Sir James Menter

Physicist and electron microscopist who left industry to become Principal of Queen Mary College, London
Click to follow

James Woodham Menter, physicist: born Teynham, Kent 2 August 1921; Director, Tube Investments Research Laboratories 1961-68; Director of Research and Development, Tube Investments Ltd 1965-76, director 1965-86; Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge 1966-88; FRS 1966; President, Institute of Physics 1970-72; Treasurer, Royal Society 1972-76; Kt 1973; Principal, Queen Mary College, London University 1976-86; married 1947 Jean Whyte-Smith (two sons, one daughter); died Aberfeldy, Perthshire 18 July 2006.

A scientist and industrialist of distinction, James Menter was renowned for his pioneering contributions to the use of transmission electron microscopy for studying the internal structure of crystalline materials such as metals. He carried these out at the Tube Investments Research Laboratories, near Cambridge, where he was Director from 1961. He later moved into academic administration, serving for 10 years as Principal of Queen Mary College, London University.

Menter was born in 1921 and educated at Dover Grammar School, from where he won an Open Scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences. After service as a scientist during the Second World War, working with the Navy on the underwater detection of submarines, he returned to Cambridge University, and became involved in research concerned with the examination of surfaces using electron microscopy.

After a few years he collaborated with others on the examination of gold foils. There was considerable international interest in gaining a better understanding of what changes take place to the internal structure of a metal when it is deformed plastically, i.e. changed in shape. There was much high-quality theoretical work that needed to be tested and strengthened, but no existing methods for forming images of the internal crystal structure.

With the availability of new transmission electron microscopes, possibilities began to appear, but there was a severe limitation because images of the internal structure can only be obtained from very thin specimens. Hence the use of beaten gold foils which were sufficiently thin in patches; very complex structures were revealed.

In 1954 Menter left the university and moved to the newly formed Tube Investments Research Laboratories, a few miles south of Cambridge at Hinxton Hall, where he was one of the very first scientists to join the staff. TIRL had been set up as a long-range research laboratory for the TI Group, which included steel and steel-tube companies, aluminium companies, Raleigh Industries, domestic appliance manufacturers and a number of general engineering companies.

He maintained close links with the university. He had the advantage that a new transmission electron microscope of a much-improved design and performance became available at TIRL, so he tried a new approach by examining very thin flakes of a compound, platinum phthalocyanine, grown from solution. He was hoping, by using a variation in technique, to be able to form images of the periodic structure of the crystal planes in this material.

Much to his delight he succeeded in this, and so he pioneered a completely new approach to obtaining structural information with an electron microscope. His work was published in a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1956. As a result of continued improvements in the performance of electron microscopes since that time, the obtaining of images of crystal lattices is now an important and widely used method for examining the structure of materials.

Menter set up a small group at TIRL to continue with electron microscopy and, together with his colleagues, made a number of advances. Because metals in general have crystal structures with periodic spacings significantly less than those of the platinum phthalocyanine, the direct imaging of metal crystal lattices was not possible at that time. A method involving the use of two overlapping thin films of metals was developed, whereby a periodic image of larger spacing was produced (a moiré image). In this way, imperfections in the crystal lattice of one of the metal films could be viewed at the higher magnification, revealing directly for the first time the lattice distortions associated with a common type of imperfection known as a dislocation. This confirmed by direct observation what had been widely understood from theoretical considerations.

In the meantime, his previous colleagues in Cambridge had been exploring an alternative method for revealing dislocations by electron microscopy that did not involve forming lattice images. Their work was highly important and resulted in considerable active interest worldwide. The TIRL and Cambridge groups maintained close contact during the course of these studies, with advantages to both. At TIRL, the method of preparing the thin metal films by vacuum evaporation techniques resulted in many studies of the growth of single crystal films, which also excited much international interest.

In the early 1960s Menter was appointed as the Director in charge of Tube Investments Research Laboratories. He continued to take considerable interest in the work of his previous group, but now had to become involved in other activities in the laboratory.

