Peter Tanner obituary | Research and development


Peter Tanner, my father, who died at the age of 92, was a physics researcher who worked on a number of important technological innovations.

Born in Poplar, east London, Peter was one of five children born to Alex (née Zanerra) and William Tanner, an estate agent, who had served in the Royal Artillery in the First World War. His mother’s tenacity during the difficult days of the Depression enabled her boys to win scholarships to the Coopers’ Company school.

During World War II, Peter was evacuated to Frome, Somerset. He went to study physics at the University of Hull, then served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy (1951-54). He then worked as a research physicist in radar development at Marconi in Chelmsford Essex, where in 1954 he met Sheila Bailey, a teacher; they married two years later.

In 1959 he became a research physicist at Associated Electrical Industries in Aldermaston Court, Berkshire, working with physicist TE Allibone and his team in the gas discharge group on the fusion project. Its purpose was to explore the possibility of performing thermonuclear reactions in a controlled manner to generate electricity. The team built Sceptre, one of the world’s first fusion reactors.

From the AEI, in 1963 he joined the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), created by the government after the war to help inventors commercialize their innovations. My father held several positions, including that of head of the electrotechnical and electronics group. Working closely with Christopher Cockerell, inventor of the hovercraft, Peter would regale us with stories of how Cockerell rolled out the first hovercraft blueprints on his desk.

In 1981, the NRDC was merged with the National Enterprise Board to form the British Technology Group, where my father became director of business development. He was talking about meeting Clive Sinclair, sitting around the kitchen table at his farmhouse in Cambridgeshire, and bringing home early versions of a calculator or a pocket TV.

The improvement of the NRDC featured in Harold Wilson’s 1966 manifesto as he strove to harness what he called the “white heat of technology”, and Peter met Wilson in Downing Street to discuss the transfer of technology. Many of the inventions that the NRDC helped bring to market, such as magnetic resonance imaging, went on to make essential contributions to British life.

Decades later, colleagues at King’s College London revealed that the research he had begun at Marconi had made little progress since, and he was accepted for a doctorate to complete his dissertation, Developments in Thermionic Converters (1995-2001 ). He obtained his doctorate at the age of 72.

Retired in 1994, when he was not pursuing his research, he read to us or recited poetry to us from memory. Or continuing as a churchwarden in Mortimer, Berkshire. Lately, as he often said, he was just waiting for the last bus.

Sheila died in 2005. Peter is survived by his two children, Liz and I, his grandchildren, Sam, Jack, Annie and Will, his sister, Joan, and a daughter-in-law, Lindsay, from his first marriage. Sheila.

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