Obituary: Professor Sir Granville Beynon

Sir John Meurig Thomas
Saturday 16 March 1996 00:02 GMT

Picture the scene: an autumnal Friday evening in the theatre of the Royal Institution, London, in 1979. Halfway through his lecture demonstration on "The Upper Atmosphere", the speaker remarks that

. . . on Friday 1 June 1894, Sir Oliver Lodge gave an historic lecture in this theatre . . . [when] he demonstrated for the first time the possibility of using radio waves for communication purposes - in the lecture he showed how radio waves could be sent from one end of this room to the other across the intervening space.

This lecture was widely reported and in due course printed so that the test became available to workers the world over. It is said that a copy found its way to a young Italian called Marconi and although he knew very little of the science of electromagnetic waves he quickly realised the commercial possibilities of using radio waves for long-distance radio communication and especially the possibility of communicating with ships where cable communication could not be used.

In the late 1890s, young Marconi came to Britain and with the help of his mother's business friends in London he set up the Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Company. A few years later in 1901, Marconi successfully transmitted a radio signal from Cornwall to Newfoundland . . . an epoch-making discovery.

This excerpt from Granville Beynon's Friday evening discourse illustrates well his skill in highlighting turning-points in science and his ability to reach out to lay audiences. What it does not do, however, is reflect his brilliant skills as a communicator to undergraduates.

For a 12-year-period as Lecturer (later Senior Lecturer) in Physics at the University of Wales, Swansea, from 1946 to 1958, he inspired generations of physical scientists with his pellucid and pullulating lectures on the properties of matter and a host of other topics. Each lecture was a work of art. Over a period of 50 minutes, without a scrap of notes, chalk in hand and poised magisterially at a revolving blackboard, he would raise a topic, explain its importance, derive by integral and differential calculus the key equations that gave it quantitative foundation; and then proceed to describe, in ascending order of elegance, the half-dozen or so experimental methods of measuring the property in question - surface tension or viscosity of a liquid, the elastic constants and Young's modulus of a solid. Dozens of academics and industrial scientists who, like me, witnessed these performances agree that they were among the best set of lectures they ever received.

Granville Beynon was born in Dunvant (a name that is a corruption of the Welsh Dwfn-nant, deep vale), a suburb of Swansea, in 1914, and educated at Gowerton Grammar School, and the University of Wales, Swansea, where he graduated in Physics before proceeding to a PhD there (on the ultraviolet bands of organic alcohols in relation to their magneto-optical dispersion). In 1938 he joined the staff of the National Physical Laboratory at Slough, working with the late Sir Edward Appleton. Thus began a close collaboration with Appleton (who received the Nobel Prize for work on the physics of the upper atmosphere in 1947). In 1948 Beynon was appointed lecturer in the Department of Physics at Swansea and in 1958 to the Chair of Physics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, a post he held until his retirement in 1981.

His researches on the ionosphere and in radio propagation carried out over more than 40 years were recognised nationally and internationally, and took him to all parts of the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic. He played a leading role in several international co-operative projects: he was, for example, one of the founding members of the International Geophysical Year (IGY of 1957-58) and was closely associated with that highly visible and eminently successful enterprise for over 20 years. He was one of the founders of a massive radar project (involving six European countries) known by the acronym Eiscat, which was established in Scandinavia to study the high atmosphere at polar latitudes. He made Aberystwyth the Mecca of upper-atmosphere research; and his successor as Head of Physics there was his former student Professor Lance Thomas.

In 1969 Beynon was awarded the Goddard Prize by the National Space Club of America and subsequently gave the fourth Goddard Memorial Lecture at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC. For his contributions to our knowledge of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1973 and appointed CBE in 1959; and he was knighted in 1976. In the field of education he was for 11 years Chairman of the Schools Council Committee for Wales and former President of the Education Section of the British Association. For a long time he edited one of the foremost journals of his field, Journal of Atmospherics and Terrestrial Physics, and intermittently from 1948 to 1962 he edited or co-edited, with his colleague at both Swansea and Aberystwyth Dr G.M. Brown, 10 works on various aspects of the physics of the ionosphere.

Granville Beynon had a lifelong interest in classical music. He was an accomplished violinist; and he conducted, for some 10 years, a chapel choir in his home village, Dunvant. At Aberystwyth he was one of the prime movers (in the early 1970s) in founding an orchestral society - the Philomusica - and was its president from its inception. Frequently at a Saturday concert in the Great Hall in Aberystwyth Beynon was to be seen in the first violins sitting alongside some of his less able science pupils. He led his orchestral colleagues with inspiration and by example.

He loved a game of snooker; and was a passionate and fiercely energetic gardener. He was much loved, and a visit to his home, where one was greeted with a beatific smile by his dignified wife Megan (a fellow physicist whom he met in his Swansea days), was always a pleasure. I still measure the qualities and skills of a lecturer on the Beynon scale.

John Meurig Thomas

William John Granville Beynon, physicist; born Dunvant, Swansea 24 May 1914; Scientific Officer / Senior Scientific Officer 1938-46; Lecturer / Senior Lecturer in Physics, University College of Swansea 1946-58; Professor of Physics, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1958-81 (Emeritus); CBE 1959; FRS 1973; Kt 1976; married 1942 Megan James (two sons, one daughter); died Aberystwyth 11 March 1996.

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