1998: The centenary year of 'Science Abstracts' - Inspec staff memoirs

Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Assistant Editor of "Science abstracts" (1949)

After graduating from King's College, I was then faced with the unpleasant necessity of looking for an honest living, since I assumed that though my typewriter might provide me with occasional jam, I needed a more reliable source for my bread and butter. Luckily the Dean of Science found a job that might have been designed for me - Assistant Editor of "Physics abstracts", published by The Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Since writing the above, I was delighted to hear from one of my successors at "Physics abstracts" that my amiable Editor, Dr Bernard Crowther, is still with us - and a mere seven years older than I am.

During a brief but happy period, I spent at the IEE, all of the world's leading scientific journals passed over my desk, and I had to mark articles that appeared important and farm them out to a small army of multilingual abstractors. 

Then I had to edit and index the results - no easy task since English was seldom the first language of my assistants, and under what heading do you index some totally new discovery? I fear that the issues of "Physics abstracts" during the period of my editorial reign (circa 1949) must contain many curiosities. And here is a somewhat appalling statistic: the year that I left, "Physics abstracts" published less than 10,000 abstracts: this year's target is 180,000. 

As my informant remarks "Computers help carbon-based bipeds to produce better and more consistent abstracts than in the past." Quite true - but I feel I got out just in time. It was an amicable departure; Dr Crowther was gratifyingly sorry to see me go but realised that I had better prospects elsewhere.

Mr David Martin 

INSPEC staff member between 1967 and 1976

As one of the people who played a part in the formative stages of INSPEC from 1967 to 1976 or thereabouts, I enjoyed your December 1997 issue celebrating the centenary of "Science abstracts".

However, I cannot resist pointing out that the photograph which you chose to illustrate "The 1970s and Early Electronic Dissemination" shows what was probably the only piece of computer equipment installed at Savoy Place which was NOT used in the production of the INSPEC database in the late 1960s.

The PDP-8 deserves its own footnote in the history of INSPEC. It had been purchased, as I recall, for a Government-funded project at another place, and had somehow become surplus to requirements. INSPEC agreed to give it a good home. Initially, the only place we could find to install it was on one of the back staircases at Savoy Place, where it languished for some time.

It came into its own when Marconi Ltd of Great Baddow unveiled a computer-controlled reader for NCR ultrafiche, regarded in those days as a very high-density optical storage medium. The PDP-8 became the control unit for a demonstration system, unofficially christened (by Mike Vernon, the Department's undoubted master of the acronym) MOUSETRAP - the "Marconi Online Ultrafiche System For Efficient Text Retrieval And Perusal".

In the event, ultrafiche turned out to be one of those technologies which never really had its day (you could say that CD-ROM has proved to be a better mousetrap). The PDP-8 relocated to Hitchin - was used for various more menial tasks, until in due course it blew up. 

Almost literally: a short circuit in the printer sent mains voltages surging through the processor and tape control unit, there was a bang and a fair amount of smoke. The computer room fire systems were set off, and when the dust settled and the covers were removed, it was found that many of the PDP-8 circuit components had blown their tops off.

Gerald N. J. Beck, B.Sc. AMIEE AInst.P

Assistant Editor of Science Abstracts (1945 - 1956)

Recent reports in the media have revealed the unreliability of Laurie Lee's recollections of the Spanish Civil War published in 1991 in his Moment of War. To report on my own doings of 50 years ago and more is likely to be similarly suspect, but I shall have a go nevertheless.

I began work with "Science abstracts" in the early summer of 1945, initially on a half-day basis. My mornings were spent in the Research Laboratories of the GEC.

The war was then rapidly approaching its end and it was clear to the Director, Sir Clifford Paterson, that many of his staff, myself included, would be superfluous to requirements in post-war times. 

He had been for many years Chairman of the Management Committee of Science Abstracts and, knowing that my prospects as a practical research scientist were dim and my inclinations were more literary and linguistic, he had recommended me for the post of Assistant Editor of Science Abstracts

The then editor, Dr J A Wilcken, was about to retire and the post of Editor was not filled until Dr B M Crowther was appointed in October of that year.

A few words about Wilcken whom I found a fascinating character: John Adolph Wilcken - his second name was rather unpopular in those days - had been appointed as co-editor in 1938, but during the war his fellow-editor H G Evans, had been ignominiously dismissed by the Secretary, W K Brasher, for spreading alarm and despondency or, more likely, his pro-German views among the clerical staff.

I had this story from Wilcken himself. Wilcken then ran the publication single-handed. This was no easy task, but the volume of abstractable material during the later war years had fallen off considerably and he was clearly at pains to fill the available space. I doubt whether the properties of paper or non-destructive testing were of immediate interest to electrical engineers at the time.

Born in Denmark in 1880, Wilcken had had a varied career before coming to England in the 1920s. He had obtained his doctorate at the University of La Plata in Argentina, hence his fluency in Spanish, and had later worked in the USA and Belgium. 

Before joining "Science abstracts" he had taught electrical engineering in Newcastle and was glad to find a job in London to suit better his cultural interests. He was an accomplished pianist and had been popular at musical soirees in his home town of Århus. (I found this years later in "Hvemn var Hvem", the Danish 'Who was Who'). 

