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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness