Professor Bob Crompton, physicist

Robert (Bob) Woodhouse Crompton was born in Adelaide on 9 June, 1926. His childhood hobbies included building electric motors, and his creations included a clock, gramophone, and numerous small motors to power his toys. His hobby developed into academic success, and he graduated from Prince Alfred College in Adelaide top of the state in physics.

Crompton was awarded a cadetship at The University of Adelaide where he worked on his science degree in between making laboratory equipment for lecture demonstrations. He graduated with honours in 1949 and in 1954 he was awarded one of Adelaide’s earliest PhDs for his study of the collisions between slow electrons and gas molecules. Between 1950 and 1960, Crompton was a physics lecturer at The University of Adelaide. He formed a small research group, which was later invited to join the newly formed Research School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra. There he helped to shape a world renowned group in electron swarm physics, formed many international collaborations and took part in the creation of the Australian Journals of Scientific Research.

Crompton has received numerous prestigious awards and served in many professional organisations, including being elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1979, the American Physical Society in 1995, and the British Institute of Physics for his work in atomic and molecular physics and low temperature plasma physics. He was appointed Member of the Order of Australia in 1999 for services to science and the community.

Teachers' notes to accompany this transcript.
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My name is Erich Weigold and I am here today on behalf of the Academy to interview Professor Robert Crompton.

A happy childhood making motors with Meccano sets

Can you tell us where and when you were born?

The Crompton Family. (L-R) James (aged 11), Launcelot (father) and Bob (aged 9), circa 1935.

I was born in Adelaide in June 1926 and I lived in Adelaide for many years until I came to Canberra in 1961. I should go back a bit. My father was in a family business that had a whole range of interests. His particular part of the business was to look after the manufacture of soap, but there were sheepskins being sold and goodness knows what else. It was a very wide-ranging family business, now unfortunately defunct.  My mother was English. She had nursed in the First World War, and when the war was over, her nerves were pretty well shot to pieces because she had had a very strenuous and stressful job nursing soldiers in a surgical ward in the war. These poor chaps had had their faces shot off and there was a lot of plastic surgery that had to be done. One of the things which she could never get rid of was the extreme caution that one had to take against germs. Unfortunately that was still well and truly there in our young days. It simply came about because, if there was any infection in the wards, the surgery was undone and they lost the patient. In about 1919 my mother came out from England to Australia. She was looking after a young family of one of the doctors who she had nursed in England and met my father.

We had a very happy childhood, actually. I have a brother Jim, who is a couple of years older than I am, and we did a lot of things together. In those early days I used to make little electric motors which we used to drive our toys, which we built from our Meccano set.  

The Crompton Family. (L-R) Lance Crompton, Bob's father; Edith Crompton, his mother; unknown; Bob, front; his elder brother James. Circa 1940.

In 1936 we went back to England to visit my grandmother, who was then getting quite elderly, and my mother's sister, whom my mother hadn’t seen since she had come out in about 1918 or 1919. That was the English era of wonderfully cheap toys. One of the things was that there was a lovely toy shop in Leicester, England. Jim and I went into this toy shop with eyes like millwheels. We had been saving hard because we had heard of the reputation of British toy shops. We each bought reasonable-size Meccano sets. He bought a rather large motor boat and I bought this one (indicates), which is now 75 years old and still goes beautifully. 

It still goes, does it?

Yes, it still goes. I also bought a model aeroplane, which I had for a number of years. It was rather more fragile and didn’t last the distance, because it was always crashing.

How much money in the old units did something like that cost?

Five shillings. Yes, indeed. Those were the days!

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Primary school, the war and an educational mentor

Bob (aged 2 years) with brother James (aged 4), 1928

After we came back to Australia we went back to the upper years of primary school at Prince Alfred College, which was one of the boys’ schools in Adelaide. It is still going strong. I was getting towards the upper years of the preparatory school in those days and we had a change of regime. Around about this time, 1936, the prep school was rebuilt into a spanking new building. It is still there today. The prep school is on North Terrace ‒ the big white building with the white tower and terracotta roof. It was a great change from the old preparatory school, which was there before and so, too, were the staff. In those early days, we had rather a martinet of a headmaster of the preparatory school ‒ quite unsuitable for young boys. At the end of the year it was decided that the masters in the prep school 'couldn’t be trusted' to conduct the examinations, so masters from the “big school” came across to give us oral examinations. These were men in their 50s and 60s. It was absolutely petrifying to young kids of anywhere between 10 and 12, I can tell you.

During the war, we had to vacate those premises because the American troops moved in. There was a great invasion of American forces into Adelaide at that time, because everyone thought Australia was about to be invaded. The American troops took over the preparatory school and we all had to get out. So we went to a church hall in Kent Town nearby. We weren’t there all that long, because the Americans only stayed there under a year, and then we went back again. But there was a change of regime from the rather martinet headmaster who was there when I first went to the prep school, to a delightful man called Norman Mitchell. He came from Victoria with a completely different educational philosophy and way of handling boys. He was a delight. He became very firm friends with my family, so we saw a lot of him from that time and well after I had left school. As I mentioned, in those days there was this business of masters from the senior school coming across and examining us. It was awful. When Mitchell came, that changed. Another thing that changed was that woodworking was introduced to the school as a class. You could take it usually as a hobby. Certainly we took it seriously in the prep school. Some people carried on in the senior school, although I didn’t. So I learnt woodwork in those years at school. It is something that has stayed with me ever since and I thoroughly enjoy it. Mitchell used to have me there in the school holidays to work with him doing woodwork, which I just loved. It was a wonderful experience. I guess that he was my first educational mentor.

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An introduction into science - making motors and electric clocks

After prep school, you went into secondary school. Did you find a mentor there?

Yes, certainly. That was our physics master, Raymond Smith. He was a wonderful teacher ‒ great with boys and also great with physics. One thing I did then, now getting up towards the senior end of the school, was to make for the school a parallel-plate polarimeter. I asked only recently whether that is still in existence. It doesn’t seem to be, which I am a bit sad about. It was quite robust, so I thought it could have stood the test of time, but it is apparently not to be found. I think it might be hidden away somewhere in a cupboard.

I assume that playing with electric motors and Meccano sets also led you into science?

It was sort of my introduction, yes. My brother and I used to make things in those days and some of the things that we ‒ or I ‒ made were electric motors. They were pretty primitive, but they did go, and we used them to drive our Meccano models. We cut the form of the rotating armature ‒ subsequently wound it with copper wire, of course ‒ out of cigarette tins that were available in those days. I suppose there might have been perhaps 30 leaves or pieces all cut to the same shape, put together and then wound with copper wire to make the armature. The commutator was a piece of copper tubing, which we split longitudinally into whatever number of poles the motors had – either three or four – and the current was conducted to the copper commutator via carbon brushes, which were pushed against the commutator by little springs. It was quite sophisticated. They went like the wind, those motors. They probably wound up to 2,000 or 3,000 rpm if you let them go. 

I believe that you also went on to make a synchronous gramophone motor?

The Meccano model boat purchased during Bob's visit to Leicester, England in 1936

Yes. If you do your sums, you will find that if you have a large armature with 77 teeth and a stator that also has 77 teeth, as one tooth comes up against the corresponding tooth in the stator, it fortuitously spins at 78 rpm with an error of only 0.1 per cent. So the rotor and the stator had 77 teeth and the stator was wound to be energised. But, when we put the thing together, we found to our horror that it hunted. “Hunting” is a phenomenon whereby the rotor tends to go too fast for a bit, then drop behind and then go too fast again. That is not good when you are trying to listen to a gramophone record. We cured the problem by mounting the stator on ballbearings and damping it. Instead of the rotor-hunting, it continued going around at a constant speed, and the stator just jiggled around ever so slightly on its damped mounting. That was quite a successful venture.

A little bit later, I made an electric clock. The gramophone motor has gone to its father’s long ago ‒ it no longer exists, which is a bit sad ‒ but the little electric clock goes to this day. It also is synchronous. It starts off with a reduction from a worm drive to get down to some reasonable speed. I have forgotten what speed it spun at. It was relatively slow but too fast for a clock. The clock started off with a worm drive to reduce the rotation speed of the first wheel quite considerably then a gear-train down to the minute hand and the hour hand. It still sits in our living room and still keeps perfect time. It is still there. 

So that was an AC motor?

Yes, it was run off the AC mains, as was the gramophone motor.

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A great thrill

When you graduated from Prince Alfred College, what did you do then?

Dr Bob Crompton, 1987

I don’t like to brag, but there was a great thrill at this time. I came top in physics for the public examinations that year – leaving honours. It was most unexpected, but it was a great thrill, for both me and my teacher, Raymond Smith. So I didn’t go on to a second year at leaving honours, which many people did. At this stage there were only 12 public bursaries to go to The University of Adelaide. If you didn’t get a place in one of those, your parents had to stump up with the fees. Even in those days they were quite steep. The alternative was to do what I did and that was to take a cadetship. A cadetship was the most junior position in the department of physics. It meant that you were the assistant to the lecturing staff. In those days the whole lecturing staff was three or four people. There was Professor Sir Kerr Grant, who was the head of the department, Dr Roy Burdon (I was his cadet), another lecturer, and another junior lecturer. That was the whole staff. It seems unbelievable, doesn’t it?

That was the whole staff?

Yes. So I went to the physics department as a cadet and had a wonderful time. It made very little difference to your course length. It only altered it from three to four years, with a year on top of that for honours. But it gave you a wealth of experience because what one did was to set out laboratory equipment for the lecture demonstrations – old Kerr Grant was very keen on those – and to make equipment. Around that time, there were two, perhaps three, things that I remember making of which I was very proud. One was an automated Wilson cloud chamber. This was made for one of a series of exhibitions which the department put on, called “conversazioni”. I don’t know where the name came from, possibly Italian. These were exhibitions put on for the sake of the public. The automated Wilson cloud chamber worked like this. At about every 10 minutes, the vacuum pump would evacuate the volume underneath the piston, the piston would drop and expand the air in the space above and make a cloud and you could see tracks of radioactive particles. It was fun. 

Graham Elford and Bob Crompton upon their appointment as lecturers in the Department of Physics, The University of Adelaide, 1950

I think that was still operating when I went through the University of Adelaide.

That was probably mine—almost certainly, I should think. Another piece of equipment I made was sort of a mock-up of an electron camera. It was an electron diffraction camera, for bouncing electrons off metal surfaces and looking at the diffraction patterns. This enables you to get information about the structure of the metal. John Cowley, who had a very eminent career later in the States, was doing his work at that stage in Adelaide on something which was called the Finch electron camera. He had sole charge of this. It was a devil of a machine because it was all put together with soft solder and pumped by mercury pumps. So, guess what? The mercury vapour dissolved the solder, so the thing was one mass of holes. The only way to keep it evacuated was to plaster it with plasticine and shellac and to wait for the next hole to appear. It was terrible. John Cowley did some quite famous work on that in those early days. To show the principal of electron diffraction at one of these exhibitions, I made one of these electron diffraction cameras out of an electron gun taken out of a TV tube and from an oscilloscope tube, a phosphorus screen of about that size (indicates). There was a way in which I could manipulate the specimen. The electron gun produced the electrons, which then bounced off the metal surface and you could see the pattern on a fluorescent screen, just as in the full-size instrument.

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Learning German on the soft couch

Besides Kerr Grant, Burdon was also lecturing.

He was the reader. George Fuller, whom you will remember, Erich, I am sure …

I remember George very well.

Yes, he was a lovely fellow. He was a lecturer.

I also remember Roy.

Roy was really my boss. I was a cadet for Roy Burdon and not Sir Kerr. Roy did the serious physics around the place. Kerr Grant was much more of a showman. He was a very interesting old boy. I won’t try to reproduce his accent – well, not his accent, but his method of speech with a cleft palate. Nevertheless, he was a character, I must say. 

There was still a requirement for language in honours degrees in those days. What language did you do?

There was indeed. The language requirement was to do French or German. We elected to do scientific German. What did scientific German consist of? It consisted of meeting the professor every Monday morning and making a rush to get a seat on his soft couch, which was getting very decrepit and could only take three or four of us. I think the honours class that I was in had at least six; it may have been eight or 10. It was an unusually large class because, in Adelaide in those days, there were usually only a couple of students in such a class. That year we had something like eight or ten. Barbara Potts – Ren Potts’s wife was a member of that class. Also a number of my colleagues that I kept up with later on, such as David Sutton, and so on were members of that class. We used to make a dive for this couch to have the luxury of sitting on it during these German lessons, which consisted of all of us trying to read German or of listening to Kerr Grant reading German with a cleft palate and us all having to translate it. It was hell, I can tell you! 

Was that during the honours year?

During the honours year, yes.

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An introduction to electron physics

Sir Kerr Grant must have retired around then.

Kerr Grant (left) and Leonard Huxley (right), Adelaide, circa 1949.

Yes, he did. He retired at the end of 1948. That brought about a change in regime with the arrival of Sir Leonard Huxley, with whom I worked closely for many years subsequently, first as a PhD student in Adelaide and then here in Canberra. Sir Leonard was a completely different kettle of fish from old Sir Kerr – by no means a scintillating character but a very solid physicist who was determined to start some real physics research in Adelaide. He began three or four lines of research: seismic studies; biophysics; upper atmosphere research using radio waves; and – the thing that I became interested in – how electrons interact with atoms and molecules. Those were essentially the brand new research areas that he introduced when he came. Biophysics was introduced a few years down the track, when he imported a fellow called Stan Tomlin. He was an excellent physicist.

Yes. Stan taught me quantum mechanics.

He was a good fellow, wasn’t he?


Remember that I had just completed honours and so was about to embark on the next stage of my career, and everyone was very anxious to see this new professor. So, one morning, which I remember so well, enter Len Huxley – Professor Huxley, as he was in those days – in a shabby tweed sports coat, flannel trousers and a felt hat. He was pretty well just off the boat, having come from England. Of course, academics in England in those days had appalling salaries, so he couldn’t have had two beans to rub together when they arrived in Adelaide. It so happens that he and I were thrown together more than we might have been in those early years because my father and mother went overseas to see my brother, who was in England at the time, and the Huxleys took our family house. They had a daughter, Margo, whom we still see. She was five in those days so she used to sit on my knee. She doesn’t do it now, but she used to then! She was a lovely girl. I used to have to look after the garden and so on in father and mother’s absence, and the Huxleys had the house. That was a sort of closer personal introduction to the Huxleys other than just the formal one through the university. 

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One of Adelaide’s earliest PhDs

Did you go on to do your PhD in Adelaide?

Next was the PhD, yes. I chose as a topic one of the subjects that Huxley was interested in, which was laboratory studies of electrons in gases. In those days, the physics department in Adelaide had virtually no money. I remember, for example, it was quite a day when we were allowed to go out and buy a coil of hook-up wire! You can’t believe it these days, but that was how bad it was. We had to make all our retort clamps and set up the vacuum systems from scratch – glass systems with glass taps in those days. I built those and did all the glass blowing myself, which really taught me a lot about glass blowing, and it was good fun. I also made the first of our diffusion apparatuses. I should say that Huxley brought out with him a very small apparatus with which he had been doing similar studies with a student of his, Zaazou, in Birmingham before he came to us. Had he known what we learned later on, he would have realised that it was an absolutely hopeless apparatus to do anything with, because (something we found out very soon was that) one of the most important things to avoid is contact potential differences between the various metal surfaces in the apparatus. They will move the electrons anywhere except where you want them to go! Very early on I made an apparatus out of brass, which we silver plated, the idea being that the silver plate would hopefully have a much more uniform contact potential than the brass. Later on, we went to gold plating, which was better still. That was cutting my teeth in research.

Yours must have been one of the earliest PhDs in Adelaide.

Yes, that is true. I think Sydney may have started PhD courses a little earlier but not much earlier. Nearly all of the other universities were just introducing them in 1949, when I began mine. It seems amazing now, but that is how it was. The highest that you could go to before that was an MSc.

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The newly married Mr and Mrs Bob and Helen Crompton, 18 December 1951.


Did you meet your wife, Helen, at that stage?

Helen came to the department as the departmental photographer. She became great friends with the three of us who worked very closely together – David Sutton, John Thomas and me. She was great friends with all three of us. But, shortly after that she went off to England, which was a sad day. Then we began a long period of letter writing. It ended up with a long-distance phone call – such calls were absolutely appalling in those days – in the middle the night for me. I got out of bed in a bit of a fuddle, immediately turned the wrong way and hit my head on the wall, and then had this telephone conversation in which I asked whether she would marry me! She said ‘yes’ and came home, and we were married in 1951.

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World wars and lab wars

So what happened after your PhD? Did you stay in Adelaide or go somewhere else?

(L-R) Bob Crompton, George Fuller (lecturer), David Sutton, Graham Elford and Gordon Aitchison (lecturer) at graduation, 1954

I had one period of study leave in Swansea in those early days. Helen and I had our first child quite quickly. He was six months old when we went off to England. That was an adventure in itself. If we thought Adelaide was a bit starved for funds, it was nothing compared to Swansea in those days. Swansea had taken a real battering during the war. It was an oil depot town that had been bombed to pieces during the blitzes in the Second World War and it was hardly recovering when we got there. The University College of Swansea was housed entirely in wooden huts, except for the administration building, of course! All the rest of us occupied wooden huts, and they were just the most decrepit things that you could possibly imagine. But that is where we did our research. My research – with two colleagues, who became very firm friends, Jack Dutton and Syd Haydon – was on the measurement of pre-ionisation breakdown currents.

At that time Llewellyn-Jones was in the middle of a fierce war between his group and his way of thinking, which was very quantitative, and an American group under Leonard Loeb, whose approach involved hand-waving and something called the streamer theory. Mention the streamer theory to Llewellyn-Jones and he was likely to blow his top! It was anathema to him, absolutely – with some justification, actually. Loeb enters our story later on and he and I became firm friends. But at that stage, if I had told Llewellyn-Jones that I was going to be a friend of Leonard Loeb, he would have cut my throat, I think!

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Townsend’s scientific grandson

I think you were able to meet Townsend himself.

Absolutely, that was a highlight. Huxley came to England while we were there and we met in Oxford. Townsend was still alive but getting very near the end of his days and Huxley took me along to meet him. Llewellyn-Jones and Huxley were both students of John Townsend’s. JS Townsend was really one of the founders of gaseous electronics. He was an amazing man with a wonderful insight into what was going on, almost as though he could see the electrons that he was studying. Huxley studied under him and I studied under Huxley, so eventually I became Townsend’s scientific grandson as it were – of which I am very proud, incidentally.

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Struggles in Swansea

You were also able to witness the coronation of the Queen.

Yes. I should say that, in Swansea in those days, not only was our laboratory accommodation, the equipment we had to work on, and our technical support very primitive, but our living accommodation was also very primitive. We were very fortunate that Helen had an elderly cousin living in Swansea at that time and she scouted around for some accommodation for us. There wasn’t any freestanding house that we could get. All Helen’s cousin could find for us was shared accommodation in the house of an elderly widow. So that is where we moved in. In a way, Malcolm, our son, who was then six months old, was our saviour. This elderly widow looked slightly sideways at us intruding into her house, but Malcolm was the darling. Malcolm was the oil in the works, so we were very lucky to have him!

I must say that one of the things I remember from those days was coming back from work, often fairly late and pretty tired. We lived about three to five miles away from the university in a suburb called the Mumbles, which was supposed to be a tourist trap. It is still not exactly a tourist trap – but I won’t go into that! Our house was at the top of a very steep hill. At the end of the day, I used to catch what was called their “electric train” – it was actually only a tram car – from the university. It went all around the bay from Swansea, and then I would have this large climb up a near-vertical hill to where our house was. It was quite a trek. Poor Helen had the job of taking Malcolm up and down that hill. Whenever she wanted to do any shopping , she had to take the pram – with Malcolm in it – down a flight of very steep steps to a somewhat lower area, walk down this steep hill into the shopping area and then walk all the way up again. With a pram and a baby, it was quite a task!

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A production line for the Advancement of Science

Returning to some of your other activities back in Australia, you were involved in The Australian & New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) even at that early stage.

Yes, I guess I was. One of the things I did in those early years – I think we must have been mad, but there wasn’t any money – was to make timing clocks for lectures. These became a necessity for ANZAAS because, like they are now, the sessions consisted of a whole lot of short talks and you wanted some sort of discipline in controlling the length of the talks, so you needed lecture timers. There wasn’t any money to buy any of these, so a group of my colleagues and I set about making them. There were somewhere of the order of 16 to 20 sections of ANZAAS, in a number of areas – physics, mathematics, various branches of the biological sciences and so on – so we made one timing clock per so-called section of ANZAAS. As I say, there were somewhere between 16 and 20 of these sections, so we made that number of electric timing clocks. Ten minutes before the end of a lecture, a light would light up, five minutes before the end it would change colour and at the end it would give a buzz. Those clocks were quite successful. We had a production line to make them. Again, there was no money to buy them.

Was that done in the physics workshop?

No, mostly they were made in our house. Some of the parts were machined in the physics shop, but the actual producing of them – putting them all together, and the wiring – was done in our house. Helen well remembers it because she says that she was vacuuming solder spackles out of the carpet for months afterwards!

So you went back and resumed your research on electron diffusion in gases.

Yes, until 1961.

Before you left Adelaide University – I want to bring you back to some aspects where we overlapped – you were my honours supervisor and taught me how to melt black wax to make vacuum systems. The honours project that we had was accelerating electrons to very high velocities so that we could measure the increase in the mass as their velocity increased. To do that, I used a Van de Graaff generator, which you also made, and I became an expert in black-wax melting.

So we did. That reminds me. Remember that I said I would have made two things at Adelaide University? The thing I had forgotten was that Van de Graaff generator. I have forgotten why it was made initially. It was not made for serious research but for one of those public demonstrations. It was quite a beast, wasn’t it?

It was.

It had a dome on the top consisting of two pieces of aluminium – about that size (indicates) in diameter, supported on a large insulating tube. Up the centre of this tube ran the Van de Graaff belt. Helen and I made the belt by sewing multiple layers of nylon shirting longitudinally and every which way. It was a devil of a job. Nylon in a single piece is bad enough, but in six pieces it is almost unmanageable. Between us we managed to fabricate this belt. It was driven by an electric vacuum cleaner motor at the bottom of the tube which drove the bottom drum, and the belt went up and down. It carried charge sprayed on to the belt by gramophone needles fed with a high-voltage motor car ignition coil, and it carried the charge up to the dome. On a good day when it was dry there would be a spark from the top to the bottom of this machine. It was about a metre high, wasn’t it?


It was quite a terrifying brute, actually. Thank you for that reminder.

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Great opportunity in a burnt out shell

I must also remind you that you were responsible for my career after that. You recommended that I come to ANU and do my PhD there, so I actually arrived at ANU ahead of you.

It is amazing, these crosses in our paths.


Anyway, about 1961 or so Huxley left Adelaide and took a position for a year with CSIRO, on its executive. He had been at Adelaide for about 10 years. Then he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the ANU. Not long after, I received an invitation from him asking would I bring the whole of our rather small research group across to Canberra if they found the funds to do it? That was a tremendous opportunity but also a tremendous challenge, at least for John Gascoigne our technical man. John was a very skilled fellow in the workshop right through to when I retired. It was a great decision to make because we had both just built our houses in Adelaide and had young families. Here we were, having to uproot everything we had done on the home scene and make the decision to come to Canberra. Well, John came over and surveyed the scene. He came back and reported that the lab that we were to go into was a burnt-out shell. It was at the end of the so-called Cockcroft Building, one of the only two buildings of the Research School of Physical Sciences then, and he brought back photographs of what state our laboratory was in. It was, indeed, a burnt-out shell.

I remember that fire very well, since I was doing my PhD at that end of the building with the high-tension Cockcroft-Walton accelerator – or HT2, as it was known. The fire started in the geophysics offices further down the corridor and it wiped out the rest of my PhD with that accelerator. I will never forget that day because I was sleeping at University House when some of my fellow PhD students woke me up to say that there was a fire in the building where I was doing my PhD. I came over to see that what the fire hadn’t destroyed the firemen had managed to destroy! After squirting water everywhere, they threw everything out of the window and all the equipment was either burnt or smashed – mostly smashed. Fortunately I was able to complete my PhD on another accelerator in the nuclear physics department and was able to save some of my PhD thesis because of the notes and files that I had kept back in my room. Anyway, I could vouch for the fact that this lab did not look very good at all.

The lab looked dreadful. John Gascoigne came back with pictures of it, but he said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve been assured that it will be all fixed up by the time we come over in about March (1961)’. Guess what? When we arrived, it was exactly as John Gascoigne had seen it when he photographed it! In a way, that was a good thing because we were introducing a line of research which required clean conditions, and apparatus a little bit more, if I may say, “sophisticated” than some of the gear in the Research School of Physical Sciences was then. So this burnt-out shell provided us with an opportunity to build a laboratory from scratch. Gascoigne designed it and had it built. While it was being built we made the equipment to go in it. So here we were in 1961 at the beginning of a new era. 

So you were able to start from scratch.

The Electron and Ion Diffusion Unit. (L-R) Rodney Jory, Alan Rees, John Gascoigne, Bob Crompton, Malcolm Elford and John Lowke, Canberra, circa 1963, photo by John Gascoigne. | JG 86-4-6/55

Yes, and with plenty of money. Sir Mark Oliphant was director of the school in those days. The Research School of Physical Sciences was just in transition from being in the old ANU, where it was purely a research and training institution for PhD students. It was moving from that phase to having an undergraduate section joined on to it as well. That was the so-called School of General Studies. In the old days, the ANU was simply what is now the Institute of Advanced Studies, and it was quite well funded. Our budget – although we thought we were asking for a heck of a lot – was just peanuts compared with what was being spent in other areas of the physical sciences school, so we were very lucky. We wanted to move into the era of ultra-high vacuum, which is a relatively expensive game. Malcolm Elford had just come back from overseas where he had learned the tricks of ultra-high vacuum technology. We were able to set up our vacuum systems partly to meet ultra-high vacuum conditions, and that was a great step forward. Just before that, John Gascoigne and I had built what was quite a novel and elaborate apparatus for those days and it came with us. I will describe it in a moment. It is still in the museum cupboards of the Research School of Physical Sciences.

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Researching electron swarm physics

I think it is appropriate here for you to tell us a little about the research you did.

I have always been interested in a branch of research which is called electron swarm physics. First of all, let me describe what we mean by a cross-section. Perhaps it is best imagined by thinking of a ping pong ball being thrown at a basketball. The cross-section for the collision between the ping-pong ball and the basketball is really how big the basketball looks to the incoming ping-pong ball. If you were to cut a slice through the centre of the basketball you would have a disc. The cross-section, in very rough terms, is the size of that disc. They were the sorts of things we were measuring by different techniques.

When we do these kinds of measurements there is an electron gun. It is the same thing that is in a TV tube that produces an electron beam and hence the spot that goes backwards and forwards and draws the pictures on the screen. In the experiments, the electron beam is directed at some gas molecules emerging from a nozzle. The electrons hit, or may hit, one of the atoms or molecules in that molecular beam and they bounce off. We collect them on the circumference of a circle and find out how many go in this direction (indicates), that direction (indicates) and that direction (indicates). From that, we work out what is called the cross-section for the electron hitting your target molecule.

