Obituary: Geoffrey Gaut

Geoffrey Charles Gaut, electronic engineer, born Penwortham Lancashire 12 October 1909, Chief Chemist Plessey 1934, Director of Research 1963-85, CBE 1973, died 18 August 1992.

For well over 50 years Geoffrey Gaut was engaged in the development of electronic technology - from its early days in the 1930s, towards its universal application today.

Gaut's career started in 1934 when, after graduating at Oxford University in chemistry, he joined the Plessey Company as its first graduate employee. He was designated Chief Chemist and set up a small laboratory at their factory at Ilford, in Essex, where he began his lifelong involvement with electronic materials and devices.

At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 he volunteered for the RAF having qualified as a pilot with the University Air Squadron at Oxford. However, to his chagrin, his commission was cancelled through the influence of Plessey's founder AG (later Sir Allen) Clark who believed that Gaut would have a special role to play in the war effort to develop electronics and radar. But, in the fury of the bombing in the Ilford area in 1940, Gaut was told to relocate his laboratory in a quieter country environment where research could proceed undisturbed. Thus was founded Plessey's laboratory at Caswell, in Northamptonshire, which, as Gaut said, also kept his young scientific team concentrating and well away from any interference by senior management.

Over the next 50 years the laboratory grew in size and stature to become internationally known as one of the world's leading electronics device and materials laboratories. Gaut was its first director, followed by his protege Derek Roberts (now Provost of University College London), and then myself.

Gaut realised early the importance of solid-state physics and materials science in understanding problems of existing products, as well as being the source of innovations. This set ambitious technical intentions for the comparatively small Plessey Company of that time. But Gaut was adamant that if a laboratory was to be a significant force it needed the most advanced (and expensive) equipment such as electron microscopes, mass spectrometers and much else. Plessey, to its credit, through its chairmen Sir Allen Clark and later Sir John Clark, fully supported Gaut's ambitions - if occasionally with grumbles about the expense.

Gaut made many creative contributions to solid-state passive devices such as capacitors, high- stability resistors, magnetic and microwave materials, reflecting Plessey's products at that time. But in 1957 his initiative in starting research on what was then called the silicon solid circuit proved a major technical event.

A young team (including Roberts) started the first industrial contract in the world in the subject, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. This small beginning and all the subsequent work at Caswell over 40 years helped develop the keystone of electronics today - the silicon chip. It also started Plessey towards becoming a significant player in the world's microelectronics industry.

Gaut's agile and incisive mind was very adept at seeking the roots of interlocking problems in technology. He was always very concerned about failure modes, contamination effects and degradation mechanisms and his concerns became watchwords of his staff.

For example, he once established, solely by reasoning, that a few microscopic metallic dust particles from the container were the cause of problems, baffling to the theoreticians, in a very complex surface acoustic wave filter required urgently for new radars in the Falklands war in 1982. He was also greatly sceptical of detailed business plans that were 'long on engineering development and finance and short on basic science', preferring instead his fine judgement of market possibilities as well as realistic production and technical situations.

In 1963 he was appointed to the board of Plessey as Director of Research. He continued as a board member until 1985 having completed 51 years of service with the company. He continued into his 80th year as a special adviser until September 1989 when Plessey was taken over by GEC and Siemens.

In these final years he continued his imaginative and creative influence, never ceasing to look towards the future for science and technology. He thought deeply about many new ideas, such as high-temperature superconductors with his friend the eminent physicist Sir Nevill Mott. He also turned towards the growing research connection between electronics and biological systems and was planning a research centre in the field.

In his last years he developed a progressive nerve disorder which restricted his mobility. But this was bravely and lightly borne and, as he said, he was now studying biochemistry and electronic systems in his own 'experiment'. He was a notably courteous man and full of good humour. An aviation enthusiast, he qualified as a helicopter pilot at 58. He was also a world traveller to international companies and laboratories with a keen eye for technical business. His intellectual reserve made him an infrequent public speaker but, when he felt it necessary to address a large audience, he was a delight to hear. Similarly, his scientific integrity made him averse to any publicity that he judged premature, and he was critical of today's race to announce scientific or technical 'breakthroughs' - often in the hope of raising research funds.

However, his interests were not only in science. He was an accomplished organist and pianist and an enthusiastic reader of challenging works in many subjects. His country home where he lived for over 30 years showed much evidence of his scientific and innovative mind.

His professional spirit was epitomised in his words: 'It is better to be a little too far out in front and occasionally off course than to be left lagging in the rear.' His colleagues will remember him as a gentleman and a fine scientist who contributed in many ways to the development of electronics both through his own work and through his leadership of others.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot