Obituary: Paul Eisler

Gunter Wittenberg
Thursday 29 October 1992 00:02 GMT

Paul Eisler, engineer and inventor, born Vienna 1907, died London 26 October 1992.

AEROPLANES, burglar alarms, computers, dishwashers, escalators . . . and so on through the alphabet - products manufactured anywhere in the industrialised world have at least one type of component in common: printed circuits. In a printed circuit board the traditional electrical wiring is replaced by strips of conducting material laid down by a printing process, which eliminates the laborious manual work of connecting the wires and obviates faults. It makes cheap mass-production possible for interconnections and facilitates the miniaturisation of products like pocket calculators and camcorders.

Paul Eisler was an outstanding pioneer of this technology and invented the foil method of producing printed circuits. He arrived in Britain in 1936, from Austria as a refugee from Nazi persecution. At first his inventions did not obtain commercial backing and he was side-tracked into research and development work for cinemas for Odeon Theatres but with the outbreak of the Second World War he reverted to printed circuits and to patents related to his foil method of their production, in the expectation that the wartime demand for electronic products would provide appropriate opportunities. A City institution considered supporting him financially but then declined; in favour of - as he later learnt - (Sir) Frank Whittle's jet engine project.

Henderson & Spalding, the original printers of Beethoven's music, had had their premises bombed. They saw in printed circuits a chance of getting back into printing and engaged Eisler to head their instrument division after persuading him to assign all future patents on his invention for the nominal payment of pounds 1.

In this capacity he demonstrated the first radio set incorporating printed circuits to hundreds of engineers and military personnel, British, American and Allied. The reaction was most enthusiastic; nevertheless the Ministry of Supply rejected the invention for use in military equipment and no industrial company or government department gave it a trial. US military authorities then developed a proximity fuse fitted with printed circuits. These fuses were incorporated in antiaircraft shells that were deployed at the bridgehead at Antwerp and in others that helped to defend London against the V1 rockets.

Eisler then became technical director of Technograph Printed Circuits Ltd, with the first factory set up to make printed circuits, in the Henderson & Spalding group. Pye (Cambridge) Ltd became the first licensee, followed by Telegraph Condenser Company. In the US, Technograph Inc was set up and attracted 16 licensees.

After a disagreement with the National Research Development Corporation, Eisler left Technograph and subsequently worked on other inventions and developments, including the foil battery and electric surface heating. He continued to take an interest in such work almost until the time of his death.

For his work on printed circuits he received honours and awards in France, Italy and Britain, the last being the 1992 Nuffield Silver Medal awarded by the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The story of Eisler's life and work is described in one of his two books, My Life with the Printed Circuit (1989). In a field as important as this, it is not surprising that there are rival claims to various achievements but in 1969 Eisler had the satisfaction of hearing Lord Harman say in the Court of Appeal: 'There had been many attempts to do something of the sort before and none of them had ever proved useful or got on the workshop floor until Dr Eisler hit on his idea.'

Except for a measure of disappointment that his work was not better known and publicly recognised, Paul Eisler had a satisfying career which brought him into contact with many prominent people and organisations. He was a quiet, gentle person - and a loner who made several unsuccessful attempts to team up with others who might have helped him to the greater material rewards which he deserved for pioneering a technology that did so much to enrich the world.

(Photograph omitted)

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