50-year reunion of the original Ion Diffusion Unit, Canberra, (L-R) John Lowke, Rodney Jory, Bob Crompton, John Gascoigne and Malcolm Elford, 2011

Swarm experiments are entirely different. In swarm experiments, we don’t have single electrons to study. Instead there is a whole ensemble of them in what we call an “electron swarm”. We generate the electron swarm in a gas by having, for example, a hot filament or a radioactive source to produce the electrons. Then we have apparatuses in which we draw the electrons through a very small hole. They enter what we call the “diffusion chamber” and the whole apparatus is filled with gas at anything from a very small fraction of an atmosphere to more than an atmosphere. So the electrons issuing through this small hole can no longer stay as a beam because, as soon as they emerge from the hole, they hit another molecule. I don’t know if anyone knows the term “Galton board”, but it is rather like a Galton board where a marble rolls down a peg board with an array of pins, hits a pin, goes here, hits another pin and goes there, so a group gradually spreads out. That is exactly what the electrons do. They hit molecules of the gas, bounce off them and go on and hit other molecules. Instead of ending up with a beam one millimetre in diameter, which is what we started with, we end up with a diffuse swarm of electrons.

One of the very simple measurements that we make is to measure the profile of that electron swarm. That is one measurement. The other is to chop the electron swarm into segments. Then we have slabs of charge moving down the apparatus and it is possible to measure how rapidly the slabs of charge move from one end of the apparatus to the other. I won’t go into the technicalities of how we do these things, but they are basically the two measurements that are made in swarm experiments. There are others, but they are the two basic ones. 

It is a relatively simple matter to extract the cross-section from the kind of so-called cross-beam, even though the experiments themselves are challenging.

Swarm experiments are easier, but it is a very complicated business to get the cross-sections from what is really a very indirect process. It involves observing how this group of electrons drift and diffuse in the high pressure gas. It is done by solving what is called the Boltzmann equation, which relates the motion of the particles as a group to the motion of the individual electrons in the group, and, these days, through the use of computers. In this way, one can extract the so-called cross-sections, which is what we are trying to obtain.

In those early days at ANU, did you have any visitors from overseas?

Professor Leonard B Loeb (1891 ‒ 1978)

We had quite a few over the years. One of the early ones was a fellow called Leonard Loeb. Leonard is certainly one of the grandfathers of gaseous electronics. He is dead now, sadly. He would be almost 100 if he were still alive. Huxley invited him to come to Canberra in those early days. There has always been a lot of controversy between the explanations that Loeb had for what happens in an electrical discharge and those of Llewellyn-Jones, which were based on Townsend’s theory, which we have already talked about. The two (Llewellyn-Jones and Loeb) were absolutely at loggerheads. As I have said, if you mentioned Loeb’s name to Llewellyn-Jones, you were likely to get an explosion! Nevertheless Huxley thought it would be a good idea to get Loeb out. Because he was a textbook writer, Huxley thought it would be a good idea to show him what we actually did. So Loeb came out, certainly in his latter life and, I must say, he seemed impressed with what we did. If only he had written some textbooks after that we would have scored well in them! Unfortunately, he didn’t write any more, but he obviously thought what we were doing was very sound. I guess it was as a result of his advocacy, as much as anything, that we had invitations to go to the States and spread the word.  

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Lecturing around the world

Was that in 1963?

Yes, that was in 1963 or a little later. About then I had a very extensive lecture tour. I think it involved visiting and lecturing at something like 20 institutions: universities and places like Westinghouse and Lockheed Aircraft Company. Westinghouse and Lockheed had people who were interested in how electrons interacted with the atmosphere. With Westinghouse, gaseous electronics was part of their bread and butter, since they made devices that relied on gaseous electronics. That was a very big tour and I suspect that really publicised our work more than anything else.

International Conference on Photonic, Electronic and Atomic Collisions, at which Bob Crompton chaired a session, London, 1963.

In 1963, you also went to your first International conference on the physics of electronic and atomic collisions (ICPEAC) conference.

Yes. I have bolted ahead a bit. I believe the lecture tour that I have just been talking about was in 1968. 1963 was my first International conference on the physics of electronic and atomic collisions [ICPEAC]; there is a bit added onto the name now. That conference was in London. I think it was only the third conference. I don’t know what number conference we are up to now, but it is a large number. It has been going on ever since. That was one of the big international conferences of which I attended quite a few in later years. The other was called ICPIG – the International conference on phenomena in ionized gases. It attracted a different sort of audience. We had a foot in both camps because we were extracting collision data, which were of interest to ICPEAC, out of experiments that were not quite gaseous discharges but something akin to them.

You also went to ICPEAC and ICPIG in Quebec and Belgrade.

Yes. One was ICPEAC and one was on ionised gases. Again, they were great experiences. I remember the first one in 1963. I was sat down in one of the rooms in Massey’s laboratory, at University College London, with some of his young bloods who were actually in charge of the organisation of this conference. They were asking me to help them sort out how the papers should be placed into this session or that. I was not a young man by any means then, but I felt terribly green in that sort of environment all the same. I got over that in the long run. In those days it was my first real exposure to overseas conferences. I don’t know that I contributed much, but I tried to help.

Following your overseas trip in 1963, you also went on a trip in 1968, funded by the Fulbright Foundation, to quite a number of universities and institutions.

As you can imagine, it was a very exhausting trip because I think there were something like 20 institutions that I was invited to visit and lecture at. At not at all of them, but at perhaps two thirds of them I had to give lectures. They were all over the United States. After that I went off to England and, on the way home, to Singapore. It was a very useful trip because firstly it was under the auspices of the Fulbright, which is a prestigious program. Secondly, it gave our work exposure to a large number of laboratories that were doing either the same or cognate work. The trip was exhausting but very useful.

I think you also went to Italy at that stage.

Yes, I did. I have forgotten exactly where I went to in Italy but I gave a lecture there too, if I remember rightly.

After that, you went overseas on short trips rather frequently.

Yes. The ANU had a generous study leave program. We were entitled to take one full year off in seven years. Rather than do that, I chose to take short conference trips of one or two months. In this way I met a lot of people and a lot of people learnt about our work because I nearly always lectured about it on these occasions. I think that was a more profitable way to use sabbatical leave than the more conventional way. I think that was a better way of using the funds available for that purpose.

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Results that have stood the test of time

Professor Robert Crompton, 50 years after graduation, Adelaide, 2004

I think you are not beating your own drum enough, Bob. I know that you provided the most reliable and accurate cross-sections, which still provide benchmark measurements today.

I think that is right. We would probably never get away with it these days, but I think we must have spent somewhere between five and 10 years perfecting the techniques before we were really sure that we knew what we were doing. These days, if you spent that long, you wouldn’t get any funding! The ANU’s Institute of Advanced Studies was a wonderful place because you could investigate over long time periods to get things right. That was what we did.

