Ernest William Titterton 1916-1990

Written by J.O. Newton.


With the death of Sir Ernest Titterton on 9 February 1990, Australian has lost one of its most controversial scientists. Well known because of his forthright and uncompromising views on the subjects of nuclear weapons and nuclear power and because he 'pushed the button' for the world's first nuclear weapon, he was highly regarded by some and hated by others.

The early years 1916-1934

Ernest William Titterton was born in the small village of Kettlebrook near Tamworth, Staffordshire, England on 4 March 1916. He was the son of William Alfred and Elizabeth Titterton (née Smith) who, three years later, had their only other child, Maurice.

For many years his father was a clerical worker in a paper manufacturing mill, eventually working himself up to a managerial position. Unfortunately the mill was forced to close down in the Great Depression of the 1930s and he was unemployed for several months. As was common in those days, the parents had been thrifty people, saving as much as they could, and they had to live on their savings for that period. After that, Titterton's father had a series of physically demanding manual jobs which he was ill-fitted to perform, but which kept the family going though in much reduced circumstances. After two years, he managed to get a clerical position in another paper mill, which position he retained until he retired at the age of sixty-eight. Elizabeth Titterton was fully occupied as a housewife and mother and kept tight control over the family finances as was very necessary. During all of this difficult period, the parents gave love and every support to the two boys and shielded them from the great difficulties they were experiencing.

William Titterton had a great interest in music, particularly choral music. He was a member of the choir at St Editha's church in Tamworth and, when Ernest was eight years old, he took him along to become a member too. The choir was very good and, in addition to singing at the Sunday church services, performed such works as Handel's 'Messiah' and Haydn's 'Creation'; it was associated with the Tamworth Choral Society which produced public concerts of popular musicals by Gilbert and Sullivan, Edward German, and so on. Ernest would spend two nights a week at rehearsals and sing in up to four services on Sundays. Most probably this gave him his great love for music of all types, which lasted throughout his life. His father took a keen interest in Ernest's general education. For example he bought him a blackboard and easel, which could double as a desk, when Ernest was at primary school.

Ernest's formal education began at the age of four, at the single-room infants' school in Kettlebrook; his father used to lift him over a small wall separating their garden from the school playground. At the age of six he moved from the mixed infant school to a council school for boys only, in the mining village of Glascote. This school was well equipped and even had some science teaching, rather unusual in those days; it stimulated his first interest in science. The boys in this school were rather rough and had frequent fights. Initially, being small, he came badly out of these but eventually he learnt to give as much as he got.

Ernest did well at school and at the age of ten won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in the nearby town of Tamworth. This was a small (140 boys) but very well equipped school, where his academic success continued and he was always top or nearly top of the class. Here he also gained a liking for sport and became very proficient in cricket and hockey, playing for the school's first teams in both. He obtained his School Certificate with seven credits at the early age of fourteen and then went into the sixth form. In those days the sixth form was limited to the more academically talented boys who were expected to proceed to university; they specialized either in the humanities or in science. Ernest took physics, mathematics and some chemistry. He was fortunate in having an exceptionally able physics teacher, William Summerhayes, who also carried out part-time research in thermal diffusion at Birmingham University. This was done in collaboration with Dr Arthur Shakespear, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society and also a Governor of the School. Because of this the boys had the unusual and exciting experience of seeing a scientific paper being prepared, going to referees, corrected in proof stage and finally published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. This stimulated young Ernest's ambition to become a scientist and to eventually publish papers himself. Summerhayes set up many original demonstrations and experiments for the practical class and strongly believed that the boys should carry out experiments themselves. As an example, Ernest and another boy were asked to measure, during a weekend, the diurnal variation of the earth's magnetic field; this involved taking measurements every 15 minutes for the whole 48-hour period. The results were written up and published in the school magazine. There is little doubt that Summerhayes was the major influence in exciting Ernest Titterton's interest in science.

He was also fortunate to have a very good teacher in mathematics, Frank Burkett, who was headmaster of the school. Ernest Titterton was well appreciated for both his scholastic achievements and his personality, as the following reference from Frank Burkett shows:

He was an exemplary pupil, always hard working and extremely conscientious. He was a boy of wide interests, very well read, and possessing exceptional musical ability both as organist and pianist. He had a very pleasing personality and threw himself wholeheartedly into all School activities. He showed himself to be both original and resourceful.

He was a good all-round sportsman and proved to be a very good Captain being both efficient and tactful.

As a School Prefect he was a great success being both conscientious and reliable. In my opinion he was one of the best half dozen boys we have had in the last fifteen years.

Ernest was put up for the Higher School Certificate examination three times in all the first two being trial runs. His subjects, apart from the first time when he took chemistry also were physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics. Summerhayes wished him to go to Cambridge, but unfortunately this was not possible because of his father's reduced financial situation. Instead, in 1934, he went to Birmingham University as a trainee teacher with a scholarship that paid his fees, together with board and residence at Chancellor's Hall, located about a mile from the University.

Ernest Titterton's musical career developed further after he gained a scholarship to grammar school. His father felt that he should learn the piano and provided half-hourly bi-weekly lessons for eighteen months. Ernest was a talented student and his skill developed rapidly. However, in retrospect he felt that the teacher did not exercise sufficient discipline in making him play scales and use correct fingering; he found this to be a severe disadvantage in later life. He continued to develop his abilities after the lessons were completed, becoming an excellent sight reader. He accompanied his father, who had a good tenor voice, in recitals and took over playing the piano for morning assembly at school. When his voice broke at the age of about thirteen, Henry Rose, the church organist, showed him how to use the three-manual church organ and the pedal organ. Later he gave him free lessons, allowed him to play for children's services and finally, towards the end of his time at school, made him assistant organist, enabling him to play at any church service. His father was very proud of him and never missed a service at which he played.

At school, he, with three others, formed a dance band that first played for school dances and then for town dances. Later he joined an adult dance band that finally ended up playing at one of the local hotels, where they had the advantages of microphones and sound equipment. He saved much of the money earned from these activities and used it to buy a three-speed bicycle which, later, he used to travel the long journey from the University to home.

His skill in popular and classical music made him popular at university. He played the piano for physics school socials and dances and also in the students' union and for the University Review at the Theatre Royal. He also joined a five-piece band for which he sang as well as played the piano. The well-known City of Birmingham organist, G.D. Cunningham, often made broadcasts playing the four-manual organ in the Great Hall of the University. He allowed Ernest to sit next to him and watch whilst he rehearsed, and later to play the organ. His father often used to come and listen. Thus he became a fine organist, enabling him in later life to play on organs in many different countries.

Birmingham University 1934-1943

Titterton's excellent preparation at school enabled him to begin with the second-year courses at University; even so, on the whole, he found them easy. The third-year courses were more challenging and he achieved his BSc pass degree in 1936 with distinctions in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics. He proceeded to the honours course, obtained a First and was top of the year in physics. This excerpt from a testimonial given by the Head of the Mathematics Department, Professor G.N. Watson, FRS, indicates the high regard in which he was held:

He was an exceptionally able student, whose work was at a consistently high level. He was not content merely to memorise results for examination purposes, but took a keen and intelligent interest in all that he did. Altogether, he was the best student who has taken Mathematics up to the principal stage for several years.

He took an active interest in sport, playing tennis socially at Chancellor's Hall and hockey for the University, being in the first XI for each of the three years from 1934-1936.

In 1937 Titterton was awarded a University scholarship and became a research student under the supervision of Professor Mark Oliphant, who had just been appointed to a chair of physics at Birmingham University. The scholarship paid the very modest sum of £92 per annum, barely enough to live on. Because of this, he had to live at home and travel to the University and back by train and bus on six days each week. His research project, carried out in collaboration with another student, was to discover whether, as had been previously suggested, the very weak alpha activity of samarium was triggered by the electron or gamma-ray components of cosmic radiation. To accomplish this, they had to do measurements in a place where the cosmic radiation was much weaker than at ground level. A coal mine 5,000 feet deep was chosen for this purpose. It was a very 'wet' mine with a constant mist enveloping everything. This made it both uncomfortable and very difficult to carry out the measurements with his shallow ionization chamber, together with a low-noise amplifier acquired from Wynn-Williams at the Cavendish Laboratory. Titterton and his collaborator successfully completed the project in spite of this and the fact that Oliphant could be only a part-time supervisor because he spent much time at Cambridge, completing work there, and also at Berkeley. They showed that, within experimental accuracy, the alpha activity was the same at the bottom of the mine as it was at ground level. For this work Ernest Titterton received his MSc degree in 1938.

Ernest's scholarship required him to be a teacher for a certain period and to do this he had to take a one-year course for the Diploma of Education. This he found 'soft' and superficial, after the rigorous physics and mathematics courses that he had previously attended. However, he enjoyed the teaching practice which he carried out at King Edward's Grammar School for Boys, the most distinguished school in the Birmingham area. Mr Rogers, the Headmaster, held him in high regard as the following excerpt from a testimonial shows:

It is clear that Mr Titterton not only has a thorough grasp of his subjects, but that he is deeply interested in the method and technique of teaching them and is determined to equip himself as thoroughly as possible from a theoretical point of view.

In the classroom itself he shows the same keenness and vitality and his work is carefully prepared and is presented in a lively and vivid way so that the lesson becomes interesting and stimulating. His control of a class is good. He is a gentleman of very pleasing personality and he has been deservedly popular in the Common Room. I have found him very pleasant to deal with, and his willingness and enthusiasm have been very attractive. Mr Titterton has obviously the makings of an excellent teacher and should be able to render very valuable service on the staff of any school, not only in the classroom but also in Music and in School activities.

Whilst doing this diploma course he had to do part-time teaching at Birmingham Technical College three nights a week, in order to help support himself. This meant arriving back in Tamworth at about eleven at night followed by a two-mile walk to his home; the next day he had to be up at six in the morning to get to Birmingham in time for work. He passed the diploma course with distinction in 1939, being top of the class and awarded the Elizabeth Cadbury Prize.

At King Edward's School he had an accident in the gymnasium that may have influenced his subsequent career. He severely tore his quadriceps muscle, which never entirely recovered. As a consequence he was later judged unfit for military service, ensuring his entry to the wartime scientific research sector as a civilian.

Wishing to go elsewhere than Birmingham or Tamworth, Titterton chose a post at the co-educational grammar school at Bridgenorth in Shropshire. There he taught physics in all classes up to the sixth form, employing many of the techniques he had learnt from William Summerhayes. He took part in sporting and musical activities, even composing a school song, and was well liked by staff and students. He very much enjoyed teaching but the war broke out shortly after he started. He was asked by Oliphant to return to Birmingham University to join an Admiralty team charged with developing devices to produce high-power pulsed radiation with a wavelength of about 10 cm. The purpose was to obtain higher resolution in the detection of aircraft by radar, or RDF as it was then called. Hence he spent only six weeks teaching in Bridgenorth and then became an Admiralty Research Officer.

At the beginning of the war there were two types of oscillator that could produce centimetre waves at low power. These were the klystron, invented a few years previously by the Varian brothers at Stanford University, and the magnetron invented by E.S. Megaw at GEC, Wembley, England. The Birmingham group under Oliphant's leadership attempted to develop both types to produce high-power outputs suitable for transmitters. The breakthrough was made by Randall and Boot who developed the resonant magnetron which first produced power in continuous mode in February 1940. In collaboration with Megaw, production models were developed for use in aircraft. Titterton had the job of making a modulator for the magnetron to produce 25 kV rectangular pulses with a duration of about 1 µs and a repetition rate of 500 per sec. He realised that this would require the use of spark gaps and developed a system with rotating spark gaps. It was spectacularly successful when used with the magnetron, producing a pulsed output of more than 10 kw. It required a major development programme in collaboration with industry to make a reliable modulator small enough to put in an aircraft. Titterton and his group developed a triggered spark gap to replace the rotating one and production models were produced finally by Metropolitan-Vickers. Oliphant commented that 'during this time Titterton was a key member of the team, working like a Trojan, satisfying everyone, totally dedicated and unselfish' Sometimes he was involved in considerable personal danger, such as when the laboratory was bombed at night and when the klystron-powered equipment, which he and a New Zealand colleague were testing at Portsmouth, was bombed and destroyed. All of this work was of course 'Top Secret' but, under wartime regulations, Titterton was allowed to submit it for his PhD degree. His examiners were the distinguished nuclear physicists J.D. Cockcroft and P.I. Dee, both of whom were working on radar at that time. He received the degree in 1941.

In 1939 Oliphant had brought the experimental nuclear physicist Otto Robert Frisch to Birmingham. Frisch, together with his aunt Lise Meitner, had given the correct interpretation of the process of nuclear fission and had demonstrated that an enormous amount of energy, 200 million electron volts, was produced in each fission event. Neither Frisch nor the outstanding theoretical physicist, Rudolph Peierls, who was also at Birmingham, were allowed to take part in the radar work because they were not of British origin. They were allowed to work in nuclear physics because its major importance was not recognized at the beginning of the war. However, together they produced the famous report showing the practicability of making nuclear weapons if the rare isotope (0.7%) uranium-235 could be separated from natural uranium. This led to the formation of the Maud Committee, code-named Tube Alloys, to oversee the development of nuclear weapons in the UK. Ernest Titterton, whose work on the modulator was nearly over, was assigned to work as a research assistant with Otto Frisch because of his previous experience in radioactivity and his expertise in fast pulsing. Initially he helped Frisch make measurements of some of the important cross-sections for neutron-induced fission with the aid of a strong radon-beryllium source that produced a copious supply of neutrons. To detect the fission events, they had an ionization chamber containing about one gram of uranium. An account of this work and an unexpected result is given by Frisch in his book, What Little I Remember (1):

That ionization chamber led to quite an important discovery. The electronic equipment for it had been constructed by Ernest Titterton, who has since become Professor and Head of the Physics Department at Canberra in Australia as well as being knighted, but who at that time was a young student, very bright and active, whom Oliphant had detailed to help me with the work. I kept complaining that the chamber from time to time, produced a pulse which looked just like a fission pulse but surely couldn't be; there was no source of neutrons, or was there? We went so far as to search the laboratory to see if by any chance a small source had been left in a drawer. We tested the electronics and tried all kinds of improvements. Nothing made any difference, and in the end I had to admit that uranium was occasionally suffering fission spontaneously. Because of the war and the secrecy surrounding our work, Titterton could not publish that important discovery; it was made about the same time by the two Russian physicists G.N. Flerov and K.A. Petrzhak who are generally quoted as the discoverers of spontaneous fission. (1)

Later Titterton went to Liverpool University to carry out an experiment to determine whether most of the neutrons following fission were emitted promptly or after a significant delay. This information was of crucial importance for the construction of a bomb, though not for a reactor, because if the delay was long it would not be mechanically possible to hold the system together for sufficient time to build up an efficient chain reaction, leading to a nuclear explosion. Frisch had already moved to Liverpool because of the much better experimental facilities there; they had a working cyclotron. To do the experiment, they had to pulse the cyclotron beam and measure the delay time between the initiation of fission events by the beam pulses and the production of the neutrons. Titterton pulsed the beam by deflecting it on to the target by an electric field driven by his spark-gap modulators. No delay was found within the accuracy of the measurement (about a microsecond), suggesting that a bomb was feasible.

By September 1940, Britain had disclosed its military secrets to the USA, including the very important resonant magnetron. Britain was not safe enough, because of the war on its doorstep, nor did it have sufficient resources, to carry out the nuclear bomb project on its own. Therefore it was decided in 1943 to transfer the entire project to the USA. Sir James Chadwick, the discoverer of the neutron, was the leader of the British team and Professor Mark Oliphant was his deputy. Titterton was one of the small number of British scientists to go there, and he joined the Manhattan Project based at Los Alamos in New Mexico.

The Germans also had their nuclear project (2) (3), which started earlier than those of the UK and USA, causing considerable concern to the Allies. By 1940 they had made substantial progress and had access to the world's largest producer of heavy water and to large stocks of uranium compounds from occupied Europe. About seventy scientists, including the Nobel prizewinner Werner Heisenberg, were involved in the project. Although fairly substantial support was given, it was very small compared to that given by the Allies. Nevertheless at the end of the war the Germans had demonstrated the feasibility of enriching 235U with an ultra-centrifuge and were on the verge of having a working reactor; but for the massive Allied bombing campaign beginning in 1943, most likely this would have been successfully achieved. However by 1942 the Germans considered that it was not feasible to make a bomb in time to influence the outcome of the war.

When Titterton took up his job as a research officer at Birmingham University at the beginning of the war, he met Peggy Eileen Johnson, who was an able laboratory assistant. She carried out a mixture of technical and typing jobs and was located fairly close to Ernest's office. They soon got to know one another well and she helped him in producing the prototype of the triggered spark-gap modulator. He married Peggy, the daughter of Captain and Mrs Alfred Johnson, on 19 September 1942 at Hagley Parish Church, close to Birmingham.

