Gerry Martin

Innovative electronics engineer and quiet philanthropist
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The Independent Online

Trevor (Gerry) Martin, instrument maker, electronics engineer and philanthropist: born Alvechurch, Worcestershire 26 March 1930; managing director, Eurotherm 1965-75; married (one son, two daughters); died Wivelsfield, East Sussex 14 January 2004.

Gerry Martin was a quiet genius of the electronics industry. With three colleagues working from premises above a shop in Worthing, he handbuilt the astonishingly successful firm Eurotherm, the world leader in thermal control. He then spent the next 30 years of his life giving away the rewards of his corporate imagination with an unseen and undocumented liberality.

Martin's life became that of the great mentor - a stimulator, supporter, funder and catalyst for academic enquiry into a dozen different scientific fields in which he was recognised as having often a pre-eminent knowledge and understanding. From his early years as an apprentice instrument maker, for example (he never went to university), he became perhaps the leading figure in the history of scientific instruments and one of the greatest experts in the history of the microscope. His field of enquiry covered history, social anthropology, artificial intelligence, corporate and management organisation innovation in science and medicine, global economic influences and material science.

The breadth of his personal knowledge in subjects unrelated to arcane advanced electronics was breathtaking - he could, without reference to texts, converse at length on the changes and advances over one century in microbiology or metallurgy or the history of art or the encumbrances to the development of science in early medieval China or Japan. In 2002, with his friend Alan Macfarlane, Professor of Anthropological Science at Cambridge University, he published two books on the history of glass and its role in the advance of Western science, Glass: a world history and The Glass Bathyscaphe: how glass changed the world.

This ability to galvanise, to engage and enquire on a myriad of subjects, made him a figure not unlike that that similarly discreet academic Jacob Burckhardt. The immense intellectual capacity demonstrated in mastering aspects of Chinese, Japanese and Korean early science was bewildering in the context of a man who had time to organise seminars around innovation, creativity and achievement in half a dozen universities and who travelled many times around the globe.

And yet he was known, and indeed revered, only in the corridors of Oxford, Cambridge, Sussex, Birmingham and London universities and among the engineering and corporate élite of the electronics industry who knew of his pioneering work in the 1960s and 1970s in that field.

Gerry Martin was born in Alvechurch, near Birmingham, in 1930 and went to the local grammar school, preferring to go straight into industry as an apprentice instrument maker at Ether Industries. His father, George, worked for Scammel Trucks. In 1951, within three years, he was despatched to Chicago by the managing director to spend nine months with Wheelco Industries to improve manufacturing co-operation between the two companies. He recorded the observation at the time that his US colleagues did not understand instrument making.

He next moved as Technical Director to West Instruments, set up in Brighton to make temperature-control systems. After a change in direction following the death of the company's co-founder Dick West in an air crash, Martin and West Instruments' chairman, Jim Hartnett, in 1965 created their own company, Eurotherm, with the brilliant Mike Somerville and imaginative Jack Leonard. These four designed, manufactured, assembled, packaged, sold and delivered their products. Martin mortgaged his home to raise money for the business. They started above shops in Ann Street in Worthing, West Sussex, moved to an old bedding store in Chatsworth Street and then to a factory in the Broadwater estate.

Jack Leonard describes Gerry Martin as a most innovative thinker, intelligent and not inhibited - because he had not been to university he had not been told "you couldn't do it". He created a novel organisation for that time - an open social structure - motivated by giving as free a rein as possible. Industry was emerging from feudalism - it was a world where everybody knew their place but Martin had this sense that everyone employed there was equal. "There was no clocking in - people were trusted to arrive on time," recalls Leonard. At the same time engineers were employed to sell the instruments and when they went to the customer they could see what it was the client needed and understand what the firm needed to make.

Within four years the company had a turnover of £1m and a growth rate of 20 per cent - they simply overtook all the competition. At this time Martin was setting up Eurotherm companies with local nationals all over the world - in the first five years companies were established in the United States, Germany, France and Switzerland. Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Korea, Holland, Belgium and Austria followed. As Peter Tonkins, the current managing director, reflects, the company was very nimble and responsive: "We configured to what the customer wanted." It was product innovation on proven technology.

Semi-conductors were introduced to an industrial world relying on fragile and inaccurate galvano-metric measuring systems. And later imaginative work by Brian Chessel transformed non-linear signal recording into linear, using polynomials - enabling three separate recordings of such features as humidity, temperature and pressure to be recorded in linear form on a single piece of paper at the same time. This was the Chessel Strip Chart Recorder. The firm also created the Shackleton variable-speed motor with high technical specifications to allow for such uses as printing.

When Eurotherm went to the Stock Exchange in 1978 the initial public offer was 82 times oversubscribed and the shareholders, including many of the staff who had been given shares in the company, became millionaires overnight. Martin had by then left. When asked by a young engineer as it went public what his response was, he said, "It has been an interesting day."

Before Martin departed Eurotherm to pursue his other interests he had set aside some of his shares for a charitable body to support scientific and intellectual enquiry, the Renaissance Trust, and this provided much of the finance for his work in the ensuing years. Martin had been much influenced by Professor David McClelland at Harvard, whose book The Achieving Society (1961) had kindled his interest in what it was that triggers change, innovation and new developments in science, manufacturing, society, cognitive science and artificial intelligence.

Margaret Boden, Research Professor in Cognitive Science at Sussex University, characterises Gerry Martin as a man with vision and the imagination to realise when a project was interesting: "He was aware they were risky, they might in some sense fail. He was hugely generous and he took the pressure off people - he never left them with an attitude that he had funded the subject and expected a result." He encouraged people to go off and start by themselves but keep in touch - as he had at Eurotherm, by creating smaller companies. He also believed that every five years you should change everything, because people in organisations stagnate and need new challenges and new ideas to confront. Kind and considerate, he never pushed himself forward. As Boden recalls, "He always spoke in a quiet voice."

At Birmingham University Aaron Sloman, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, remembers Martin as a mentor who showed him ways of management then unthinkable in university life - such as proper interviewing of job candidates. He had several ideas about organisations - the job of management was to state the problem; if you have a good way of doing something, try to make sure it is done and recognised by others and that new colleagues continue that style: encourage teamwork.

Martin's facility at construction enabled him to rig up such a hugely powerful searchlight in his garden that the police were called after Gatwick airport, 30 miles away, recorded that it was confusing pilots who mistook it for the airport landing approach light.

A friend recalls how when he gave their daughter a present of a hatter's stand which did not work he simply recreated the damaged parts in his workshop and returned the next day with a fully functioning piece of equipment.

The Oxford Museum of the History of Science acknowledges Martin as one of its principal benefactors and he gave generous support to the Whipple Museum of Science in Cambridge as well as paying for the photographic equipment in both places. At Oxford he paid for the feasibility study that enabled the extensive expansion of the museum, and was responsible for the funding of accommodation for the Professor of the History of Science. At Imperial College, he funded the visiting professorship held by Gerard Turner. Through the Scientific Instrument Society, he funded the creation of the Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers, published in 1995.

Between 1990 and 1995 Martin's "Achievement Project" covered six symposia and the Museums Seminars in London, as well as three international conferences. He also partly funded seminars at King's College, Cambridge, evaluating scientific progress between the East and the West.

In 1996 Gerry Martin was awarded an honorary DSc by Sussex University.

Patrick Reade