SOUE News Issue 6

The 33rd Maurice Lubbock Memorial Lecture, 10 May 2007: The Entrepreneurial Bug

Sir Martin Wood, OBE, FRS, Hon.FREng, DL, Honorary President, Oxford Instruments Group plc - report by David Witt

Sir Martin began by recounting some experiences of his youth that had inspired his ambition to found his own company. He gave a light-hearted account of how, when working as a 15-year-old in an old-fashioned factory making farm machinery, he discovered that he could treble the productivity of a drilling machine by drilling holes in three pieces of wood at once. This merely aroused the resentment of the next man in the production line, who could no longer keep up, and won him neither praise nor a pay rise from the foreman. 5d per hour (=2p) was the limit for one of his age!

Then, under the "Bevin Boy" scheme, he spent his three years' National Service in a coal mine, where he was appalled by the confrontational attitudes between management and workforce. Did it have to be like this? Later, after six years of higher education, at Cambridge and Imperial College, he actually went back to the coal industry, now grossly over-qualified (graduates were then very rare in that field). But two years there convinced him that the evil of confrontation was irremediable, and he returned to Oxford.

Here he was offered a job in the Engineering Department by Professor Alexander Thom, but the University declined to fund it, so Thom referred him to Professor Nicholas Kurti at the Clarendon, who did have some money. Kurti, a Hungarian Jew who had come here in the 1930s to escape the Nazis, had a low-temperature research group which needed very high and steady magnetic fields in small volumes, and it was Martin's job to produce the water-cooled magnets. These were powered by a 2 MW dc generator, giving up to 4500 A at 450 V, distributed around the building by uninsulated cables lying on the floor where people had to step over them. The dangers were obvious, and everyone was aware of them, so they never had any accidents! Cooling was by means of 100 tons of water in a tank on the roof.

There were regular visitors from other laboratories, keen on getting into similar low-temperature work themselves, whom Martin used to show around and advise about equipment etc. Some of them asked if he could produce magnets for them, since they were not available commercially, and the Clarendon agreed at first that they could be made in their own workshops. But after a bit there were complaints that this was getting in the way of jobs for their own people, so the arrangement had to end.

But the demand was still there, so Martin wondered whether he should set up a part-time business to manufacture them himself. Nicholas Kurti, far from raising any objection, exclaimed in his Hungarian accent "Vat can I do to help you?!", but did postulate that Martin should continue to work for him too for another ten years, which he did. Kurti was a quite remarkable man. In particular he showed great care and sensitivity towards all those who worked with him, a complete contrast to the confrontational attitudes Martin had come across previously.

In starting his company, which he named "Oxford Instruments" in emulation of its famous Cambridge counterpart, Martin had rather few of the things now regarded as essential in that situation. For instance, he had never heard of a "business plan". He needed little in the way of capital, since customers were happy to make substantial prepayments before their magnets were delivered. What capital he did need came from a bank loan secured on his house. Legal and accounting advice came from two brothers-in-law, and his wife Audrey revealed talents in all sorts of directions for which she had no paper qualifications whatever. In the light of which, Martin suggested that suitable advice to anyone starting a business might be "Marry the right girl!".

The magnets were made at home in the early years, first in the living-room, then in the coal-house, and then in a shed bought for the purpose. The neighbours had little idea of what was going on, nor did the Chairman of the Council Planning Committee, who lived just across the road! This was just as well, since in those days academic Oxford had a deep suspicion of industry. The motor works at Cowley had never been welcomed, and there had been some murky goings on even closer to home in the Owen affair of the 1930s.

Eventually it did become necessary to seek larger premises, and they found a disused slaughterhouse in Summertown, which the butcher was happy to let them use.

But about this time, a new discovery totally changed the nature of the business. Superconductivity had been known about since 1911, but hitherto all superconducting materials had lost this property when carrying significant currents or placed in a significant magnetic field. So they were no good for making the windings of electromagnets. But then at a conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts it was learnt that an alloy of niobium and zirconium had been found not to have these defects, and could be made into thin wire. The implications seemed truly profound.