Los Alamos 1943-1947

The site of the Manhattan Project was in a very remote region, high in the mountains of New Mexico. Apart from a school that had been taken over, there had been virtually no habitation in the area. Security was extremely strict and the area and the whole project was controlled by the military under General Groves. Consequently the community of scientists, which shared the same social facilities, was very close knit. This must have been very exciting and stimulating for Ernest Titterton, still only 27 years of age, since a major fraction of the greatest physicists from the USA, together with others from Britain and Europe, were working there. For example, the Nobel laureate Niels Bohr and his son Aage, later also to get a Nobel prize, had the house next door to the Tittertons. Hans Bethe, another Nobel prize-winner to be, lent them a kitchen table and a carpet; Bruno Rossi lent them a radio and the Bohrs often used to drop in to hear the news on it. There was a grand piano in the main lodge, where the social activities took place, and Ernest was very popular, entertaining the scientists and their wives with pop-music, jazz and light classical music. Here he collaborated with the brilliant and eccentric Richard Feynman who played the drums.

He initially shared an office with Otto Frisch, but their paths soon diverged. Titterton was assigned, because of his expertise in fast timing, to a group working on the assembly and testing of nuclear weapons, whereas Frisch was more interested in reactor problems. One of Titterton's first duties was to repeat the Liverpool experiment, looking for delays in the prompt neutrons, as this was of such crucial importance for the bomb project. This he did in collaboration with an American, B. McDaniel, on the newly commissioned Harvard cyclotron. The method was improved over that used in Liverpool by electronically pulsing the ion source located at the centre of the cyclotron. Again no significant delay was found, showing that a very fast chain-reacting system would be possible.

For an explosive chain reaction to occur, a critical mass of fissile material must be exceeded. The critical mass (of order 10kg) for a particular geometry occurs roughly when the number of neutrons produced by fission within the material (about 3 per fission event) is equal to the number that escape from the surface. There were two basic weapon designs. The first, strongly favoured by the British and by Chadwick, was simple in concept. A near-critical cylinder of 235U was driven into the centre of another near-critical cylinder with a hole in it, essentially by gun technology, thus forming a super-critical mass. A pulse of neutrons from a radium-beryllium source at the centre initiated the explosive chain reaction. This system was called the 'Thin Man' because its length was much greater than its diameter. It was assumed that this rather simple type of bomb would be certain to explode, though only an upper limit to its power could be estimated.

A much more efficient use of the fissile material (235U or 239Pu), then in very short supply, would be obtained with the use of spherical geometry, which minimizes the surface-to-volume ratio and hence the critical mass. Therefore there were strong reasons for designing a bomb of this type. The initial idea was to collapse, by suitable explosive technology a sub-critical hollow sphere to a solid sphere, which would then be super-critical. Titterton and his collaborators developed a pulsed (µs) high voltage (250 kV) X-ray system together with other techniques to study the collapse of a small model of such a device as a function of time. The method worked well but showed that the implosion was not symmetrical, presumably because the shock wave that hit the surface was not spherically symmetric. Because of this it was thought necessary to develop 'explosive lenses' that would tailor the shock wave precisely to match the surface of the sphere. In addition, it was decided to replace the hollow sphere by a near-critical solid sphere that would be compressed to become super-critical. Titterton helped develop a two-dimensional explosive lens system that was then handed over to the high-explosive division for extension to three dimensions. He then had to test the new system, which involved developing new methods as only full-scale models could be constructed and the X-ray method was not applicable because of its limited penetrating power. This was all done successfully. Titterton was also involved in field tests of the aerodynamical properties of the spherical implosion bomb system. Its rather large diameter spherical shape was far from ideal for a free falling bomb, and it had to be fitted with a large tail-fin structure to stabilize it and prevent it from rotating. Tests were essential to make sure that the bomb would detonate at the desired height and that all the timing circuits, required for simultaneous detonation of the explosive lenses, operated correctly.

This more sophisticated implosion bomb, made from 239Pu rather than 235U, had to be tested. Ernest Titterton was responsible for the complex timing system to initiate the explosions that would detonate the bomb, and for the electronic monitoring system for its first test. By this time he was the senior member of the timing group. On 16 July 1945, he was given the historic task of triggering the world's first nuclear bomb in a test explosion, code-named 'Trinity', that took place at Alamogordo in the New Mexican desert. The success of this bomb, planned, constructed and detonated on the basis of theoretical calculations, represented a stupendous achievement. The success, for good or ill, changed mankind's affairs forever.

Subsequently, on the order of President Truman, in early August 1945 the 'Thin Man' bomb was exploded over Hiroshima and an implosion bomb over Nagasaki, each with a power of about 20kt of TNT.

Following the Trinity test, a new project, code-named 'Operation Crossroads', was begun for the US Navy. The implosion weapons for this test were made at Los Alamos but the Navy wished to be involved with all of the maritime equipment installed on the ships and atolls around the target area. Therefore they took charge of this equipment and Titterton was appointed to advise the Naval Research Laboratories in Washington, DC, on the timing requirements. Soon after the end of the war with Japan, Congress passed the McMahon Act, which excluded all but US nationals from working on nuclear weapons. The British mission had therefore to leave and return to the UK. The two exceptions were Dr William Penney (later Lord Penney) and Ernest Titterton, who were asked to stay on for Operation Crossroads because of their expertise in shock-wave and timing measurements respectively. There were two tests at Bikini, the first bomb being detonated above sea level and the second below. The purpose was to determine the effect on naval vessels. Titterton did the count-down for both tests. On the naval ship going to the tests, he became very popular with the crew as he gave them some simple lectures on the bomb tests and, perhaps more importantly, repaired the ship's movie projector! Soon after returning from Crossroads, he was made Head of the Electronics Division at Los Alamos. Titterton had played a very important role in the bomb developments and in the tests. He was obviously held in high regard as Norris Bradbury, who had succeeded Oppenheimer as Director of Los Alamos, tried hard and long to get him to stay or return to his position there.

The period at Los Alamos had a major influence on his future career. It gave him the opportunity to be acquainted with the great figures in nuclear science and technology of that time and a strong interest in nuclear power and weapons that lasted throughout his life. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he felt no guilt regarding his part in the development of these weapons. He was of the opinion that it was much better that the Allies first produced them rather than Hitler's Germany, that their use in Japan had saved many US and Japanese lives, and that fear of their use had kept, and would most probably continue to keep, the peace between the major powers.

On the personal side, in 1945 Ernest and Peggy Titterton had their first child Jennifer, who unfortunately was born with a spina bifida. This developed into a growth on the middle of her back that contained part of the central nervous system. A new and delicate ten-hour operation was performed on her at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Though fairly successful, it left her with limited control of her lower limbs. The Tittertons returned to England in 1947.

Harwell 1947-1951

On his return to England in mid-1947, Titterton joined the newly formed Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Harwell. This was located in a sparsely occupied part of the country on the Berkshire Downs about sixteen miles from Oxford. The site had previously been an RAF airfield and initially housing for scientists was provided locally in ex-RAF houses and messes and in groups of prefabricated houses. So again he joined a fairly close-knit community, many members of which he knew from Los Alamos or from his wartime work in England. At home he immediately set about cultivating the garden of his 'prefab' house and, in particular, growing vegetables. This developed into one of the passions of his life, which only ceased when his accident prevented it.

He became a member of the General Physics Division under Professor Herbert Skinner and was put in charge of a research group that was to carry out work with nuclear emulsions and cloud chambers, though with the eventual aim of using the 170 MeV synchrocyclotron under construction at Harwell. He had to build up the group and one of the early people he recruited was a very capable technician called Tony Brinkley, who had worked on radar from 1938 until July 1946 when he transferred to Harwell. Tony carried out the exacting and tricky job of loading thick (up to 800 microns) emulsions with elements to be studied and later, after irradiation, processing them. He also took a significant part in analysing the results. Tony was to stay with Ernest for the remainder of his career.

Initially the only sources of neutrons for irradiations at AERE were the 'zero energy' reactor GLEEP and a 500 kV Cockcroft-Walton accelerator. Hence Titterton sent plates containing stable elements such as lithium to laboratories in the USA for irradiation by some of his Los Alamos colleagues. He also made some irradiations with the 1 MV Cockcroft-Walton machine at the Cavendish Laboratory. Later, radioactive elements were loaded and irradiated at the world's first 33 MeV electron synchrotron, which had just been constructed at TRE Gt Malvern, the Air Ministry radar establishment. Because of the high background from the radioactive elements, the loading and processing had to be done on-site. When the large reactor BEPO became operational, neutron irradiations of uranium and thorium were made at Harwell. A few irradiations were made with the 170 MeV synchrocyclotron, which commenced working towards the end of his period at AERE.

