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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Alan Dower Blumlein, Brilliant British Boffin

Alan Blumlein
Alan Dower Blumlein and the plaque on his home.

Great Britain was at the cutting edge of numerous scientific and technical fields in the late 1930's and the war years. The top scientists in the world worked on numerous projects that would have an effect on the war, in some cases decisive. Everyone remembers Alan Turing, for instance, the genius behind the Enigma decryption enterprise that some say "won World War II." Barnes Wallis, the inventor best known for creating the "skipping bomb" used during the famous dambuster raid of May 1943, also enjoys a lasting reputation. There were several other such "boffins," but some of the most deserving quietly disappeared virtually without a trace for one reason or another. One of those, and perhaps the most deserving of all, was Alan Dower Blumlein.

Alan Blumlein Doreen Lane
Alan Blumlein weds Doreen Lane in 1933.

Pre-War Inventions

Alan Blumlein
Alan Blumlein as a schoolboy.

Alan Blumlein was born in Hampstead, London on 29 June 1903. He was of German/Scottish/French ancestry, his family having emigrated from Germany before he was born. Alan got his first job at International Western Electric in 1924 after graduating from Imperial college and promptly began working on voice transmission technology. Among other things, he wrote seven scholarly articles there, and invented the "Blumlein Bridge" for AC measurement. In 1929, he moved on to Columbia Graphophone Company, where he invented the moving-coil disc cutting head. This saved the company a great deal of money and became the new industry standard. Around this time, Columbia Graphophone merged with the Gramophone Company to form EMI.

Alan Blumlein EMI recording cutter
Alan Blumlein demonstrating his improved recording cutter at EMI. The man with him likely is Isaac Shoenberg, his collaborator and boss at EMI.

Blumlein's most famous, and lasting, invention was stereophonic sound, which he called "binaural." The story goes that Blumlein went to an early "talkie" in 1931 with his girlfriend (and future wife) Doreen Lane and was dissatisfied with the mono sound then in use. He obviously was thinking during the film, because at the end he told Doreen that he had figured out a completely new sound system in which sound would follow actors across the screen. This led to a completely new field of invention, and within two years Blumlein was working up the first stereo discs. By 1935, Blumlein was creating the first films with stereo sound.

Emitron camera
The Emitron television camera as used in weekly BBC broadcasts beginning in 1936.

EMI then got involved in early television technology. The United States, Great Britain, France and Germany all were working furiously at the time on developing television, with each claiming credit for key breakthroughs. Blumlein did his part, working up the world's first "high definition" television serves (the 405-line Marconi-EMI system). He was the key worker on the Emitron television camera, which some consider to be the top British invention of the 20th Century. Marconi-EMI cameras began regular transmissions by the BBC on November 2, 1936, and they quickly proved superior to the competing Baird cameras. These transmissions continued until the beginning of the war. As with his previous ideas, Blumlein earned several patents in this field as well.

Blumlein and World War II

EMI pitched into the war effort by collaborating with the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), at Defford near Malvern. Sir Bernard Lovell was leading a team there that was developing ground-penetrating radar for RAF bombers to use. Since this involved radio waves, an area in which he was an expert, Blumlein joined the team. Radio waves had been used to direct bombers to their target, the Luftwaffe with its "Knickebein" (Crooked Leg) system and the British with Gee and Oboe, but bombing accuracy in this "battle of the beams" was terrible. Lovell's team was working on radar that looked down, not forward, and could show the bomber navigators where they were in relation to the target in the dark or through clouds.

Alan Blumlein H2S radar
H2S radar.

Airborne radar was undergoing revolutionary changes during the early years of the war. The British and Americans were developing airborne radar for bomber and U-boat interceptions, and legend has it that the engineers working up those systems accidentally pointed the radar downward and discovered their applications for ground-oriented positioning. This type of downward-looking radar acquired the designation "H2S," though nobody is clear exactly where this came from (the "S" apparently is from "centimetric" wavelengths being used, the "S" being a deliberate misspelling for security purposes). Taffy Bowen noticed that the radar would return different signals from different objects on the ground, and Philip Dee refined this effect in 1941. On 1 January 1942, Lovell began working on this technology with Blumlein and the rest of his team under the auspices of the TRE.

