Thomas Edward Allibone, known to so many by his initials “T.E.A.,” died in Holyport, near Maidenhead in southeastern England, on 9 September 2003, just nine weeks short of his 100th birthday. His long life spanned the days from the beginning of the last century to the beginning of this one—from the days of string and sealing wax to now.

Born in Sheffield, England, on 11 November 1903, T.E.A. entered Sheffield University in 1921 on an open scholarship to start an honors degree in physics. The scholarship was financed by the Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Co of Manchester, and thus began his long association with Metrovick, which was a major influence on his life and led to his pursuit of an industrial career that lasted 50 years.

Following his graduation in 1924, T.E.A. accepted a staff position in the company’s research department. He worked at Metrovick while he continued his doctoral studies at Sheffield. After completing his PhD in metallurgy in 1926, he moved on to the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge University to join Ernest Rutherford’s team, which was then leading the world in defining the structure of the atomic nucleus. It was at this time that John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton devised the voltage doubler experiment to create a proton beam that would produce the first atomic disintegration. Although T.E.A. decided to concentrate on his pursuit of a PhD in physics at Cambridge, he made a significant contribution to Cockcroft and Walton’s experiment by designing the rectifiers that were a key part of the apparatus. Cockcroft and Walton received a Nobel Prize in 1951. Had T.E.A. given up his PhD, as Walton had done, and joined them, he might have been a joint recipient.

He was awarded his PhD by Cambridge in 1929 but continued to work there until 1930, when he accepted the directorship of Metrovicks’s high-voltage laboratory, which Rutherford had opened in 1929. Even before T.E.A. left Cambridge, he had designed a continuously evacuated x-ray tube for St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, to be used for cancer therapy. That accomplishment led to the development of a profitable range of x-ray equipment by the high-voltage laboratory. In recognition of that work, T.E.A. was awarded the Roentgen Medal of the British Institute of Radiology for 1933–34.

Wartime research drew him into work on radar, but in 1943, he left the UK for the US to work on the Manhattan Project, and was there until Christmas 1945. Then it was back to England for what was undoubtedly the peak of his achievements over a long and successful career: the establishment of the Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) long-term research facility at Aldermaston Court in 1946. That facility, over its 17-year lifetime, made major contributions to many areas of scientific endeavor, because not only was T.E.A. an outstanding experimental physicist in his own right, but also an inspirational leader and outstanding communicator. He gathered around him a team of scientists and engineers of exceptional ability and led and inspired them. Many became leaders in their field and owed their subsequent careers to him. From top to bottom, his staff held him in the highest regard and had the greatest affection for him.

In addition to gathering that group, T.E.A. had a wide circle of friends among eminent scientists and engineers and engaged many of them as consultants to back up the research at Aldermaston. One of those, Dennis Gabor, claimed that he had the idea of holography—for which he received a Nobel Prize—while sitting on the tennis court there, waiting for a game. T.E.A., who had first met Gabor in Germany, was instrumental in finding an opening for him in the UK when he needed to escape Nazi persecution before World War II.

The industrial experiment at Aldermaston ended, sadly, in 1963 due to the financial difficulties of AEI. T.E.A. joined the Central Electricity Generating Board as chief scientist responsible for research at its Leatherhead, Manchester, and Berkeley laboratories in England and remained there until he retired in 1970. To say that he ever retired, however, is something of a misstatement. His mother had reminded him in his youth of the old Yorkshire tag, “Wear out, not rust out,” and he followed it to the letter. During his “retirement,” he wrote numerous technical papers and continued as external professor of electrical engineering at Leeds University until 1979. Subsequently, he retained the status of emeritus professor, the first occasion such an honor was bestowed on someone other than a retired professor who had held a chair at the university. In addition, he was visiting professor of physics at City University in London from 1971 and the first Frank Poynton Professor of Physics there until his death.

Throughout his career, T.E.A.’s personal research focused on high-voltage phenomena and high-voltage and vacuum devices. When Basil Schonland demonstrated in the 1930s the stepped development of the downward lightning leader, T.E.A. and coworkers quickly demonstrated the analogous growth of the long laboratory spark. T.E.A.’s research on long electric sparks gave important information about the mechanism of discharge, and he did valuable work on the breakdown of liquid insulators. That was work he continued in his retirement years.

T.E.A. was elected to the Royal Society in 1948; appointed Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1960; awarded honorary doctorates from a number of universities; and made an honorary fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers—no other engineer has presented two of its Faraday Lectures, which he did in 1947 and 1957. He also was vice president of the institution (1948–52).

T.E.A. was an outstanding physicist and one of the last survivors of Rutherford’s research team at Cambridge. His death marks the end of a direct link in the UK with that most significant period of physics research.

Thomas Edward Allibone