Titterton exploited the photographic technique very effectively and carried out pioneering work. His research fell into three main areas. The first and perhaps most interesting of these was the work on the fission of heavy nuclei into three parts (ternary fission). Only one ternary fission event occurs for about 500 binary events, so the process is difficult to observe. Fission was induced by slow neutrons, which produce very high yields, for the case of 235U, and by fast neutrons and gamma-rays, which produce much lower yields, for 238U and 232Th, which are not fissile with slow neutrons. He carried out by far the best experiment up to that time on the energy spectrum and angular distribution of the alpha particles emitted in ternary fission for the 235U case (the most likely third particle is an alpha particle). In this, more than half a million fission tracks were examined and about one thousand ternary alpha particle events found. The energy spectrum was bell shaped with a mean energy of 15 MeV and extending up to 30 MeV, whilst the angular distribution was strongly peaked at 90° to the direction of the two heavy fragments. He indicated that these results were consistent with the idea that the alpha particle is produced nearly at rest between the two heavy fragments and acquires its energy and direction from the electrostatic repulsion between it and the fragments. This is very close to the view of this process held at the present time, though even now it is not well understood. He also observed cases in which two alpha particles were emitted and attributed this to ternary fission involving the unstable 8Be, which decays into two alpha particles within about 10-16sec.

His second area of research concerned the disintegration of highly excited light nuclei into one or more particles. The reactions were mostly induced by gamma rays (photodisintegration). These were either monochromatic gamma-rays with energies ranging from 6 MeV to 17.6 MeV produced by nuclear reactions induced by protons from Cockcroft-Walton accelerators on targets of 7Li or 19F, or bremsstrahlung gamma-rays, with a continuous spectrum extending as high as 33 MeV, from the electron synchrotron. Much was learnt about the nature of these reactions and energy states of light nuclei. Unfortunately the energy of the new synchrocyclotron at Harwell was too low to produce a useful yield of p-mesons as had been hoped. Titterton therefore studied 'stars' (multi-particle disintegrations) produced in nuclear emulsions by very fast neutrons (~150 MeV) from a Be target. Though these were of qualitative interest, it proved not possible to get quantitative information from them. He sought the help of K.J. Le Couteur, Reader in Theoretical Physics at the University of Liverpool, in interpreting these data. Titterton was impressed by Le Couteur's abilities and this association led him later to strongly encourage the appointment of Le Couteur as the first Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Australian National University.

Titterton's research at AERE was very successful and prolific; he published 28 papers in the period 1949 to 1952. By the time he left Harwell, he had established a flourishing group. An excellent cloud chamber, with an innovative stereo camera, and a pulse height analyser had been developed. Unfortunately the cloud chamber produced results too slowly compared with the emulsion technique, so that in spite of working well it was never used in experiments.

Whilst at Harwell, he also acted as a consultant for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston. In his final year there, the designs for a British nuclear weapon, together with the techniques required for producing the nuclear material and fabricating it, were nearly complete. Discussions were already proceeding as to where the weapons tests would take place and at the time he left, three possibilities were being considered. These were the US test site in Nevada, a site on the Canadian shield in the barren north of Canada, and the Monte Bello islands off the north-west coast of Australia.

In August 1950 Titterton was offered the Foundation Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University (ANU) by his old supervisor, Sir Mark Oliphant. Oliphant had recently been appointed Foundation Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the ANU and was intending to build a large, 2 GeV (later changed to 10 GeV) proton accelerator to carry out experiments in high energy or 'particle' physics, as it is now called. This was to be of unique design, since the magnetic field was to be provided by high-current electromagnets without the aid of iron cores. The currents (greater than a million amps) were to be provided by a homopolar generator, which was successfully built though the full project was never completed.

Oliphant wanted Titterton to set up a group initially to carry out traditional nuclear physics with accelerated particles and later, when the big machine was working, to engage in particle physics. He was to be provided with a 1.2 million volt Cockcroft-Walton type accelerator, built by Philips in Holland, and had the task of supervising its construction and final tests. For this purpose he remained at AERE for about six months after being appointed a professor at the ANU.

Before leaving AERE in April 1951, he occasionally joined a group of distinguished people who formed a sub-committee of the interim council of the ANU, which met every two months in Oxford. The members of the group representing various fields were Sir Howard Florey (Medicine), Professor Keith Hancock (Social Sciences), Sir Mark Oliphant (Physics) and Professor A.C. Wheare (International Relations).

Titterton asked Tony Brinkley to move with him to Canberra. Tony was very apprehensive about leaving and relates how Titterton dealt with this in his typical way. 'Ernest called me up one day with three copies of my resignation from Harwell. He said "sign it boy, you will never regret it". I signed and I didn't ever regret it.'

Head of Department of Nuclear Physics at the ANU 1950-1970

When Ernest Titterton arrived in Australia on the liner Orcades in May 1951, he started with a clean slate. Tony Brinkley, who had preceded him by a month, was the only other member of his Department. He had brought with him many nuclear emulsions from irradiations done in the USA, Harwell and Malvern, together with two microscopes for their analysis; other microscopes were on order. Brinkley found and trained some people in the technique of emulsion scanning so that some research could take place until the 1.2 MV Cockcroft-Walton accelerator (HT1) came into operation. Titterton's immediate task was to construct a building for the new accelerator and then to assemble it and get it working. He had great talent for carrying out this type of project, having tremendous drive and organizational ability resulting in excellent value for a limited amount of money. His longer-term aim was to build up a very good laboratory that would be recognized world-wide as one of the leaders in the field. For this he needed to recruit academic staff of very high calibre as they became available. He hoped that these would be mainly of Australian origin, some from the Department's students, and that eventually there would be about ten academic staff, half of them non-tenured, together with about ten technicians and ten students. These staffing numbers were achieved and exceeded by the early sixties. He aimed to keep one non-tenured staff position open in order to finance visitors to the department. His contacts, developed at Los Alamos, with many of the leading figures in nuclear physics, were very helpful in this respect.

In 1954 Titterton heard that the 33 MeV electron-synchrotron at TRE was to be closed down. He wrote to Sir John Cockcroft, then Director of AERE Harwell, to ask if he could have it for the ANU. Cockcroft agreed, provided that the ANU would dismantle and pack it and pay for transport to Australia. This had to be arranged formally via the UK and Australian governments and Prime Minister Menzies asked Titterton to come and explain it to him. Menzies thought it was a very good idea and a generous gesture on the part of the UK.

In this same year Titterton was elected as one of the earliest Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science of which he was later to be a member of Council and Vice-President (1964-66). He also became entitled to a year's study leave and, feeling that all was going well in the department, decided to take it at AERE Harwell. This was a very convenient time for overseeing the dismantling and packing of the synchrotron. In addition to carrying out research, he took the opportunity to talk to his old colleague from Los Alamos days, Sir William Penney, who was now Director of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston near Reading, about the British nuclear weapons tests in Australia. During his voyages to and from the UK on the Orient liners Orcades and Otranto, he wrote most of his first book, Facing the Atomic Future. This gives an excellent and well-balanced account of the situation at that time of nuclear power, nuclear weapons and the social, ethical and political problems associated with them.

The synchrotron arrived in Canberra soon after Titterton returned from Harwell. It was set up in the basement of the Oliphant Building of the Research School of Physical Sciences and the beam of bremsstrahlung gamma rays from it was directed into a tunnel under the road separating the Oliphant and Cockcroft Buildings. It made a very loud 50 Hz noise and created a sizeable intensity of gamma radiation in the foyer of the Oliphant Building. Titterton succeeded in interesting Menzies sufficiently to come and see the accelerator when it was working. Being a lawyer, he did not understand much of what Titterton told him but did catch on to the idea that the gamma-ray flux was directed into a narrow cone and that, at about a metre from the machine, one could accumulate a lethal dose in less than an hour without realising that anything was happening. With a twinkle in his eye, Menzies said that he would send Titterton a list of people for this treatment! Menzies was very cognizant of the difficulty he and other politicians had in understanding science, and felt strongly that this situation should be improved. He must have been impressed with Titterton's ability to present scientific ideas in a clear and simple way, as he said that he would use him from time to time to talk to and educate politicians about science. This he did, probably to the ANU's advantage in the sense that it brought to the attention of politicians that the ANU contained down-to-earth useful people as well as those living in ivory towers, whom they might perceive as useless.

Later in 1954, a third accelerator was added. This was a 600 keV Cockcroft-Walton machine, constructed by Ken Inall, who was then a member of the department. Like HT1, it was a high-current machine, used mainly for producing neutrons. Hence by this time the department was well equipped with accelerators.

