Letter from Arthur Dockrill, part 1

Arthur Dockrill was a long a mainstay of the UM Physics Department’s technical staff.  He now lives in Florida;  his email  address   adockrill_AT_verizon_DOT_net.
He writes:

.     In 1934 I got a scholarship to a good secondary school. My childish aim was to become an orthopaedic surgeon, to which end I had to take Latin five times a week.  But when I left school in 1939 the skies were full of the contrails of aerial warfare.   I and my best friend Norman went off to three days of R.A .F selection boards and left rejoicing: We Were To Fly!!   But we were to wait nine months–Norman went into an insurance office I went into the British government’s medical research nutritional lab;  this was commonly referred to as “the nut Lab” and with good reason–what a bunch of catty misfits. This was the birthplace of vitamin research and about 500 rats were always at hand when chemical assay failed.  

.     Time passed; Norman was called, I was not . I waited a few weeks then made inquiries—to my unbelieving ears I was told that I was in the employ of vital research and would not be allowed to leave or change my job for the duration. I stayed for two years.  The war was always present –at night three of the staff would stay to deal with incendiary bombs jettisoned by the German planes that were returning from the industrial North. We were supposed to deal with the flaming incendiaries with a long shovel, a stirrup pump and a sack of sand.  But we kept our distance when, a bit later,  the Germans decided to add some explosive to their incendiaries.

.     About this time the military was getting low in manpower and my conditions were lifted– those that wanted out could go. I was getting tired of being thought of as 4F and decided to volunteer—BIG MISTAKE!!!
Lesson:  NEVER VOLUNTEER!— because the coal mines were getting short of labor it was decided to run a lottery each month using the incoming recruits—and the “winners” of that lottery would go to help the collieries You may guess who was one of the winners–from the skies to the bowels of the earth. Bevin was the Minister of Labor who devised this conscription; we, the  Bevin Boys, were issued a little black hardhat and a pair of steel toed boots.
My two years in the coal mines is a fine yarn—- I will save it.

.   I escaped on a medical discharge, mainly due to the colliery staff wanting to get rid of us—- and was called up in three days into the RAF A1.   I went through the month of “square bashing” and then, alas, there was no longer a call for flight crew. My group was herded into an auditorium, where, already about 100 men were assembled, at least .a third of them already wore wings . Next a gnarled old warrant officer came on stage with a microphone and announced “Sorry! all you f——ers are f——ing redundant. You will have three choices —cook, medical orderly-, or batman !”   ( Batman, in this instance meant being a servant to an officer.)  Strangely, it seems that once a man puts on a uniforn, every noun will be preceeded by “F ——-!~
.    Well– that was easy , in my dreams of surgery I was a long time member of the English Red Cross emergency services .and well versed in what I would need to know . We took a three month course that was followed by an exam which I passed at 97%-   This made me an instant corporal and I instructed for a month . At this point one of my dancing partners, who worked in headquarters ,told me that my unit was going to Indonesia.
.     Mary and I were assuming that we would get married, and now if we didn’t act quickly we would lose the married allowance. I asked for leave to get married, I was given a week. We were married and went to the seaside for five days. On my return I found an empty hut—my unit had indeed gone to Indonesia!!

.     I took my informant to dinner and she told me that they were looking for someone to run a decompression chamber, a task for which I was quite well suited.  I applied at once and was accepted.  Two of us of us took a truck up north and returned with a heavy steel tank mounted on wheels.  This tank was about 20 ft long and 6 ft diameter and had windows and a door;  it was  to be pumped down by a pair of electric vacuum pumps.   The task, devised by the head man who was an ex fighter pilot, was to give incoming doctors some experience with the effects of anoxia so they would better understand their responsibilities as officer airmen.  The doctors, in groups of six wearing oxygen masks, would sit in the decompression chamber  and  I would then lower the pressure to that found at about 12,000 ft.  I would turn down the oxygen being fed to three of the doctors and ask them to answer some simple questions. They would behave like happy drunks , totally out to anything happening. The other three doctors, still with oxygen, could then observe and thus become very aware of the danger of anoxia.
These duties were not very heavy so, having played the trumpet in times past,  I joined the RAF Medical unit’s marching band.  I played well enough to be designated second chair, but of course we didn’t often sit on chairs!

I returned to the Nutritional Lab but soon realized that I wasn’t going to stay there.  I then went through three more jobs before I found a good fit with with Gordon Southerland’s group in Cambridge.  During my last six years I had taken courses on glass blowing, instrument making, and electronics, skills that suited me well for the tasks at hand.  He enrolled me in the chemistry department’s photography course saying there will be some good photographers there but just join in;  later he called me in and said, with obvious Scottish glee that I had topped the class.
.     I spent most of my time in Sutherland’s lab keeping Oliver Simpson, a student of Sutherland, supplied with blank infra red cells, polishing a lot of salt windows, making a lot of lantern slides and made any thing he or the other students required.  Then I also did outside jobs such as mending Stherland’s cuckcoo clock, overhauling his carburetor, and making new gears for his washing machine. .

.     Then Sutherland left for the States. I took a well paying job with one of his friends,  Dr DeBrunye who had invented an epoxy glue–The government gave him a big factory because they were using it to coat planes.  DeBrunye was soon a millionaire and toying with the some ideas that seemed unlikely to me; I wanted to depart. Then I saw a vacancy at the Cavendish Lab for a glassblower.  I was very happy there, but  in 1950 I received Gordon’s invitation to come to the United States—and considering England’s state at that time we could not resist and signed up for two years.

.     Oliver Simpson came over with Sutherland  to continue his work on infra red detectors—I  made all of his many lead telluride cells —small vacuum jars with a sensing gap, evacuated and liquid air cooled  (a bit later workers at Kodak found that these cells would work in a normal atmosphere). Simpson’s lab in the Cavendish had been in one of those old rooms where students would sit in the dark counting scintillations for hours on end, rooms that were later found to be REALLY hot. Simpson returned to England around 1955 and died very soon after. It was generally suspected that his lab was responsible.

to be continued

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