Obituary: William Coates

WITH the passing of William Coates the scientific community in Britain has lost one of its most loved and unusual characters. Generations of schoolchildren saw him in action either live in the lecture theatre of the Royal Institution, in London, or on television. His skills as an improviser, dextrous manipulator, and, at times, human guinea pig or acrobat were exceptional. But beneath the professional, unpretentious showmanship there was the shrewd, inventive technician who, in record time, could translate inchoate or incompletely formulated ideas by a new lecturer into an exhilarating spectacle.

Born in the East End of London in 1919, educated at Shoreditch Grammar School, Bill Coates, like so many of his generation, joined the services in 1939. He entered as a Private and left as a Captain. He served in Norway and other parts of Europe with the Parachute Regiment, and was involved in D-Day operations. After the war he worked for a short period as a technical assistant at Charing Cross Medical School before being recruited to the Royal Institution by Sir Eric Rideal, its Director, in 1948. Although he served under five directors in all, he was particularly closely associated for a period of 13 years with Sir Lawrence Bragg (and his Deputy Professor, Ronald King) and for 20 years with Sir George (now Lord) Porter. The others were EN da C. Andrade and myself.

In Coates's early days as a technician at the RI he was part of a world-class centre for X-ray crystallography, with rotating anode X-ray tubes and automatic single-crystal diffractometers, all made in the workshops. UA Arndt FRS and Sir David Phillips FRS, in whose team he worked, have said that Coates was not only a jack of all trades but a master of most. In the early 1950s, however, his career changed when, on the advice of Professor Ronald King, he turned his attention to lecture demonstrations, so much a feature of the RI from the days of Sir Humphry Davy and the incomparable Michael Faraday. But it was the arrival of Bragg from the Cavendish Chair in Cambridge in 1953 that marked the real turning- point in Coates's career. In a recent anthology, The Legacy of Lawrence Bragg (1990), Coates wrote:

One afternoon in the early 1950s I was repairing an X-ray target in the workshop at the Royal Institution when I suddenly became aware of our new Director standing beside me. After a friendly greeting and an inquiry as to what I was doing, he asked me if I knew that rubber contracted when heated. Rather taken aback by the question, I replied that I did, but had no idea why. He immediately gave me an explanation as to why this happened, and then inquired of the possibility of producing a model to demonstrate this action.

Bill Coates's remarkable skills, which were brilliantly harnessed and further developed by Bragg's successor, George Porter, and by the numerous creative scientists with whom he interacted at discourses, were recognised by the Clothworkers' Company who, conscious of the importance of conveying scientific advances to a lay audience, generously provided funds to establish at the RI the post of Clothworkers' Lecturer and Lectures Superintendent of which Coates was the first occupant. Nine years ago Coates gave a memorable account (with Porter acting as amanuensis) of his experiences and exasperations in performing 'live' at Friday Evening Discourses and in his early appearances on television. (He was sometimes called in as an expert by Raymond Baxter and Esther Rantzen.) He was involved in producing several Open University foundation courses, particularly fine examples being on the discovery of elements of the Periodic Table, and on photochemistry and solar energy.

Coates had a great fund of stories, encompassing his days as a parachutist, near-misses while handling circuits carrying hundreds of amps, temperamental X-ray sources or capriciously explosive gas mixtures. But the one that used to bring him out in a sweat was his recollection of the occasion in 1965 when a glittering array of Nobel Laureates came to the RI to celebrated the 50th anniversary of Bragg's Nobel prize. Bragg's (gold) Nobel medal was on display in the library. But in the preparation of the exhibits Coates had laid down the medal on a drop of mercury and so it gained an unsightly stain. The bullion merchants Johnson-Matthey were hurriedly contacted by phone; and they prescribed the exact temperature of the heat-treatment required to drive off the mercury. Coates claimed that he lost several years of his life before the medal emerged in its pristine glory from the oven. 'I never told Sir Lawrence what had happened.'

Even though he retired officially from his regular post at the RI in November 1986, he never ceased to serve and entertain the young. His skills were especially appreciated by Professor Charles Taylor, whose unique exploration of the relationship between science and music could be raised to a high pitch by Coates. He also assisted the Schools Liaison team at Imperial College, where, from 1989, he served as consultant. Coates, with his engaging cock-robin demeanour and 'can do' approach, always exuding vitality and irrepressible enthusiasm, was himself a popular lecturer, particularly with teachers and schoolchildren. He was also an authority on the way in which Faraday carried out lecture demonstrations, as I was to appreciate when he helped me three years ago to re-enact Faraday's famous lecture-experiments on platinum first given at the RI in 1861.

The RI will never be quite the same without Bill Coates.

William A. Coates, technician: born London 7 November 1919; Clothworkers' Lecturer and Lectures Superintendent, Royal Institution 1948- 86; MBE 1980; died 7 October 1993.

(Photograph omitted)