Martin went home, ordered half a kilogram of this wire, and wound it into a magnet coil, with a lot of guesswork in the design. When cooled to a liquid helium temperature in the Clarendon, it suddenly went superconducting and generated a field of 4 tesla with a mere 20 A from a car battery. This was in April 1962. High-field magnets had been freed simultaneously from the need for large power sources to drive them, and for lots of water to get rid of the heat. This new discovery seemed to presage a revolution in electrical power engineering, and several companies tried to exploit it (BOC, Siemens, Toshiba and Phillips among the larger ones, and numerous smaller ones too). But for the majority of applications, the difficulties proved too great, and most of this activity came to nothing at the time. But in the production of magnets for scientific research, things were different. Oxford Instruments benefited greatly from the cryogenic know-how in the Clarendon, and soon got into a leading position, supplying superconducting magnets worldwide through the 60s and 70s. In retrospect they took enormous risks, but somehow everything prospered.

The company grew and grew, but in the process inevitably changed its nature from the small outfit it had been, where everybody knew everybody else. It became something of a role model for spin-out activities, and in fact five other companies in succession used their Summertown premises for start-up. But the Woods became gradually less involved in running the firm. It went public in 1983, whereupon they had for the first time a significant amount of cash, with which they founded a charity known as the Oxford Trust. Its brief was to promote the application of science and technology, and started by helping local schools with science education, in the belief that this was fundamental to everything else. It then built a centre to house start-up companies, first in Osney Mead, then in Mill Street, but because such activity could not really be classed as "charitable", it was handed over to a company, Oxford Innovation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Oxford Trust, aimed at supplying accommodation and specialist services to small companies. This arrangement was acceptable to the Charity Commissioners.

The Trust then set up "Oxfordshire Investment Opportunity Network" as a sort of marriage bureau between small companies and "business angels" with money to invest. The sums invested were frequently not small at all, ranging up to £1 million or more, and there seemed to be a need for something to offer smaller sums to those who were really only just starting, and "Oxford Early Investment" was the result.

The result of all this was that by means of intelligent, technically well-informed networking, Martin claimed that the Oxford Trust had made a real change to the industrial infrastructure in Oxfordshire (and Cambridgeshire too). And of course spin-out companies from the local Universities were now a common phenomenon.

This concluded the main part of the lecture, but there was still time to demonstrate some technical achievements.

  1. Around 1952, the lowest temperature that had been achieved was about 0.25 K, by vigorous pumping with 3He. It had later been suggested that since 4He was "superfluid" at these temperatures, a layer of 3He diffusing into it would effectively be evaporating, so it might be possible to get still lower temperatures that way. The Atomic Energy Authority wanted to place a contract for the development of apparatus for this purpose, and Oxford Instruments won the contract, in competition with Phillips of Eindhoven and Arthur D Little of Cambridge Massachusetts. The apparatus was very difficult to develop, and quite complicated to use, but they did make several for various favoured customers, and two such were on display. Martin also showed a modern version of it, more compact, self-contained and easier to operate, which can be made as a standard product. It can reach 0.02 K, and is bought by people working on quantum computing.
  2. We were then given a demonstration of high-temperature superconductors, that work at liquid nitrogen temperatures, around 75 K as opposed to ~4 K for the niobium-titanium and niobium-tin alloys used by Oxford Instruments' magnets. These new materials came into prominence in 1997, and their prospects were hyped in the same way as the earlier materials had been 35 years earlier, but the enthusiasm had faded again. However they undoubtedly work, and if only they can be formed into wires, will have great scope in electrical engineering. An early use could be in ship propulsion. For the demonstration Martin cooled several pieces of an yttrium-barium-copper-oxide alloy by pouring liquid nitrogen over them, whereupon a permanent magnet floated spinning over them, suspended by the non-decaying eddy-currents, to the general applause of the audience.

A film of the full lecture can be seen on the Department's web site, It brings out its entertainment value better than this written synopsis can do.

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