An area in which he had already taken a keen interest was concerned with developing a new technique for obtaining fine-scale composition analysis of materials. This emanated from the work of a research student in Cambridge who subsequently joined TIRL. It involved scanning electron microscopy coupled with the collection of X-rays emitted by the specimen under examination. A practical working instrument was designed, and with the help of Menter an agreement was reached with the then Cambridge Instrument Company that they would manufacture for sale the instrument, known as an electron probe microanalyser (EPMA). It proved to be a great success, and many instruments were sold around the world.

In 1966 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His influence within TI was growing, and in 1968 he relinquished his position as director of the laboratories to concentrate on his membership of the main company board, though he continued as Director of Research. Under his guidance, the laboratory had established a high scientific reputation but it did not work closely with the rest of the TI Group. Menter sought to identify ways to provide short-term research support for other parts of the group, including the cycle manufacturers Raleigh and the domestic appliance companies Creda and British Aluminium.

After more than 20 years at Tube Investments, in 1976 Menter accepted an invitation to become the Principal of Queen Mary College of London University. He did not completely sever his links with TI, but remained as a non-executive director for several years. At QMC he concentrated his efforts on determining the overall policy and strategy for the college, especially towards furthering the research activities.

He had arrived at a time of serious cutbacks in university funding, and he steered QMC through this rather difficult period with considerable success. He was well respected and well liked in the college, and retired in 1986.

Don W. Pashley

In 1934, writes Sir John Meurig Thomas, a seminal paper by the Cambridge mathematician G.I. Taylor (and two other independent ones by the Hungarian scientists Michael Polanyi and Egon Orowan) proposed that the existence of a defect known as an edge dislocation could explain why metals failed to exhibit in practice their theoretically computed strength.

For over 20 years thereafter physicists and metallurgists interpreted the strength, deformation, plastic flow and other mechanical properties of solids in terms of this well-defined deviation from a perfect structure. It was not until 1956, in J.W. Menter's landmark paper, that the reality of the existence of the edge dislocation was brought vividly to light. The work described in his 1956 paper brought together Menter's great ingenuity and understanding as an electron microscopist on the one hand, with exceptional timeliness in his choice of material (platinum phthalocyanine) with which to go hunting for the dislocation by direct (so-called, real-space) imaging on the other.

Menter's paper caused great excitement especially among physicists and the forerunners of the now enormous community of natural philosophers nowadays called materials scientists. I well recall the thrill that I personally experienced, working then at the University of Wales, Bangor, when in 1958, I "discovered" it.

I had earlier decided that a quest to determine the chemical consequences of dislocations was to be one of my major scientific pursuits, having felt that, for far too long, chemists like me had been charmed by X-ray crystallographers into believing that the solid state is a paradise of faultless atomic and molecular regularity. In the years that ensued, I read avidly all the papers authored by Menter and his colleagues (notably D.W. Pashley, G.A. Basset and P.B. Hirsch) and I still recall the sense of exhilaration that overtook me on seeing the scientific and artistic beauty of the moiré patterns generated (by Pashley, Menter and Basset, Nature, 1957) from pairs of crystals of similar structures, but with different interplaner spacings. Such moiré patterns could reveal otherwise "invisible" edge dislocations.

My first meeting with Jim Menter, in the early 1980s, took place when I lectured on the electron microscopy of non-stoichiometric solids at Queen Mary College, where I had completed my PhD in 1957, and where he was now Principal. My second meeting came in 1986 when he was chairman of the search committee to appoint a successor to Sir George Porter as Director of the Royal Institution. He was an ardent supporter of the RI, serving on many of its committees and also as chairman of its council, as well as being a frequent attender of Friday Evening Discourses. He gave me tremendous support in my days as Director and he and his wife Jean were a joy to have as guests in the Director's flat prior to the Discourses.

Jim Menter was a man blessed with sensitive antennae, a razor-sharp mind, generosity of spirit and a shrewd sense of opportunity. He also had a splendid sense of humour.