For his own work, Titterton had a large group of emulsion scanners run by Tony Brinkley who did most of the data analysis. The main purpose was to study photonuclear reactions with 17.6 and 14.8 MeV mono-energetic gamma rays obtained with the Cockcroft-Walton machines and continuous bremsstrahlung gamma-rays from the synchrotron. They also studied some neutron-induced reactions.

Titterton and Brinkley were the first to observe ternary fission in the decay of 252Cf by spontaneous fission. This measurement offered a better possibility for observing more weakly ionizing products of ternary fission, such as protons, than did the cases where the plates had to be irradiated to induce fission and many extraneous background tracks produced. They found 179 ternary events out of 50,000 binary events. Of these, nine events had tracks that could be attributed to particles lighter than alpha particles, the dominant component in ternary fission. Titterton could not be persuaded to publish this, possibly because Niels Bohr had previously told him, on a visit to Harwell, that the third particle must be an alpha particle. He missed a significant discovery in so doing. It is now known that protons, deuterons and tritons are also emitted and in a proportion agreeing, within experimental error, with the numbers that Brinkley found.

Titterton's work in this field was recognized by his being asked to write a review article on photodisintegration experiments with nuclear emulsions for Progress in Nuclear Physics, Volume 4; it was published in 1955.

Photodisintegration experiments afforded a method of studying the giant-dipole resonance in nuclei. However at that time monochromatic photon beams with variable energy were not available. Consequently it was very difficult to study the resonance in detail. An alternative method, which later proved to be very powerful, was to study the inverse reaction in which protons were the bombarding particles and gamma rays were emitted. The EN tandem accelerator that the department later acquired was the ideal machine for carrying out such measurements. Titterton realised the value of this method and pressed hard in the late 1950s to use the injector cyclotron, built for the high energy accelerator, for this purpose. Consequently, he and his collaborators, D.S. Gemmell, W.J.B. Smith and A.H. Morton, were the first to make measurements of this type.

Titterton's contacts with Menzies and government ministers probably helped him to get funds for the 5 MV terminal EN tandem accelerator, which commenced operations in 1961. This was a very successful machine, the fourth of its type to be built, and helped the Department greatly to raise its status in world nuclear physics. During its prime research period it averaged 16 hours/day of operation for every day of the year. The synchrotron ceased operation in 1961 and was given to the University of Western Australia. Titterton's photonuclear emulsion experiments also ceased at this time, though data analysis continued until around 1964. He supervised a number of students who worked with the tandem until 1969, after which he took no further part in research. Even during this period, though he took a close interest in the students' activities, he did not take an active part in the experimental work. The years at Harwell and at the ANU until the early '60s were the most productive in his research career.

In 1969 Titterton was successful in gaining $A2.2m for upgrading the Department's accelerator facilities. This resulted in the purchase of a 26 MeV negative-ion cyclotron to inject into the EN tandem (first beam in 1972) and more importantly, the 14UD tandem accelerator that commenced operation in 1974. Though at the beginning of 1970 he ceased to be Head of the Department on becoming Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences, he continued to take a leading role in the accelerator project. The original proposal was made in terms of an 8 MV terminal FN tandem from the High Voltage Engineering Corporation, which also manufactured the EN tandem. However, a number of better possibilities arose by the time that the funds were made available. Titterton showed characteristic shrewdness, courage and business acumen in persuading the department to choose the 14UD and in negotiating a deal that was good for the Department, with its limited funds, and good for the National Electrostatics Corporation in enabling it to show that it could successfully produce large tandem accelerators. The choice, backed by most of the Department, required courage because the 14UD was based on new technology devised by Professor Ray Herb at the University of Wisconsin. It proved to be a correct choice and for many years the 14UD was the world's most powerful tandem accelerator.

Bringing the 14UD into operation was a mammoth task because, unlike the EN tandem, only the bare bones of the accelerator were purchased. Without the able and dedicated academic and technical staff of the Department, it would not have been possible. It required a great deal of complex engineering design and construction, either in the Department, in the Research School or in Australian industry. An example was the 22m high by 5.5m diameter pressure vessel, to contain the accelerator and 30 tonnes of sulphahexafluoride gas, which has to be supported and positioned to an accuracy of 0.25mm. Extensive building construction such as the 43m high tower to contain the accelerator, was also required. Titterton's drive and organising ability was behind all of this. He made sure that there was adequate but not excessive radiation shielding, taking account of the fact that the 14UD was to be an accelerator for heavy ions, which produce relatively low levels of radiation compared to protons and deuterons. This was most important in keeping the cost within reasonable limits. Thus the total cost of accelerator and buildings was much less than that for the buildings alone for an essentially identical accelerator later installed overseas. Though exasperating and designedly provocative, as was his way, there is no doubt that his drive, perspicuity and ability to see the minimum required to accomplish a task gave the ANU a marvellous bargain in the 14UD project.

Up to the time that he became Dean of the Research School in 1965, he maintained very firm control. He made all decisions on staffing and equipment without obvious consultation; with a few exceptions they were good decisions. He listened to people's complaints and often acted upon them, though they were not given the satisfaction of knowing this. Titterton believed that responsibility was taken and not given, which made it difficult for some people in dealing with such a strong and forceful character. Mostly he allowed staff freedom in carrying out their research, though he adopted the tactic of opposing new research developments or proposals but later supporting them if the proposer persisted. The Department produced a large number of PhD graduates. Titterton drove and at the same time encouraged the research students, instilling into them enthusiastic 'get-up-and-go', resourcefulness and enterprise. This was recognized as the 'Canberra Stamp' by many overseas laboratories, who appreciated the high quality of these students. This was a great source of pride to him.

On the whole, Titterton was successful as Head. From nothing he built a department with a good international reputation and excellent equipment. In the Australian context, where there was and still is not any clear procedure for gaining funds for large projects, the latter was a very considerable achievement. However, on the debit side some members of staff highly resented his overbearing manner.

British atomic weapons tests and related activities 1952-1973

On 16 September 1950, British Prime Minister Attlee passed a message to Prime Minister Menzies asking for a survey of the barren and uninhabited Monte Bello islands, lying 120 km off the north-west coast of Australia, as a possible site for a nuclear weapons test. This was agreed and a later request, also agreed, was made for a test in October 1952, October being the only month when weather conditions were commonly suitable. Agreement was given because Menzies felt that it was to Australia's advantage, both from the point of view of strengthening the UK's position as leader of the Commonwealth and of improving technical co-operation with the UK in the field of nuclear energy. It should be appreciated that this was a very critical period in the Cold War. In April 1952, the British asked Menzies if he would agree to Titterton assisting in the forthcoming test, code-named 'Hurricane', in view of his experience with tests in the USA. They also requested that Menzies ask the Vice-Chancellor of the ANU to release him for this purpose. Menzies agreed and accordingly on 23 April 1952, A.S. Brown, Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, wrote to the Vice-Chancellor who, after consulting Oliphant, acceded to the request. Shortly after being approached himself, Titterton had a personal meeting with Menzies, who explained his views and asked him to act as an observer, looking after Australia's interests, and to give the British team under Dr Penney every possible help. Professor L.H. Martin (Defence Scientific Advisor and Head of School of Physics, University of Melbourne) and Mr W.A.S. Butement (Chief Scientist, Department of Supply) were also appointed observers. None of the observers had any formal responsibility for the test, which was entirely a British responsibility. However they, together with an Australian meteorologist from Melbourne, were closely involved in the predictions of suitable weather patterns for the test, which took place on 3 October 1952. Operation Hurricane was of particular interest to Australia since it involved firing a weapon located in the hold of a ship. Delivery by such means to an Australian port would be very difficult to detect and could have catastrophic consequences.

The following year a second series of land-based tests (Totem 1 and 2), with the weapons mounted on steel towers, was arranged. These were to take place at Emu Field, located about 480 km north-west from the rocket testing station at Woomera and in the Great Victoria Desert of South Australia. Since these tests took place in the centre of Australia, the criteria for choosing suitable weather and wind conditions for the explosions had to be more stringent than those for Hurricane where most of the radioactive fallout would go into the ocean. The same team of Australian observers was present at these tests, but in this case the British invited the participation of Australian personnel in experiments related to the tests. After discussion with Martin and Butement, it was decided that Titterton and others from the ANU should attempt to measure neutron fluxes as a function of distance from ground zero using photographic emulsion and neutron-threshold detector techniques. The others who took part were Tony Brinkley and Dr John Carver, later to become Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the ANU. Both the tests, which took place in October 1953, and the neutron experiments were successful. During the two week long delay while waiting for suitable weather conditions for the Totem 2 test, Titterton was able to resume the table tennis contests with Penney which they had enjoyed so much when in the USA during the war.