There were two results from this period that have stood the test of time. One was a set of experimental data for the so-called “momentum transfer cross-section” – which is similar to the cross-section I described with the ping pong ball and the basketball – for electrons scattered off helium atoms. We reckoned that our cross-section was accurate to within error bounds of about plus or minus two per cent. Usually in absolute beam experiments, if you can normalise them and make them absolute, about 10 to 15 per cent error is considered quite good. But to really test theory, one would like to go a bit further. We were pushing these experiments to the point where we were getting results which we reckoned were accurate to within a couple of per cent over the energy range which we were probing, which was from almost zero electron volts out to about 15. Incidentally, the bottom end of that range requires one to do the experiments at liquid nitrogen temperature. The reason for that is, if you have electrons moving around in a gas at room temperature, the lowest energy is something of the order of 40 thousandths of an electron volt. By going down to lower temperatures, you can extend that down to about 10 thousandths. So our experiments at the low end were done at these lower temperatures.

At this time, another of our colleagues, RK (Bob) Nesbet was doing very accurate calculations. There are not many systems for which you can make really accurate wave mechanical calculations, but one of them, because of the simplicity of the atom, is helium. Nesbet claimed that he could theoretically calculate the cross-section to within one per cent. To our great delight, when we compared our results with his, they were right on top of each other. We both felt very gratified with that particular result. I think it is true to say that that particular result of his still remains as the benchmark?

It still remains as the benchmark, indeed. After that, you went on to do some work on molecular hydrogen.

Yes, that is true. We chose the simplest gases to do. Helium is the simplest atomic gas. We then moved to molecular hydrogen, which is the simplest molecule to tackle.

At low energies in helium one needs only be concerned with elastic scattering. However, when we are talking about electrons colliding with a molecule, the electrons can not only be elastically scattered but they can also set the molecule rotating or, at a little higher energy – about half an electron volt – can set it vibrating. What we wanted to do, if we could, was to measure the cross-sections for elastic scattering, for rotational excitation and for vibrational excitation. The threshold energies for setting the molecule spinning are very low. But the problem is that hydrogen is a mixture of two forms – so-called orthohydrogen and parahydrogen – and, because of that, unravelling the results is more difficult than it might be. It can be simplified if we can produce just one form of hydrogen, parahydrogen, normally only present to about 25 per cent. The technique for doing that is quite difficult. What we have to do first is to pass the gas over a catalyst, iron oxide, at very low temperatures - temperatures that are low enough to form solid hydrogen. If we do the conversion at that kind of temperature, we produce pretty well pure parahydrogen. By “pretty well”, I mean 98 per cent, which is about what we reckon we got. We measured the purity, that is, how much orthohydrogen there was left, by a technique which I won’t describe here that was developed by others. The complexity is that we not only had to produce hydrogen in this paraform but also that it had to be pure. By “pure”, I mean really pure, especially with respect to oxygen. We were aiming at an impurity level of one part in ten to the ninth – very pure! If it is not as pure as this, when the electrons go through the gas, they will not only collide with the hydrogen molecules but also attach to the molecular oxygen to form negative ions. Even though those oxygen molecules are present only in that very small proportion, they really complicate the interpretation of your experiments.

Ian McIntosh, a graduate student, and I did the conversion and these measurements. We were quite scared when we were doing this because it is not unknown for liquid hydrogen to blow up under certain conditions – probably electrostatically detonated, I don’t know how. Anyway, in the room at the ANU where they produce liquid helium, we had this gear set up and we were sitting behind large perspex sheets which, if the liquid hydrogen had blown up, were supposed to protect us. Whether they would have I have no idea! The perspex sheets were some sort of comfort in any case.

We produced the parahydrogen and made the measurements and, to our delight it turned out that those results for the rotational excitation from the threshold up to probably about half an electron volt fitted absolutely beautifully with theory. That was another highlight.

But there was a disappointment. In addition to finding the rotational cross-section, these experiments enabled the vibrational cross-section to be determined. Vibrational excitation occurs at a somewhat higher energy. The lowest energy at which we can produce vibrational excitation is about half an electron volt. There is enough separation between what happens at lower energies and what happens above half a volt to get a good handle on the rotational cross-section. Then, from half a volt up, we can determine the vibrational cross-section and the rotational cross-section, with decreasing accuracy for the rotational cross-section. But here is the disappointment: whereas the theoretical rotational cross-section and experiment match beautifully, the same is not the case for the vibrational cross-section. We have agonised over the experimental results for a long while. We have done the measurements in various different ways. Every way we do them, we get the same result. Theoreticians claim that they have got it right; we claim that we have got it right. We don’t fight over it, but there is an unresolved controversy. I doubt whether I will see it solved, but I would love to know what the answer is.

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Writing a fairly solid book

Around this time, Sir Leonard Huxley retired from the vice-chancellorship at ANU. Did he go back to experimental work at all?

No. He never did any experimental work in Australia, but he was always interested in the work that we were doing. His great contribution to the work was on the theoretical side. That was not in scattering theory but in the theory behind analysing swarm experiments to get these cross-sections. That was his great contribution. 

Various American publishers had been at us for some time to write a book, so now was the time to do it. Huxley had some free time – I didn’t have any! Nevertheless, we got together. I went afternoon after afternoon down to Huxley’s house in Hughes, where he had retired to, and we set about preparing the material for this fairly solid book ‘The Diffusion and Drift of Electrons in Gases’ by LGH Huxley and RW Crompton (indicates).

There is a bit of a pity about this book. It was published by a very notable publisher, Wiley InterScience, so it should have been right. But at that time they were just going over to computer typesetting. Horror of horrors, we went through the first proofs and corrected those. That is all an author can do. After that, it is up to the publisher. But, because it was computer typeset, there were slips between what we had as the proof and what came out in the book. I won’t tell you where the errors are, but there are some not very good ones, which I hope very few people ever spot. But it was “shock, horror” when we found them. It was just because this was probably one of the very first books that was computer typeset, I think.

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Great friends in Oklahoma

I believe that you also spent quite a bit of time visiting the University of Oklahoma.

Yes. The first visit to Norman was as a result of an invitation from David Golden. David Golden had been appointed recently to the chair to succeed Richard Fowler, so he was a new young man coming in. He appointed a whole lot of young staff to the university and I shared a room with one of them, who became a very firm friend. Another, whom I didn’t share a room with but with whom I had a lot of interaction, was a fellow called Michael Morrison. This was in the year 1977-78 and it was a full sabbatical year for me. Two thirds of the year was spent at Norman Oklahoma. Morrison is one of those unusual theorists who are really interested in collaborating strongly with experimentalists, so he and I got on like a house afire. He really wanted to understand how swarm experiments worked and how the results were interpreted, and he and I formed a firm friendship and have worked together subsequently. That was the year when at the end of all that, we drove across the States to Canada. That group of new, then young, staff have now all entered retirement age. I am long past retirement age too, but, very kindly, they asked me to go back this year to the University of Oklahoma for their retirement dinner. It was a great occasion because I met all my old friends. I think they were all there. As you can imagine it was a terrific reunion, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Working on positrons and car engines

Bob Crompton’s 1959 Wolseley which he recently donated to the National Museum of Australia, Canberra

