 1936. Two companies stood out among those who tendered systems for a television service. Baird Television, whose founder, John Logie Baird, had persisted with a mechanical method of projection which, despite its ingenious complexity, produced poor quality picture resolution. The other company was Marconi-EMI who had decided to work with an all-electronic method of picture transmission and reception using cathode ray tube technology, then still in its infancy.

Several seemingly insurmountable problems presented themselves to these pioneers, not the least of which was that in many cases the entire electrical circuitry of the system needed to be invented from scratch. Luckily EMI possessed an extraordinary set of individuals who, as a engineering team, managed to invent, construct and demonstrate a fully working television system in the now quite unbelievable period of just fourteen months. Alan Blumlein, as leader of the team in charge of developing the circuitry for the new system had possibly the most enormous task. Yet from this period of his life more than half of his 128 patents were to emerge with many of them critical to the eventual 405-line television system that the BBC adopted. In November 1936, a three month trial began with transmissions from Alexandra Palace with the Baird and Marconi-EMI systems transmitting on an alternate basis. By spring 1937, following the conclusion of the trial, the government and the BBC chose the Marconi-EMI system as it had proved far superior to that of Baird.

Blumlein addresses the IEE on High Definition Television - April 1938

Alan Blumlein gives a speech before the IEE on high definition television, 21 April 1938

It is therefore a curious irony that to this day many consider John Logie Baird to be the inventor of the television (though he himself never actually claimed this), and yet his mechanical television system proved inadequate for transmission. It was in fact the team at EMI, who numbers included Alan Blumlein, who should in fact be given the credit for the 'invention' of the system we know as television. As a testimony to their work, the 405-line transmissions (which had originally been intended to only run for a few years before being updated), actually continued until 1986, much as they had during those first trials at Alexandra Palace some fifty years earlier.

With war in Europe looming, much attention was being directed towards a method of early warning against attack from the air. The first practical method of electronic radio detection finding (RDF) or Radar as it would eventually be known, had been demonstrated by Robert Watson Watt in early 1935. These experimental radio detection finding systems and their subsequent developments (which had led to the construction of the Chain Home (CH) system), were shrouded in enormous secrecy. There were however, methods other than radio that could be used for the detecting of approaching aircraft, and it was to this end that EMI and Alan Blumlein now found themselves interested.

Sound detection systems had been tried during the First World War. By 1938, larger, more effect 'ears' to the sky were being experimented with. Blumlein realised that by incorporating the basis of his binaural sound system in to an aircraft sound detector, a much more accurate fix could be obtained. If this were then displayed on a cathode ray tube, a visual indicating system would be available. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, EMI had produced the first of a series of prototype sound detection systems which were used extensively during 1940 and 1941.

Having demonstrated shown the initiative for aircraft detection methods, somewhat surprisingly EMI were not told of the advances that had been made in electronic detection methods. Despite the obvious advantages they had (not the least of which was their extraordinary scientific team), it seemed that the ministry of defence and many of the companies already contracted to produce military electronic hardware, did not consider EMI up to the task. After all, EMI had produced gramophone players and television sets before the war, hardly precision military specification products. Another demonstration of Blumlein's genius would be required to prove to the ministry that EMI should be a part of the radar generation.

During the first months of the war, often referred to as the 'phoney war', much concern was made of the fact that Britain had woefully inadequate methods of detecting aircraft at night. Worse, when British night fighters were finding the German night bombers they were not shooting them down often enough before they lost them again. What was desperately needed was an airborne detection system that could find an aircraft at night. This would then allow the night fighter to home in on an unsuspecting German bomber and close the range between the two aircraft to a distance adequate for the bomber to be brought down.

Despite the incredible secrecy that surrounded the development of such systems, EMI were eventually made aware of the problem. With the expertise they possessed, they developed an airborne interception system that at a stroke not only improved upon any other method, it brought EMI into the radar business which they so desperately wanted.

During the dark months of 1940 and 1941, the war went very badly for Britain. It seemed that little could be done to stop the marauding German advances. British morale was at an all-time low and something needed to be done to show the public that Britain was fighting back. However, with her Navy penned in the Atlantic protecting the vital convoys of food and provisions from U-boat attack, and her armies depleted on all fronts, the only method of hitting back at the Germans was through bombing. Every night bombers flew missions to Germany which British propaganda claimed were hitting the enemy hard. The truth however, was far different.

Alan, Doreen, Simon & David Blumlein in 1940

Alan & Doreen Blumlein with their sons Simon & David in 1940

Bomber Command were indeed flying the missions, but without a practical system for locating the target most bombs that were being dropped were falling literally miles from their intended targets. What was needed was a system that could locate and detect a town from the air, regardless of weather conditions, accurate enough to allow a bomber to carry out its mission. That radar system would eventually be known as H2S and its development would become one of the closest guarded secrets of the war.

The H2S system relied upon the centimetric properties of the cavity magnetron for its success. The magnetron had been invented at Birmingham University in 1940, and allowed far shorter wavelength of pulses to be produced which in turn gave a clearer image on a cathode ray tube display of the terrain below the aircraft. EMI and Alan Blumlein were part of the team that had been contracted to develop and test the circuitry of the H2S system throughout the spring and early summer of 1942.

It was during this series of tests on 7 June 1942, that the Halifax bomber carrying the only prototype H2S system crashed at Welsh Bicknor. Alan Blumlein and two colleagues from EMI, along with eight others were killed. Together they represented the core of the H2S scientific development team.

That the H2S project was finished at all is a testimony to those who remained after the crash. As had been predicted by Blumlein and others, H2S proved to be the instrument that Bomber Command needed.

It allowed navigators to find their intended targets and bomb them with an accuracy never before achievable. Its importance to Britain cannot be underestimated. At a time when the war was undoubtedly being lost, radar provided the opportunity to fight back at an enemy that had seemed invulnerable just months before its introduction. It has often been said that the atomic bomb ended the war, but that radar won it.

Following his death, Alan Blumleins work was shrouded in secrecy. No obituary appeared and no tribute given. For many years, various people promised a biography of this most extraordinary engineer, but none was forthcoming. As time passed those who personally knew him grew old and died; and today but a few remain.

Imagine a world that did not have a record of Faraday, Whittle, Maxwell, Edison or Bell. Given time, Alan Dower Blumlein will receive the credit that he so richly deserves. It was for that reason that Robert Charles Alexander wrote his biography in 1999.

Alan Dower Blumlein is, without doubt, one of the most brilliant engineers of the twentieth century, and one that the twenty-first century will finally recognise.

Some of the men who worked with Alan Blumlein

Sir Isaac Shoenberg

Sir Isaac Shoenberg

George Condliffe

George Condliffe

Leonard Broadway

Leonard Broadway

Eric White

Eric White

Cecil Brown

Cecil Brown

James McGee

James McGee

Felix Trott

Felix Trott

Maurice Harker

Maurice Harker

Herbert Holman

Herbert Holman

Bernard Greenhead

Bernard Greenhead

Henry Clark

Henry 'ham' Clark

Sir Bernard Lovell

Sir Bernard Lovell

William Tedham

William Tedham

Eric Nind

Eric Nind

Edward Cork

Edward Cork

Hans Lubszynski

Hans Lubszynski

Jack Cairns

Jack Cairns

Philip Vanderlyn

Philip Vanderlyn

William Percival

William Percival

 


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