Wednesday 18 May 2011

RW Wood at the Royal Institution

On May 19th 1911, Professor RW Wood presented one of the Royal Institution's legendary Friday night discourses with the title Recent Experiments with Invisible Light. This built upon the paper he had presented the previous September to the Royal Photographic Society and took place almost at the end of his 1910-11 sabbatical in Europe.

The discourses, which continue to this day, are formal affairs, as Wood reported to his biographer ...
His Grace, the Duke of Northumberland, not being available at the time, Gertrude [Mrs Wood] entered the hall on the arm of the Right Honorable Earl Cathcart, Vice-President, followed by my daughter Margaret, on the arm of the diminutive Sir William Crookes, who came nearly up to her shoulder and whose long white mustache, waxed at the ends into two sharp spikes, fascinated her. I brought up the rear. There was a brief introduction and at last I was standing behind the famous lecture table, giving my talk...
The following Friday, Wood was still in London and attended the discourse given by Marconi who was proposing to demonstrate reception of a radio transmission live across the Atlantic from Nova Scotia (a feat many still thought impossible) using an aerial flown using kites and, as Wood reported, "such a display of impressive modern electrical appliances as one seldom sees outside a World's Fair." Marconi's presentation, according to Wood, was rather monotonous. He read from a manuscript with his elbow on the desk and his head in his hand. "He appeared to be the least interested person in the auditorium ... and there were no experiments." Marconi droned on and his assistants became more and more agitated. The wind was dropping and while the morse signal from Canada was audible it would not be for long.

Despite Wood's encouragement the assistants would not dare to interrupt Marconi. So finally, when he eventually announced "We shall now listen to the signals coming across the Atlantic" the assistants could only shake their heads: the wind had dropped, the kites were down, the signal was lost.

A little tangential to infrared imaging I know, but it's salutary to remember just how much has changed in 100 years.

[With thanks to Doctor Wood: Modern Wizard of the Laboratory (1941) by William Seabrook]