Alan Blumlein Halifax V9977 H2S radar
Halifax V9977, the one in which Alan Blumlein perished. The blister carrying the H2S radar is visible.

From this point forward, the TRE's development of H2S radar proceeded swiftly. Blumlein and the rest of his team modified a Halifax II bomber to incorporate a blister on its ventral (underside) frame to carry the H2S. British radar research was combined in March 1942 to include both the H2S project and Air-Surface-Vessel (ASV) radar. The first experimental flight was on 23 April 1942. The same Halifax, V9977, continued to be used for further tests, but on 7 June 1942 it crashed near the village of Welsh Bicknor in Herefordshire. Blumlein and two colleagues, Cecil Oswald and Frank Blythen, both perished. Bernard Lovell quickly sent a team to pick up a top-secret cavity magnetron that survived the crash. The investigation revealed that an improperly tightened tappet nut on the starboard outer engine as the result of a special inspection just before the flight came loose and caused the engine to catch fire, which destroyed the wing and led to the crash. Such was the secrecy of the project that Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered Blumlein's death to be kept out of the press. It was not announced until years later.

Alan Blumlein H2S radar
A H2S radar set in use during World War II.

Alan Blumlein's Legacy

Development of the H2S radar continued despite Blumlein's tragic death. On 3 July 1942, with the project still reeling from the crash, Churchill held a meeting and gave the remaining members of the H2S team priority on resources in order to finish the project. However, work proceeded quite slowly after this point, and it was not until 30 January 1943 that the first raid using H2S (fitted into Pathfinder Stirlings and Halifaxes) was made on Hamburg. From that point forward, almost nightly raids using H2S-equipped Pathfinder bombers that would fly ahead and drop flares at the target were made. By 21 February 1943, the results were so obviously beneficial to targeting that RAF Bomber Command ordered all bombers, not just the Pathfinder squadrons, to be equipped with H2S radar. The massive raids of the summer of 1943 on Hamburg (Operation Gomorrah) by Lancaster bombers fitted with H2S radar began the devastation of German cities which continued for the next two years. Development continued throughout the war, with an X band version operating at 3 cm, and then (after the war) 1.25 cm.

Alan Blumlein Alan Blumlein
Alan Blumlein.

Blumlein worked as part of a team, so it is impossible to parse out exactly what his contributions to the H2S radar project were. His team leader, Lovell, described Blumlein's loss as a "national disaster." Historian John Bromley-Davenport, Lovell's biographer, wrote:
Without Blumlein the Second World War may not have ended well. 
He worked on air interception radar, making a huge contribution to the defeat of German night bombers. 
It would be appropriate indeed if, in recognition of the debt it owes him, the recording industry established an Alan Blumlein foundation with the object of awarding scholarships young electronics engineers aspiring to follow in the great man’s footsteps.
Because Churchill ordered that the crash which killed Blumlein not be publicized, Blumlein simply sort of disappeared from public view. This led to wild rumors about him and his untimely demise. However, ultimately Alan Blumlein was just another war casualty, one of many unsung grunts who did his bit until the war claimed his life.

Alan Blumlein stereo
Alan Blumlein's 1931 patent application for stereo sound. 

Blumlein worked at famous Abbey Road studios and implemented his audio solutions there. His work at Abbey Road, in fact, is one of the reasons it was considered the premier British recording studio by the 1960s. The Beatles recorded their studio music there along with too many other top acts to list. Paul McCartney still works there to this day when he is recording new albums. EMI became a recording powerhouse in large part due to the work of Blumlein and his colleagues, and it remains in operation as a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.

Alan Blumlein stereo

Blumlein still does not get proper recognition for his achievements, though his home at Ealing has been graced with a plaque erected in 1977 by the Greater London Council. There is talk of a film about him. Every time you turn on speakers and hear that stereo sound, though, you are enjoying the work of Alan Dower Blumlein and honoring his brilliance.

Alan Blumlein stereo

For his invention of stereo, Alan Blumlein was awarded a special individual Grammy in 2017.


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