Obituary: Paul Vigoureux

PAUL VIGOUREUX'S work had a profound impact on the exactness of science and technology. Through it, and in the translation of key documents between French and English, he helped greatly in the process of reaching agreement as to what the International System of Units, the SI, should be. Where necessary he would gently remind over-enthusiastic pedants that "units are made for people, not the other way round".

He was born in Mauritius in 1903, and came to London to study, winning a scholarship to the City and Guilds College in South Kensington. After graduating in Electrical Engineering he went on to acquire post-graduate qualifications, followed by a long and productive research career at the National Physical Laboratory and with the Admiralty Scientific Service.

Aside from his wartime work in submarine detection, Vigoureux made notable contributions to the units of electricity and magnetism - particularly to the shape and introduction of the SI units. He authored and co-authored a number of scientific papers and several technical books, and one on cookery, Cook It the French Way (with Barbara Wilcox, 1949), which included many of his mother's recipes. He spent his career in the United Kingdom Scientific Civil Service, initially and latterly at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), with an intermediate period in the Admiralty Scientific Service.

Vigoureux devoted much of his life to metrology, the science of exact measurement, at the National Physical Laboratory. He began with electrical measurements, working with D.W. Dye and J.E. Sears (two of NPL's contemporary giants of metrology) on improving the Ayrton-Jones primary electrical standard current balance. He also worked with Dye on the quartz crystal technology, which is found in nearly every wristwatch today; the Institution of Electrical Engineers awarded him its Duddell Premium in 1930 for a paper on the subject. His book on quartz crystals, Quartz Oscillators and Their Applications (1939), is a monument to his early ultrasonics interests. (Quartz oscillators were used for medical ultrascans, echosounding and clocks.)

In 1935 he played a part in helping Sears to break the international deadlock which was preventing the introduction of the Giorgi metre-kilogram- second (MKS) system of units - resulting in the committee concerned voting for one solution but actually recommending the one put forward by Sears! With Clifford Webb he wrote a classic book on electricity and magnetism, Principles of Electric and Magnetic Measurements (1936), which anticipated the global adoption of the MKS units in 1948 as the SI, in place of the centimetre-gram-second (CGS) system.

In 1938 Vigoureux joined the Admiralty Scientific Service. His parting metrological shot of that era is uncharacteristic, but memorable. The international body which governs such things, the General Conference on Weights and Measures, had wanted to change the value assigned to the voltage unit against the advice of the UK experts. To the great delight of his former NPL colleagues and UK electrical engineers Vigoureux was, from his new address, able to publish a paper at that time reminding the CGPM that "it has been well said that the man with an unchangeable mind is an unchangeable ass".

He was then posted to the naval base at Portland, where he worked with colleagues on a receiver designed to improve the echo detection of U-boats. By the end of the Second World War this highly successful receiver had been installed in almost every ship of the Royal Navy.

After the war he spent a short time as Chief Scientist of the Torpedo Experimental establishment at Greenock, and in 1948 took charge of the Acoustics section of the Admiralty Research Laboratory (ARL) at Teddington in Middlesex. In 1955 he was posted to Washington as Scientific Adviser to the Admiral, British Joint Services Mission, returning to ARL near the end of 1957.

He returned to NPL early in 1958 as head of his old section, and although he ably managed a large group of metrologists until 1970, he also sustained his scientific researches. During this period he wrote a student book on electricity and magnetism, applying the gyro-magnetic ratio of the proton to measuring flux densities and monitoring the absolute value of the ampere.

Vigoureux was an excellent proof-reader and had an awesome memory. He could quickly locate a relevant equation in one of his series of meticulously written laboratory notebooks some 40 years later. He never really retired from NPL and continued to contribute to metrology in several ways including accurately computing electromagnetic fields in particular situations and writing the subsequent reports.

His many scientific lectures in later life were delivered in a measured, clear and audible style which was greatly appreciated at international meetings by his many foreign colleagues. He was bilingual in English and French. His clarity of thought and expression were reflected in his notes and translations of the proceedings of technical meetings which he had learned to produce in a very legible shorthand. Characteristically he kept careful diaries which, I understand, are written in shorthand, in German, and backwards.

He was rather short-sighted and was charmingly grateful that a cataract operation a few years ago left him able to survive without spectacles - by seeing where he was going with one eye and reading with the other. He was private, kindly, austere, well-liked and very courteous. He was a devout Catholic; early in his career he left science for a short time while he considered joining a religious order.

A perfectionist, Paul Vigoureux taught himself German and several other subjects, and was also good at Latin and Ancient Greek. It was no surprise to visit him in hospital and find him using the time to work through a physics textbook.

Joseph Evenor Paul Louis Vigoureux, metrologist: born 12 February 1903; ISO 1967; died West Molesey, Surrey 15 April 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own