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: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick