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I grew up in semi-rural Thornleigh on the outskirts of Sydney.  I went to the local Primary School and later the Boys' High School at Normanhurst; followed by the University of New South Wales.  

As kids we, like many of my friends, were encouraged to make things and try things out.  My brother Peter liked to build forts and tree houses; dig giant holes; and play with old compressors and other dangerous motorised devices like model aircraft engines and lawnmowers; until his car came along.

 

We both liked homemade rockets and explosives; but our early efforts, before the benefits of high school chemistry, generally resulted in the rockets exploding and the explosives fizzing.  You can read more about this in the article Cracker Night (click here).

Commercial firecrackers and gunpowder were generally more successful; although home-made nitrogen triiodide was always easy, and zinc dust and sulphur makes a pretty good rocket fuel.  We also had some fun with large gas filled balloons; and various means of firing marbles and other projectiles. 

Fortunately we had 'the sheep paddock', forming part of the property, for such experiments.  We only set fire to it once or twice when the grass was particularly long and dry. 

There was never any suggestion from parents that we should not be wiring up electric motors or installing flood lighting to repair cars under. We both had a healthy respect for high voltages and seldom got a 'shock'. 

We are both still alive and were never injured by one of our experiments (by other things occasionally). The parental policy was that we were warned and asked what safety precautions we were taking.  After all, we had seen first hand what happens when a length of copper wire falls across the 33KV local distribution grid and shorts it to the street lighting; talk about loud; and dark that night!  See the note below.

So we generally took appropriate precautions with things that might explode; as when Peter successfully warned his young apprentice Ian to run! just before his steel compressor bottle exploded, rattling the neighbourhood windows. The neighbours were used to the occasional window rattle; and once or twice a hole or two.

This experience with potentially exploding things came in handy many years later when I worked in research at British Steel.  I was employed as an economist, to analyse the value of the research, but quickly got drawn into active experimentation. 

My colleagues and I in the 'Forward Technology Unit' decided to test the practicality of an idea that one of them had for inexpensive explosive forming. 

Explosive forming involves setting up a high pressure shock wave in an incompressible fluid; we used water.  The shock wave needs to be of sufficient intensity to make a steel plate instantaneously plastic, like putty, and so form it to the shape of a mould.  But it needs to be not so powerful that it destroys the apparatus. 

Needless to say, the trials involved heavy muffled thumps and occasional flying bits. We set this up in the mini steelworks within the BISRA laboratory complex at Battersea in London.

When the safety committee turned up, summonsed by occasional louder detonations within the bowls of the complex, they found us helmeted and safety goggled behind sandbags and an upturned table.

A very long stick was connected to the heavy steel apparatus through a hole in the very stout wooden box that enclosed it against shrapnel. Turning the stick opened a tap that initiated the process.  Sometimes the box would then leap into the air.  For some trivial reason about it looking 'Heath Robinson' they ordered us to desist! 

Later we turned our attention to another idea that involved, as a side effect, consuming a foam containing, among other things, an isocyanate in a very high temperature furnace.

Although we assured the committee that it was properly ventilated and it was unlikely that at these temperatures any cyanide gas would be released into the Lab, or the London air, they called a halt to that too; but not before some nice samples had been made.

 

 


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Travel

China

 

 

I first visited China in November 1986.  I was representing the New South Wales Government on a multinational mission to our Sister State Guangdong.  My photo taken for the trip is still in the State archive [click here].  The theme was regional and small business development.  The group heard presentations from Chinese bureaucrats and visited a number of factories in rural and industrial areas in Southern China.  It was clear then that China was developing at a very fast rate economically. 

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Fiction, Recollections & News

Recollections of 1963

 

 

 

A Pivotal Year

It appears that the latest offering from Andrew Lloyd Webber: Stephen Ward, the Musical, has crashed and burned after four months in London.

On hearing this I was reminded of 1963,  the year I completed High School and matriculated to University;  the year Bob Dylan became big; and Beatle Mania began. 

The year had started with a mystery the Bogle-Chandler deaths in Lane Cove National Park in Sydney that confounded Australia. Then came Buddhist immolations and a CIA supported coup and regime change in South Vietnam that was the beginning of the end for the US effort. 

Suddenly the Great Train Robbery in Britain was headline news there and in Australia. One of the ringleaders, Ronnie Biggs was subsequently found in Australia but stayed one step of the authorities for many years.

The 'Space Race' was underway with the USSR holding their lead by putting the first female Cosmonaut into obit. The US was riven with inter-racial hostility and rioting.  But the first nuclear test ban treaties were signed and Vatican 2 made early progress, the reforming Pope John 23 unfortunately dying midyear.

Towards year's end, on the 22nd of November, came the Kennedy assassination, the same day the terminally ill Aldus Huxley elected to put an end to it.

But for sex and scandal that year the Profumo affair was unrivalled.

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Opinions and Philosophy

Bertrand Russell

 

 

 

Bertrand Russell (Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970)) has been a major influence on my life.  I asked for and was given a copy of his collected Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell for my 21st birthday and although I never agreed entirely with every one of his opinions I have always respected them.

In 1950 Russell won the Nobel Prize in literature but remained a controversial figure.  He was responsible for the Russell–Einstein Manifesto in 1955. The signatories included Albert Einstein, just before his death, and ten other eminent intellectuals and scientists. They warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons and called on governments to find alternative ways of resolving conflict.   Russell went on to become the first president of the campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND) and subsequently organised opposition to the Vietnam War. He could be seen in 50's news-reels at the head of CND demonstrations with his long divorced second wife Dora, for which he was jailed again at the age of 89.  

In 1958 Gerald Holtom, created a logo for the movement by stylising, superimposing and circling the semaphore letters ND.

Some four years earlier I'd gained my semaphore badge in the Cubs, so like many children of my vintage, I already knew that:  = N(uclear)   = D(isarmament)

The logo soon became ubiquitous, graphitied onto walls and pavements, and widely used as a peace symbol in the 60s and 70s, particularly in hippie communes and crudely painted on VW camper-vans.

 

 (otherwise known as the phallic Mercedes).

 

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