I think at the conclusion of that stay in 1977-78 was the time that we had to drive up to Canada. I wanted to see something about the work on positrons, positive electrons – the complement to the sort of work that we were doing. The fellow who was doing some swarm work at that time on positrons was in Canada. His name was Derek Paul. It so happened that we had to drive across the Midwest of the United States in the tornado season. We were well aware of tornados because the tornado centre in the United States is in fact situated in Norman, so people there know all about tornados. They have shelters, which everyone is supposed to be able to bolt into if there is a tornado. We never saw one in Norman but we did when we were driving across the States to go up to Canada – in a terrible old car, which I should tell you something about. This old car was all I could afford. It was an old Toyota that I don’t think anyone had ever changed the oil in, so I was a fool to buy it. When I did change the oil, the engine clanked like mad, which meant it was in its dying days. Tom Rhymes was in Oklahoma at that time and he and his wife and I hauled the engine out of this car and put it in my study in the Physics Department, where it dripped oil all over the floor – luckily, linoleum – and I then rebuilt the engine. It went very well after that. It was in that car that we were driving up to Canada to see Derek Paul in Toronto and, lo and behold – I suppose what we part-dreaded – down from the sky were coming embryonic twisters and also up from the ground were coming embryonic twisters. If they meet, you have got a proper tornado. Luckily that part of the world is full of highways with overpasses and we were ready to bolt under one of these overpasses should anything happen. It didn’t and there was never any real tornado. However with these twisters coming up from the ground and down from the clouds, it was a very scary journey indeed.

Your mention of working on an engine reminds me of the time that you spent working on the parts of another car.

That is the little car that I had for 50 years. I bought it in Adelaide in 1959. It served us for 50 years and it now resides in the Museum of Australia, just over here. I have a photograph of it (indicates) and I think you can see that it looks exactly as it was when I bought it. I must say that I was a bit crazy, but I was very fond of the car and kept it right up to the mark, both mechanically and as far as the body work was concerned, all of its life. This included rebuilding the engine, rebuilding the differential and rebuilding the gear box. In fact, I think there is no nut or bolt on that car that I have not undone! It served us very well. It did about 180,000 miles and took the family here, there and everywhere, including our trips back to Adelaide – three kids in the back, in summer, sweating like little pigs, because there was no air-conditioning, and sometimes we did it in a day. It is quite a feat in a little car like that.

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Physical poetry

Who is Mary Bradley?

Mary Bradley was a charming woman whom we met in Norman, Oklahoma. She befriended overseas students and particularly their families, so she and Helen got to know each other well. She wrote two poems for us and they are both here somewhere. The first she wrote while we were there. She knew that, because I was a visitor, we had to do a fair amount of entertaining of faculty to return hospitality that was extended to us. Knowing what wives have to put up with, she wrote this poem for us. It is called “The perennial host and what to do about him”. I will just read a couple of verses:

Husbands are a carefree lot

Who frequently surprise us

Extending hospitality,

Neglecting to apprise us.

Last Wednesday noon, Bob said to me,

(His tone your basic hearty)

‘Time to get the shopping done-

For Friday for our party.’

‘Party? Friday? Yours and mine?’

(My tone your basic flinty)

‘Our very own soiree - how grand!

How merry, madcap and unplanned!

Our guest list, 10 or 20?’

‘Well, Greg can’t come. He has a cold

Or maybe it is the flu.

That leaves 40 people, Luv,

Give or take a few.

A gifted lady. There is another poem that she wrote for us later on. I am not quite sure of the sequence of these two, but this obviously was written after the book with Huxley was published because it is called “Physics is forever”. It goes—I won’t read it all:

I have written a book to enlighten the masses,

“Diffusion and Drift of Electrons in Gases”

And Helen’s so proud I am reluctant to tell her

Electrons in gases won’t spark a bestseller.

Then there is a verse that I won’t read, but it goes on:

This volatile proton has infinite class –

By the way, this lady knows no physics, so I don’t know where she picked all this stuff up from –

This vital and viable unit of mass

 Is positively charged in the fraught nucleus

Of the atom: the matter will ever be thus

And neutron uncharged reinforces our sense

Of nature’s well-ordered, unbroken sequence.  

After this there are another two or three verses.

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A builder of equipment and overseas collaborations

Bob, you also formed strong collaborations with Japan, I believe.

I got an Academy/Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) grant. They sponsored an exchange program. Under this joint agreement I was invited to go for a lecture tour in Japan. That was a great occasion. It was my first introduction to Japan. I went to a number of centres that wanted to hear about our work. It started a collaboration which went on for quite a few years because the Japanese were doing swarm research at this time. They were one of the few countries left doing it. Later we had a so-called Japan-Australia workshop in Sydney, with something like 30 people in total with15 from Japan and 15 from Australia. Then we had a return conference in Japan near Tokyo a year later and yet another one in Brisbane. Those were good occasions because the people attending the conferences became a very tight knit group. We all got to know each other very well and got to know what each of us was doing.

Was it at about that time that Bob Watts joined the group?

Yes, about 1980, I think. I have forgotten how it came about, but it was probably because Bob was a protege of Ian Ross’s. They were really quite firm buddies. Bob was working with Reg Mills at the time doing Monte Carlo simulations and so on – general transport theory of neutrals. It was arranged that Bob would join our laboratory as one of a small group of two or three and we would build some equipment for him. Bob is essentially a theorist, but he wanted to tie in with experiments and he wanted to have a small experimental group. Enough money was found for us to start this so-called neutron-neutral beam laboratory. It actually required building some quite large equipment compared with the sort of stuff that we were used to making and using – vacuum chambers of this sort of diameter (indicates) and this sort of height (indicates) – and studying, this time, collisions between, not charged particles and neutral particles, but neutral on neutral. We really turned over the whole of our technical resources to that work for a year or two and built Bob’s equipment, which worked extremely well. He got a very talented young man across from Canada, a fellow called Roger Miller. Roger was a very talented fellow, a very good experimentalist. He drove the experiments, but we built the equipment. Then, after about eight years Bob accepted an appointment to go to the University of Washington in Seattle. He left and all that equipment went with him. As it happens, we had started something very well worthwhile. We didn’t get a huge benefit out of it, because Bob took it all to the States. Bob came back in due course –  I am not quite sure how long he was in the States; probably for another 10 years – and he ended up being Chief Scientist for BHP.

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A wonderful family

Now it is time to leave the science behind and talk a little bit about your family.

Helen has been a wonderful partner, as you can imagine from what I have already said and the tribute to her in the poems. Her role in life has been to support the family, and she has been a wonderful support to all of us. I have got three children. Malcolm, who rose quite high in the public service in a number of departments, going from this one to that one ever on the way up, eventually became the Commissioner for Privacy. He seems to have done very well in that role because he was sought after all over the place. Eventually, after a five-­year term he could have renewed he decided to branch out on his own as a privacy consultant. These days he goes all over the world talking about privacy issues. He is practically never home. He lives in Sydney now with his wife. He is sometimes in Australia but nearly always overseas; in fact, it is very hard to catch him home. That is child number one. He will be 60 next year, so time is marching on.  