Following the Totem tests it was decided that a 'permanent' testing ground would have to be developed to cater for an extended period of nuclear tests. The Emu site suffered from inadequate water supplies and access difficulties. A site at Maralinga, just north of the transcontinental railway line, was chosen. However, the British were anxious to carry out tests in which the bombs contained light elements, as a preliminary to the thermonuclear tests that were to be carried out at Christmas Island. The Monte Bello islands were chosen for this series because the Maralinga site might not be ready in time and also because the second explosion was to have a yield of about 60 kt, which was considered too large for a central Australian site. The tests, code-named 'Mosaic', took place in May and June 1956. This period of the year is not generally favourable because prevailing westerly winds would carry fallout to the mainland. However, suitable conditions do occur briefly once or twice a month. A more formal arrangement for Australian observers was instituted. The Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee (AWTSC) was set up in July 1955 and had joint responsibility with the UK team for the decision to fire a weapon; it had the power of veto if it felt that the conditions would endanger people, flora or fauna. In addition it was required to set up a fallout monitoring system throughout Australia. Eventually about sixty monitoring stations were established. It reported not only on fallout from the British tests but also from others, such as the French tests in the Pacific. The results, together with health implications, were tabled in Parliament and also published by the AWTSC in the scientific literature. The first members of this committee were Martin (Chairman), Titterton, Butement, C.E. Eddy (Director, Commonwealth X-ray and Radium Laboratory [CXRL] ) and J.P. Baxter (Chairman, Australian Atomic Energy Commission). Shortly afterwards L.J. Dwyer (Director, Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology) was co-opted because none of the other members had the meteorological skills required for the fallout predictions. Some members of the AWTSC, including Titterton attended the Mosaic tests and subsequent ones.

All further weapons tests in Australia were carried out at the Maralinga site. Four weapons were exploded in the 'Buffalo' series between 27 September and 22 October 1956. Before the final 'Antler' series, with three tests between 14 September and 9 October 1957, the duties of the AWTSC were split between two new committees. The new AWTSC initially consisted of Titterton (Chairman), Dwyer and D.J. Stevens (Director CXRL, following the death of Eddy). It was responsible for all matters of public safety arising from the tests. The National Radiation Advisory Committee (NRAC) had Sir Macfarlane Burnet as chairman and also included Martin and Butement. It reported to the Prime Minister on radiological effects in the community. Both committees were disbanded by the Whitlam government in 1973, though after protests from Martin, another committee with similar duties to NRAC, the Australian Ionizing Radiation Advisory Council (AIRAC) was formed. Neither Titterton nor Martin was a member of the new committee though the latter was invited to be.

In addition to the major weapons tests there was a large number of minor trials. These were related to the design of nuclear weapons and as a consequence were more secret than the major weapons tests; no Australians were allowed to take part, nor were full details given by the British. The AWTSC had no control over these tests though it was at times consulted by the Australian government regarding them. These tests took place at Emu in September and October 1953 and continued at Maralinga, on and off, until April 1963. Only conventional explosives were used so that there was no problem with radioactive fallout outside the range area. However, within the range area there was some chemical and radioactive contamination. The most controversial of these tests were the Vixen B series which took place between September 1960 and April 1963. These involved the burning or explosion of plutonium and were carried out in order to assess the effects of an accident to a weapon in transit or storage.

Titterton was the subject of severe criticism from the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia which held hearings between August 1984 and September 1985. The President of the Commission was the Honourable James R. McClelland, a judge and ex-Labor politician. It is difficult to accept its report (4) (hereafter referred to as RCR) as fair and balanced on scientific matters and on events that took place thirty years earlier. It evokes the suspicion that, as for many government-inspired investigations, it was set up to reach the conclusions it did. These were contrary to those of previous investigations, the most detailed of which was AIRAC9 (1983) (5). It also raises the question once again as to whether an adversarial legal investigation is the proper way to investigate scientific questions. Its conclusions regarding the AWTSC and Titterton (RCR, p.526) read:

  1. The AWTSC failed to carry out many of its tasks in a proper manner. At times it was deceitful and allowed unsafe firing to occur. It deviated from its charter by assuming responsibilities which properly belonged to the Australian Government.
  2. Titterton played a political as well as a safety role in the testing program, especially in the minor trials. He was prepared to conceal information from the Australian Government and his fellow Committee members if he believed to do so would suit the interests of the United Kingdom Government and the testing program.
  3. The fact that the AWTSC did not negotiate with the UK openly and independently in relation to the minor trials was a result of the special relationship which enabled Titterton to deal with the AWRE in a personal and informal manner. He was from first to last, 'their man' and the concerns which were ultimately voiced in relation to the Vixen B proposals and which forced the introduction of more formal procedures for approving minor trials were a direct result of the perceived inadequacies in the manner in which he had carried out his tasks.

The statement that Titterton was 'from first to last, "their man" ' rejects any other interpretation of his actions. It appears contrary to the attitude that the Commission adopted in other cases. For example (RCR p.600) the statement in the AIRAC9 report on the weapons tests that 'AIRAC found no evidence that Aborigines were injured in nuclear tests', was strongly criticized. It was suggested that a better formulation would be that 'AIRAC was not supplied with any evidence which would enable it to decide one way or the other whether Aborigines...'. It is certainly true that Titterton was of British origin and closely associated with Penney, and that he wished the tests to be successful; so in fact did the Australian government. The British were very concerned to re-establish their relationship with the USA on nuclear matters and as a consequence were reluctant to pass on information to Australians regarding details of the weapons. It is likely that Oliphant was not associated with the tests because the Americans regarded him as a security risk. Titterton, with his American clearance, was a person with whom they could safely communicate, though details of the weapons were excluded even from him. However, it does not necessarily follow that, because of his relationship with the British, he did not carry out his responsibilities to Australia to the best of his ability. Titterton was in many ways his own worst enemy. He was a very bright and shrewd person but on occasions very abrasive and impatient with those who disagreed with him. He was also very impatient with bureaucratic procedures and would short-circuit these if possible; basically he was a 'doer'. One of the main objections to Titterton by the Commission appeared to be that he had a direct line to the British and that this was indicative of a conspiracy. However, it might well have been an advantage to Australia for the British to have had a knowledgeable person in whom they could safely confide and thus enable him to form better judgements than would otherwise have been the case.

Titterton was severely criticized because he advised the British to say that the fission yield of the 1960 Vixen B minor trials was zero. The Commission said (RCR, p.519) 'This, of course, was a misrepresentation of the nature of Vixen B as Titterton well knew'. Titterton probably took the view that it would be better not to worry the bureaucrats about the very small fission product yield, which was completely insignificant from a safety point of view; the standard employed was that 'any fission products produced must be radiologically insignificant compared to the activity of the parent fissile material' (RCR, p.521). In 1960 the requirements for approval were tightened up and more written evidence was required. According to RCR (p.520), 'Titterton's role and influence diminished after that'. Nevertheless it is interesting that the Vixen B tests continued until 1963.

The Royal Commission criticized many of the weapons tests on the grounds that the weather conditions for firing were unsuitable or that the observed fallout pattern did not precisely follow that predicted. The accuracy of a prediction depended on the accuracy of the British fallout model, the estimated power of the weapon and the meteorological forecast. Even today, short term meteorological forecasts are not very reliable; thirty years ago, with no satellite observations, they were very much less so. In all, it would seem that the major weapons tests were a great success as far as safety was concerned; there is no tangible evidence that anyone was harmed by the fallout. It may possibly be true, as the Commission repeatedly pointed out, that a few people may develop cancer as a consequence of the low-intensity fallout radiation. However, Titterton's view was that any action, such as crossing the road, involves some risk of accident or death, sad though it might be. He felt strongly that the risks involved in various actions and technological developments should be compared, and that it was ridiculous to spend effort and money on reducing small risks when the same amount spent on reducing a large risk would produce a much higher dividend. Unfortunately lawyers and most of the general population who are not trained to consider probabilities, tend to judge such matters purely on emotional grounds. If the British were so disregardful of safety in Australia and Titterton was their lackey, as the Commission seemed to think, it is a miracle that there were not serious consequences from the tests which, by any standard, were of a major and potentially very dangerous nature.

Dean and Director 1966-1973

When Oliphant retired as Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences (RSPhysS) at the end of 1963, Professor John Jaeger, Head of the Department of Geophysics, was appointed Acting Head of the School for two years, with the title of Dean. Titterton followed him as Dean for two years from January 1966. However, at the end of this period the University decided to reinstate the Directorship and appointed Titterton for a five-year period. Deans, with their short period of tenure, were allowed to retain their departmental Headships but the University decided that Directors would have to relinquish them. Since Titterton was not due to retire until 1981, he quite reasonably requested and obtained an assurance that, apart from exceptional circumstances, he could expect to be reappointed for a second term.

Under his leadership, the School prospered and expanded in size. He established two new departments. That of Applied Mathematics, under Professor Barry Ninham, proved to be a great success and has made very significant contributions in fields such as optics, colloid physics and intermolecular forces (the latter an essentially experimental subject). Titterton deserves considerable credit for this success because it was his insight and determination that led to the formation of this very non-typical department of applied mathematics. The Department of Solid State Physics was less successful. It was formed with the aim of utilizing the (at that time) uniquely high magnetic fields (300 T) available with the homopolar generator as a current source. This objective was never achieved, partly because of the low duty cycle of the homopolar generator.

An event of considerable importance to the Research School was the establishment of the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). After many discussions between interested parties the Australian government indicated in 1967 that it was prepared to join the UK in building and operating a large optical telescope in Australia. A formal agreement was signed in 1969, but unfortunately this omitted any specific reference to the management of the telescope. This omission led to acrimonious discussions between the ANU and the Telescope Board that only ceased in 1973 (6). The telescope was to be located on Siding Spring Mountain, where the ANU had already established an observatory. The Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories (MSSSO) were operated by the Department of Astronomy in the RSPhysS. Its Director and Head of Department was Professor Olin Eggen, a forthright man with a good sense of humour and an astronomer of the old school. Eggen, who was strongly supported by Vice-Chancellor Sir John Crawford wanted the ANU to act as the agent for the Telescope Board and manage the telescope as part of an integrated observatory under his control. This view was not acceptable to the British side who naturally did not wish to see the telescope under the control of one of its major users; later it transpired that astronomers from other Australian observatories did not like it either.

Titterton set out his views on this question in a paper in 1970. He was strongly opposed to Eggen's proposal, pointing out that it would put a heavy burden of responsibility on the Head of the Department of Astronomy and saying:

This seems to have overwhelming disadvantages to us; it demands a greatly increased administrative structure under the aegis of the School and opens the possibility that we, through our special geographical advantage, are attempting to control the operation. There would be absolutely no compensating advantages in research.

His opinion was that the telescope should be under the control of an independent director who should be an eminent astronomer, responsible directly to the Board. He pointed out that

if a front ranking astronomer were appointed...this would be greatly to our advantage. It would enrich our academic circle and increase the stature of the Observatory.

He maintained these views throughout the long period of conflict and in February 1973 succeeded in getting the Faculty Board of the RSPhyS to reverse its decision to support the establishment of an Observatory Services Unit (OSU), administered by Eggen but responsible to the Vice-Chancellor, to provide support for all telescopes at Siding Spring. This was done on the grounds that Eggen was by now clearly not going to be Director of the AAT. He pointed out that

Regrettably the real situation was developing into a struggle between the ANU on the one hand and the Australian and British Astronomers on the other.

There is no doubt that Titterton was correct in his assessment of this situation but he may well have made enemies in the Chancellery for opposing the view of the Vice-Chancellor. In spite of the Faculty Board's decision, the OSU was established by the University but never fulfilled its function and was subsequently abandoned. The Telescope Board appointed its own staff to manage and develop the AAT.

Another important event during Titterton's period as Director was the splitting off of the Department of Geophysics and Geochemistry from the RSPhysS to form the new Research School of Earth Sciences in 1973. Long before this, in 1955, Professor John Jaeger, Head of the Department, had proposed a School of Earth Sciences and in 1961 and 1962 he presented a detailed case that reached the Board of the Institute, though without success. He re-opened the matter again in 1969 though, since he was nearing retirement, he left the final campaign mainly to Professor A.E. Ringwood. Titterton and the Faculty Board of RSPhysS were opposed to an expansion of Geophysics and Geochemistry within the School because it would have to have been at the expense of other disciplines, some of which would themselves have had a good case for expansion. Titterton was also opposed to the formation of a new School, partly because he thought that the academic case was not strong enough and partly because of the increased costs of administration that would inevitably result; for example there would have to be two School Secretaries instead of one, two workshops, and so on. The battle between Ringwood and Titterton was long and acrimonious but Titterton eventually lost it in the University Council, possibly as a result of overstating his case.

The last years of Titterton's directorship were not happy. In many respects he was a professor of the old autocratic school, dogmatic and pugnacious into the bargain. This type of behaviour was becoming much less acceptable in the 1970s. Furthermore, though he was perceptive, farsighted and more often than not correct in his major policies over which he took great trouble, his frequent lack of tact, aggressive manner and incessant monologues antagonized many people. As when he was a Head of Department, he did not take kindly to criticism and did not give people the opportunity to know that he sometimes listened to their suggestions. Though he would support projects involving large sums of money, he was extremely tight on lesser matters such as additional salary increments for people who merited them, money for fieldwork, and so on. Sometimes he descended to extreme pettiness such as not allowing a light in the nuclear physics lavatory on the grounds that people might sit there and read the newspaper. This was not a good way to run a large School with a variety of departments, headed by people distinguished in their own right. It gradually built up resentment, not only amongst Heads of departments and units, but also amongst many other members of the School.

This first showed itself openly in the matter of the chairmanship of Faculty in mid-1971. Faculty, of which all academic members of the School were members, had no powers except to advise, and its main function was to keep members informed about developments in the School and University. The Director had normally been chairman but some members felt that Titterton did not act impartially, coming down hard on those who proposed matters with which he disagreed. Some felt inhibited in speaking, fearing that if they said anything out of turn it might damage their career. Because of this, there was a move to have an elected chairman of Faculty. Had Titterton been a better politician, he would have agreed to this without delay, as Faculty was a toothless body which, in normal times, frequently had difficulty even in raising a quorum. In doing so he would have gained kudos, but unfortunately, he fought to the bitter end, apparently not appreciating the very strong feelings growing rapidly within the School. Matters finally came to a head with a special meeting of Faculty at which the Academic Registrar was present, probably the only meeting attended by almost every member of the School. The motion that there should be an elected Chairman of Faculty received over 100 votes, whilst there were no votes for the motion that the Director should remain Chairman. This episode marked the beginning of a significant decline in his popularity within the School. He also became unpopular with the Vice-Chancellor, probably due, at least in part, to his opposition to Sir John Crawford's strongly-held positions on the Anglo-Australian Telescope and Earth Sciences. From this point on, Titterton, though in no way an unapproachable snob, seemed to become more and more isolated and out of touch with grass-roots feeling within the School. He appeared to feel that there was a conspiracy against him by some 'ratbag' elements. All of these things ensured that he would not be extended for a second term as Director as he had been led to expect when he was first appointed.

A committee, under the chairmanship of Dr H.C. Coombs, was appointed to consider who was to be the next Director of RSPhysS in the Institute of Advanced Studies. A similar committee has subsequently been established near the end of each Director's term. However, this was the first occasion on which this was done and most probably the reason was to ensure that Titterton would not be reappointed. His term came to an end on 15 September 1973.

With hindsight, Ernest Titterton's non-reappointment was due to people concentrating on the more irritating aspects of his character, forgetting his very real accomplishments as Dean and Director. The School developed and prospered during his stewardship and there is little doubt that he worked long and hard for its success. In spite of his tough and authoritarian nature, there was much more information provided to the Faculty Board and more discussions on important issues than was the case with subsequent Directors.

Final period 1973-1990

After he ceased to be Director, Titterton returned to his former department as a professor, though not as Head. Many years previously he had foreseen the eventual necessity to upgrade the 14UD tandem accelerator if the Department of Nuclear Physics were to maintain its position among the top international nuclear science laboratories. He came to the conclusion, as did the Department, that the most suitable and cost-effective upgrade would be to use the 14UD as an injector to a superconducting linear accelerator. This would approximately double the energy of heavy ions achievable with the 14UD alone, for a price in real dollars considerably less than that for the original machine. As one of his main activities, he chose to look further into this question and to follow up similar developments in other parts of the world. The University provided him with funds for this purpose in addition to his normal study leave money. Unfortunately times had changed since 1969, when the funding for the 14UD was approved. Money for research became increasingly difficult to get. The matter was made even more difficult by the fact that, unlike most other 'advanced' countries, Australia had and still has no established mechanism for the assessment of and provision of funding for research equipment proposals unless they involve only very small cost. Proposals are usually neither approved nor turned down, they are simply passed from one section of the bureaucracy to another, causing frustration and demoralization to those who make them. As a consequence, although much effort was put into the proposal by members of the Department including Titterton, no final decision has yet been reached.

