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Scientists of Wales: Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.

(June 01, 2014)


Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.

Mushroom cloud from the Operation Hurricane atomic bomb test, 3 October 1952Mushroom cloud from the Operation Hurricane atomic bomb test, 3 October 1952
Montebello Islands, Australia

If I were a sociologist looking back on the lives of scientists of Wales who made very significant contributions to international science in the twentieth century, I might wish to comment on what are often referred to as their ‘humble origins’. I would refer to E.G. Bowen (radar), E.J. Willams (atomic physics)), R. T. Williams (toxicity and thalidomide), John Meurig Thomas (chemical catalysts). Each of these came from what was called the working class of the first half of the twentieth century and each knew the consequences of limited financial resources of their homes. This much noted, I might also point out that each enjoyed the experience of a grammar school education, something of a privileged experience, which provided the basis from which their later distinction developed; it also gave to their adult lives financial gains only dreamt of in their childhoods. But I am not a sociologist, so I’ll just tell you the story of Ieuan Maddock who came from humble origins and later worked closely with government ministers and royalty.

Ieuan was born on 29 March 29, 1917 in Gorseinon, a small village between Swansea and Llanelli. His father was a coal miner, who, because of an accident underground, spent the remainder of his career on the surface. His mother, a primary school teacher, was probably the more dominant influence on him, with her determination to see him 'get on', which might have been another way of saying 'get out of here into a different world'. Her aspirations were made explicit to her son by her constant references to Ivor Jenkins, a son of the village who had ‘got on’ and became an engineer of distinction.

After attending his local primary school, Ieuan became a pupil at Gowerton Grammar School for Boys where he performed adequately but not distinctively. His aptitude for mathematics and physics, especially on the practical side, soon became evident and resulted in his attaining the top position in county examinations. This enabled him to be awarded a scholarship to the then Swansea University College; the annual monetary value was £60, but to be repaid. Who said that student loans are new?

At the university he achieved a First Class Honours degree and embarked upon research on optical measurement with Frank Llewellyn Jones, later Professor, as his supervisor. By this time the second world war had started, with the consequence for Ieuan that his intended research was interrupted and his laboratory taken over by the government in the form of the Department of Explosives Research (DER).

This interference with his research aspirations in fact became the means of his entering a new and unexpected career. Finding that he could not resist the DER, he joined them. He became a civil servant, the scientific sort not one famed, allegedly, for slow administration; this would not have suited his ebullient nature, which always leaned towards defining and achieving a goal with the minimum of deference to established traditional practices.

His particular interest, even at school, was in electronic circuitry and a talent for making new instruments and devising innovative circuits to achieve particular ends. In 1944 he moved to Fort Halstead, a research station near Sevenoaks in Kent and, according to the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society (volume 37, 1991), he "began a commitment to instrumentation of first conventional and then nuclear explosions, which occupied his next 20 years. His early work involved more accurate measurement of detonation speed ... ".

In the second half of the 1940s the government of Britain was developing a policy of military defence that included the production of atom bombs. A key figure in this work was William Penny who had witnessed similar endeavours of the U.S., including the Nagasaki explosion in Japan. Penny was largely responsible for identifying the potential of Maddock for leading one of the research groups. This happened in 1949.

Again to quote from the Royal Society memoir, "Maddock’s main contribution to the work of his team was as an inspirer of imaginative thinking and devoted effort. He was a laboratory floor boss, spending as little time as possible on administrative work in his office. He loved to drop in on his staff, question them closely on their current direction, challenge every concept, suggest others and leave them both exhilarated and exasperated to get on with it. He showed a great insight for simple solutions which often eluded his more expert and involved colleagues". Ultimately, his responsibility took him and his team to Australia where he played a crucial part in the test explosions of 3 October, 1952 on Montebello Islands. Since he was primarily responsible for ensuring the precision of all timings of the complex processes and instrumentation of the explosion of an atomic bomb it was almost inevitable, but rather macabre, that Ieuan was nicknamed the Count of Montebello.

The atomic (and later, nuclear) bomb programme of Britain and other countries continued for many years after Montebello. The political context was the Cold War and the scientific context was the development of means of detonating and detecting the explosion of bombs, in the atmosphere and underground. There was a mutual feeling of distrust among governments, even though the notion of a test-ban treaty was being publicly discussed; a partial treaty was signed in 1973. The issues around weapon detection, inspection and destruction continue today to occupy the attention of all governments.

The final phase of Ieuan's career took him from direct research and development activities to the much more frustrating ones of seeking to persuade others to change their ways. This change arose when he joined the team of scientific advisers in the new Ministry of Technology which was created by the government of Harold Wilson in 1964. This ministry was initially headed by Frank Cousins, a former trade union leader, and later by Tony Benn. For the next 13 years, up to his retirement as a civil servant in 1977 at the age of 60, Ieuan took up many battles with British industry. He faced many frustrations not previously encountered, which derived from unthinking adherence to traditional practices, as displayed by management and workers in UK companies. This frustration was also experienced within the upper echelons of the Civil Service where ‘precedence’ was the guiding principle and ‘innovation’ was anathema. As one Permanent Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry put it, "In Civil Service terms he was an unguided missile".

After retirement, his life seemed to move at the same hectic pace, with many invitations to serve on industrial boards of management and with a variety of other organisations. He was in high demand as a speaker at conferences, largely because of his genial nature and pungent, sometimes acerbic but not malicious, style of delivery. He always tried to respond positively to such invitations.

Many honours came his way, perhaps most notably, and unexpectedly to himself, his election as Fellow of the Royal society (F.R.S.) in 1967. He was especially pleased with the award of an honorary doctorate (D.Sc.) from Swansea; perhaps he felt that this was fair recompense because his early efforts to gain a Ph.D. had been interrupted at the outbreak of war. He received a knighthood in 1975.

Let royalty have the last word, from the Duke of Kent who wrote, "When I succeeded Lord Mountbatten as Chairman of the National Electronics Council, I asked Sir Ieuan to be my deputy and he was to prove to be an invaluable ally … when he retired … in 1987 we all greatly missed his wise and pithy contribution, his delicious sense of humour and his characteristically Welsh articulacy. Ieuan Maddock was without doubt one of the most interesting and most delightful men I have known."

Ieuan died in Reading on 29 December 1988, leaving Eurfron his wife since 1943, also from Gorseinon, their only child Robert and a grandchild.

Neville Evans, June 2014

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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