Obituary: Geoffrey Gaut

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The Independent Online
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.