Titterton continued his interest in the subject of nuclear power, giving lectures, making television appearances and writing articles. In 1978 he wrote a book, Uranium, Energy Source of the Future?, with F.P. Rowbotham as co-author who put the case against nuclear power. He was also on the Council of Macquarie University from 1978 to 1984. He retired at the end of 1981 but continued as a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Nuclear Physics. Shortly after retiring he had a stroke which initially left him partially paralysed, but he made an almost complete recovery. He was divorced in 1986.

In September 1987 Titterton was seriously injured in a motor accident, shortly after leaving home for the University. His mind was as clear as ever but he became a quadriplegic. Though there was some initial hope of a partial recovery, it eventually became clear to him that he would remain like this until the end of his life. To be completely dependent on others for even the simplest action, to be 'rolled' every two hours to avoid bed sores, was to this previously very active and fiercely independent man, a fate worse than death. Nevertheless, he approached this situation with his usual courage and took the positive step of dictating his memoirs into a voice-activated tape recorder. In this he was helped by a technical device constructed specially for him. By blowing down tubes he was able to operate his tape recorder, to choose one of two channels on his radio, or to operate a buzzer to call for attention. These were the only actions that he could carry out without help.

During this period he had the opportunity not only to observe his own condition but also those of others who had problems similar to his own, who suffered from brain damage, senility and the like. He found this a very depressing experience, particularly when great efforts were made to keep alive people who were hopeless suffering cases, seemingly so that they could suffer even more. Titterton became a firm believer in euthanasia. In November 1989 he gave a recorded interview for the National Brain Injury Seminar, in which he discussed the tragic situation of some of these people. A few of his opinions are given in the following quotations: 'Nursing homes, put bluntly, are places where people on the scrap heap of life go to end their days'; 'These people are just cabbages. They do not enjoy living and the answer to that is to accede to their wishes and induce a dignified painless death through euthanasia as is now practiced in Holland.' In answer to a question requesting one simple sentence on his own situation, he said: 'There is no hope and the sooner I'm dead and buried the better'.

Ernest Titterton's wish to die was granted suddenly and unexpectedly on 8 February 1990. In accordance with his desire, his ashes were scattered along the cliffs of the English Channel near Folkestone.

Sir Ernest is survived by his former wife, his three children, Jennifer, Andrew and Ashley, and two grandchildren.


Ernest Titterton was an enigmatic and controversial character. He was a man of great talent, enthusiasm, courage and drive. Seemingly, in his early days at school and university, he was held in high regard on both the intellectual and social sides. Though normally thought of as a right-wing conservative, in England, perhaps due to his early experiences in the great depression, he was once a strong supporter of the Labour Party. His meanness with money was legendary. There are countless tales of this, which caused him considerable unpopularity. Nevertheless this should probably be considered a neurosis rather than a fault. In his latter days he was a relatively wealthy man, yet even when lying in the nursing home as a helpless quadriplegic, he was not prepared to spend anything to help make his existence a little more pleasant. On the other hand, as a guest, he could be charming and extremely considerate.

His personal achievements in nuclear physics research were competent rather than inspired, in spite of his undoubted ability. Probably this was because his activities prior to going to Harwell in 1947, at the age of 31, were mainly in the technical field of electronics. Thus he started work in nuclear physics rather late in life. Furthermore, after quite a short period at AERE, he took the job at the ANU where a great deal of his effort had to be devoted to starting up a new department from scratch. His most productive period in basic research was 1947-53. Probably his greatest achievements were his wartime work at Birmingham and Los Alamos, his establishment of the Department of Nuclear Physics at the ANU and developments during his earlier period as Dean and Director of the RSPhysS. Other notable contributions were his work with the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee and with the Council of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering, of which he was a founding member, 1958-83, and President, 1973-74. For services to science and government, Ernest Titterton was appointed as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1957 and knighted in 1970. Since his Los Alamos days, Titterton held a strong, one might say passionate, interest in the subjects of nuclear power and weapons. His view of the latter is well put in the following excerpt from a letter which he wrote:

Nuclear proliferation will continue, just as all other weapons have proliferated, and we should accept this as a fact to be understood and lived with into the future.

It is no use wringing one's hands and attempting the impossible - keeping 'the nuclear genie in the bottle'. The nuclear genie is very much out of the bottle and nations representing over 50% of the world's population already have access to such weapons.

What we have to do is to strive for a wide understanding of the realities of the situation, present and future, so that man can control his actions and settle his problems without resort to warfare.

He said, regarding the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, forty years afterwards:

Those two weapons caused enormous damage. Everyone was very sad that it was so. Nevertheless it had to be done. We had to swap 200,000 Japanese lives for literally millions of lives of our people. It's a curious way of looking at it, but it was a humanitarian act.

He was a tireless advocate for nuclear power, which he felt offered the world a safe and relatively non-polluting source of energy. By safe he did not mean that there was no risk, but that relative to other major power sources, such as coal, the risks were very much less and that nuclear power was by far the safest major technology that has ever been developed. Certainly on its record to date in the West, this is true. The disaster at Chernobyl understandably had a very adverse effect on public opinion regarding nuclear power. However, the combination of a badly designed reactor with a positive temperature coefficient, together with the quite extraordinary lack of administrative control over its operation that led to the accident, seems almost inconceivable in advanced countries, though much less so in third-world countries. Much of the opposition to nuclear power and the advocacy of alternative power sources such as solar and wind power has been based on emotional grounds and very little on fact. Titterton had no patience with people, most of whom had little real understanding of any of these matters and who frequently took the view that anyone who did was automatically prejudiced and therefore should be ignored. His views were well summed up by the following comment, though it was made in a different context, in reply to a question at the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests:

I do not have very much scepticism of scientists as a group. I have considerable scepticism of pseudo scientists, who learn a little and think they know a lot.

In this matter he showed both the good and bad aspects of his personality. He was courageous in standing up for what he believed in, regardless of the consequences, and he spoke and wrote very lucidly and well.

However, he often could not resist twisting arguments to suit his purpose and stamping down very hard on those with whom he disagreed – much of this was unnecessary and made him many enemies. He seemed to play the great dictator rather than the great persuader and as a consequence his advocacy of nuclear power probably did more harm than good. Sometimes one felt that he didn't care what others thought but it seems more likely that he lacked understanding of how others felt; certainly there seems little doubt that his commitment to science and to nuclear power was genuine and intense.

Ernest Titterton was a tough, authoritarian individualist and he came to admire conservative politicians with similar characteristics, such as Menzies, Sir Charles Court and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He was very much opposed to left wing unions and the Labor Party, which he felt were ruining the country by their support of restrictive work practices and excessive social welfare. This is probably why he was not invited to be a member of the AIRAC in 1973. His life's principles are well summed up by this quotation from Abraham Lincoln that I found amongst his papers:

You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred.
You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.9, no.2, 1992. It was written by J.O. Newton FAA, Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow, Department of Nuclear Physics, Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering, Australian National University; formerly Head of the Department.


Many people contributed to this memoir and I would like to thank them all. I am very grateful for information provided and in some cases comments on the manuscript to Mr T.A. Brinkley, Mr G. Burrows, Prof. J.H. Carver, Prof. R.W. Crompton, Prof. F.J. Fenner, Dr J.M. Freeman, Dr K. Inall, Prof. T.R. Ophel, Mr C.G. Plowman, Prof. I.G. Ross, Mr Maurice Titterton and Prof. P.B. Treacy. Special thanks are due to Mrs Ashley Oates and Dr D.F. Hebbard for access to transcriptions and tapes of Sir Ernest's memoirs, to Rosanne Clayton for help in accessing his personal papers held in the Basser Library, Australian Academy of Science, and to the ANU for access to records. I am especially indebted to Sir Mark Oliphant for his willing and invaluable help. Last but not least I would like to thank Mrs Anne Gillard for her patience and help in preparing an excellent manuscript.


  • (1) O.R. Frisch, What Little I Remember (Cambridge University Press, 1979).
  • (2) M. Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  • (3) D. Irving, The German Atomic Bomb: The History of Nuclear Research in Nazi Germany, 2nd edn (New York: Da Capo, 1983).
  • (4) Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1985).
  • (5) British Nuclear Tests in Australia: A Review of Operational Safety Measures and of Possible After Effects (AIRAC Report, 9) (Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra, 1983).
  • (6) S.C.B. Gascoigne, K.M. Proust and M.O. Robins, The Creation of the Anglo-Australian Observatory (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

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