To dig further back in time Wilcken's predecessor was a Mr Solomon, a pleasant, curly-headed, nearly stone deaf little man, the author of a now-forgotten work on electrical instruments. After his retirement, he continued as an abstractor writing his pieces in a barely legible long-hand. He looked in from time to time to shout pleasantries at Wilcken.

The clerical staff in 1945 were three in number. Miss Reeves, the senior, had joined around 1910 and was a kindly old soul and was shortly to retire. Her number two, Miss Mary Jane Cahill, was somewhat of a battle axe but survived into the Gainsborough era at the IEE. 

I myself, however, established a satisfactory modus vivendi with her. Indeed many years later I invited her to undertake an indexing job at ICI which she, fortunately, completed on time thereby thwarting any ambitions of hers to take over the Company. A junior girl who even at the age of 17 was addressed in those days as 'Miss' completed the team.

The IEE in 1945

The IEE in 1945 was a gloomy place, but the staff (with a few exceptions) were friendly. The windows of "Science abstracts' two offices facing the east side of the Savoy Hotel had been patched up with sheets of some dingy yellow semi-transparent oil cloth - plastics hadn't been invented by then - with no means of opening.

The original glass had apparently been blown out during the last air raid around 1941 - I doubt whether any V1s or V2s had fallen in Central London. Of course, we wouldn't have been told. My first task, with Wilcken out the way, was to bring in a hand drill from home and perforate a number of little holes in this sheeting to let some fresh air in.

The IEE then occupied the first and ground floors and basement of the building. In the present members' rooms, we had a temporary canteen where we enjoyed reasonable but usually luke-warm meals prepared by the Housekeeper's wife and transported from somewhere below. 


One day at lunch Brasher bemoaned the fact that the IEE had no licence for alcoholic drinks. Hearing this, Wilcken seized an empty water jug from the table and vanished. He reappeared a few minutes later, grinning obsequiously and clutching the same jug now filled with beer. He had bought it at the Savoy Tavern at the top of Savoy Street. Anything to curry favour with the boss.

Our "Science abstracts" offices adjoined the library which was ruled over by a Mr 'Courtesy' Corthesy who dispensed courtesy to library enquirers strictly according to their grade of membership in the Institution. Younger people like me and student members got a very raw deal. One day I noticed a recently received copy of a biography in German of the eighteenth-century Swedish chemist Scheele on his desk. Clearly essential reading for any aspiring electrical engineer. 

I asked politely whether I might borrow it to read and, with any luck, never return. This request was met with a scowl of hate, so I fled. His assistant, Mr Grant, who seemed to me to have been with the IEE since birth was completely different. A lanky old man who attended at once to any minor request from me. 

The IEE Library

The Library at that time had a crazy system of classification of books; it was apparently based on an alphabetical system used by the London Library where Corthesy had previously worked. Dynamos were to be found under D and Motors under M!

At the time I joined "Science abstracts" the abstracting coverage consisted almost entirely of British and American journals. There may have been some perfunctory treatment of 'enemy' literature during the war years obtained from various sources. In 1946 we commandeered a great hoard of war-time German physics and electrical engineering journals from the then Ministry of Supply at Thames House in Millbank. 

They were reluctant to part with it, but after all, it had been looted from German libraries and we were going to put it to good use. We were able to recruit a number of young German-speaking graduates to help with the abstracting of this material. With Bernard Crowther's blessing, I was able to make exchange arrangements with the more important Scandinavian technical journals and gradually, with the restart of German electrical engineering publications in the late 1940s and the arrival of publications from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we had a steady flow of abstracting material. 

The IEE in 1947

Strangely, it wasn't until 1947 that we managed to acquire back numbers of the 'Revue Generale d'Electricite' the leading French electrical journal. My work had additional interest at that time, for despite the essentially technical content of these journals, they did provide some intriguing side lights into life in enemy and occupied Europe of which we had little or no knowledge during the war years.

I must confess to using my 11 years with "Science abstracts" to my personal advantage. Through scanning the journals I obtained a superficial knowledge across a wide spectrum of electrical engineering. We watched in the literature the advent of the transistor in the early 50s, tried to understand the basis of masers and then lasers, and read about the installation of the gigantic LEO computer by J Lyons at Cadby Hall. 


I also managed to acquire a reasonable technical reading knowledge of Western European languages.

With the input of literature rising steadily, additional staff were clearly needed, especially for "Physics abstracts". On my return from a week's holiday in the spring of 1948, Bernard C forewarned me: "A little man will be joining us shortly". I have considerable misgivings, but he (Brasher) insisted on taking him on. He turned out to be my subsequent friend, Bernard Felix Kraus, a Jewish refugee from Vienna and a motorbike engineer, who had impressed Brasher with his command of languages. 

Indeed, apart from German, he had a good knowledge of Russian and Czech, but his knowledge of English was quite inadequate for an editorial job of that type. BFK lasted for about a year after which he was gently eased into the Electrical Research Association who still occupied offices in the IEE building. 

"One of" the most famous editors of "Science abstracts" succeeded him. Sir Arthur C. Clarke plunged with enthusiasm into the editing of "Physics abstracts" intending to keep himself abreast of current developments. 

However his competing interests - his science fiction writing and the activities of the British Interplanetary Society - eventually prevailed and he moved on at the end of 1949. The following year his place was taken by Robin Skelton, a former chemical engineer and a more modest and kindly man it would be difficult to find. He persevered unobtrusively with the editing of "Physics abstracts" for five more years, departing like myself sometime in 1956.