The Crompton family at Bob and Helen Crompton’s 60th wedding anniversary. Back L-R: Malcolm, Catherine and Graham; Front: Bob and Helen, December 2011

The second member of the family is Graham. Graham elected not to do anything academic. He is an independent spirit, our Graham. He joined CSIRO, eventually, as a technical man in Entomology, on Black Mountain. He was there for a number of years. Now he is gone to headquarters, where he has an impressive title like service manager for the area. He is in charge of all technical services for CSIRO in the Canberra region.

Cathy, our daughter, did a psychology degree and is now in the process of doing what Helen says is her third degree. She is doing another one because she is interested now in teaching – she was in the Public Service too – English as a second language. That is what she is studying to do. 

Getting down to the next generation, Malcolm and his wife, Heather, have two children. The elder one is a medico, now a country GP in South Australia. The second one is an economist who works for Medicines Australia. Graham has three kids, the oldest one is in her young 30s. She became a lawyer and is practising in Canberra. Then from the second family there are two younger girls. Graham has only girls in his family. The elder one of those is probably about 14. She has just had the honour of shaking President Obama’s hand. I have yet to find out what she said to him, but she said something to him! And then there is her younger sister who is just at the top end of primary school. Then there is Cathy. She married a man in IT and he has had a number of jobs in Telecom and several industrial firms. He is now just retired and I think he is wondering a little bit about what he is going to do next. They have two children, two boys, as it happens, both very gifted. One is a very gifted mathematician who is going rather along the lines of Bob May in mathematical biology. He is climbing through undergraduate years at the ANU. The second lad is a very gifted guitarist and he is going through the ANU music school at the present time. They are all well and truly launched – all of them.

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Secretary at the Australian Academy of Science

You were elected to the Academy in 1979 and then became Secretary A: Secretary for physical sciences, from 1984 to 1988.

That was a job! I reckon there were two main things that occupied a lot of time, apart from the more routine matters that Sec A does. One of them was helping Bede Morris put on a major exhibition. Bede was a Francophile. He spent a lot of time in France and had a lot of French contacts. I don’t know quite what the motivation was or where it came from, but he decided to bring out a magnificent collection of French photographs from the French photographic academy and their Academy of Sciences – they were the two French sponsors – to exhibit all over Australia. He put on an exhibition in the National Library in Canberra, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Victoria and in Queensland. It went all over the place, as a result of which this book was published (indicates). It is a beautiful book with many illustrations from the collection. It was edited by Bede and it also has a foreword by Arthur Birch, who was a senior chemist. Birch was Dean of the ANU Chemistry School and President of the Academy at that time. It is quite a glossy publication and it well lived up to the exhibition. It did very well. 

Bede Morris and grandson, London, June 1988

The second thing that we tried to get off the ground – unfortunately this eventually flopped – was something which was to be called the Australian Science and Technology Information Service, (ASTIS). ASTIS was not our brain child. It was actually based on a very successful scheme being run at that time in the United States, where it linked members of the scientific community with the press so that they could give advice on controversial issues. If something hit the press and was a matter of controversy, you would get one person prepared to support one side of the argument and another person to support the other side. You would get them together in front of the newspapers and TV to talk it out. We got a grant from the Commonwealth Department of Science to try to get this thing up and running. I think we had a grant of something close to $20,000 to do this. Barry Jones was the Minister for Science at the time, and I had high hopes of this thing getting off the ground. The man behind it all was Peter Pockley, the science journalist. He had a good reputation in Sydney. He was pushing it and I was helping. We got a long way in the project but, in the end, what money there was in the department at that time the Minister spent on the first of the Australia Prizes. So, just at the point we thought it was about to start, the money vanished and so did the scheme.

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Chair of the board

Dr Bob Crompton during the Academy’s AGM, 1988

I remember another thing that you have been involved in for a long time and that is the Australian Journals of Scientific Research.

Yes. That was a long stint, indeed. I started off simply by being on, and then chairing, the Committee for the Australian Journal of Physics. I might say that that came about because, certainly swimming against the stream a bit, we decided that all the papers from our research group would go into that journal. Almost without exception, they did. I don’t know whether it was a wise move or not, but I think it certainly did lift that journal. At that stage they had a very high standard, so it was by no means a cinch to get your papers in there. They were well refereed and well edited. We put 80 per cent of our work into the Australian Journal of Physics. I chaired that board eventually. Then, for a number of years, I chaired the board for the whole journal series. That journal series, run jointly by the Academy and CSIRO, now extends to something like 10 or a dozen journal series – in botany, zoology, physics and so on. That was an interesting exercise, actually. 

I think the physics one doesn’t exist any more.

I was very sad to see that go.

The CSIRO decided to run them on a commercial basis, I think.

Bob Crompton with ANU Physics Summer School students, 1988. Photo by John Gascoigne. Copyright: JG 88-1-5/34A

Yes. That was one of the problems. The chemistry journal was always very well patronised and had no trouble getting authors and subscriptions. Physics didn’t do nearly so well probably because, I guess, some of the contributions to the chemistry journal came from the commercial side such as commercial chemists, CSIRO and so on. In physics, the discipline is rather more “pure”, so there wasn’t the readership for our journals. Unfortunately, very sadly – although I was proud of the papers that we put in there – eventually, after we had finished publishing in them, they finished.

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Fellowships, honours and milestones

Beside your fellowship in the Academy, you are also a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the British Institute of Physics.

Yes. The British Institute of Physics fellowship came relatively early on. But I was very surprised to get a fellowship of the American Physical Society – and very pleased, I might say. Three things of which I was surprised, honoured and very pleased with were fellowship of this Academy, fellowship of the British Institute of Physics and fellowship of the American Physical Society. Yes, I am pleased to have those particular ranks, I must say.

The Crompton family at Professor Crompton’s Order of Australia (L-R) ceremony; Catherine, Graham, Helen, Bob and Malcolm, 1999

I think there is another honour that you might want to mention. What honour did you get in 1999?

Oh, yes. The thing that sits on my lapel, which is just a Member of the Order of Australia. Helen and I were trying yesterday to find out why I got it – in other words, to find the citation. I wasn’t able to find it, but I think it ran something like ‘for service to science and the community’. I think that is the very short form of it. The service to science is probably obvious. The service to the community was probably there because I spent many years on the board of a small group known as the National Brain Injury Foundation. There is nothing written about it but the link was made through Dorothy Sales, who was the Secretary/Manager of the ANU Credit Union for many years. When Dorothy Sales retired from her position at the Credit Union, somehow or other she roped me in to be involved with the Foundation. By this time she was quite heavily involved in brain injury and she dragged me in to be on the board. I was on that board for a number of years. It was by no means an easy task, because all the families of people with brain injury are highly stressed. Also the people who are afflicted with brain injury are not a group of people who are naturally attractive to the public. They can’t speak properly and often they look a little different. They are a very unfortunate group of people, but they really need great support. Dorothy Sales did a wonderful job with that organisation. I eventually became chairman for a very short time. Thank goodness that it was only a short time, because it wasn’t an easy job. One had to try to extract money from the government and popularise fundraising for it. It wasn’t easy. Nevertheless, it is a very well-deserving small group. It is still going and goes from strength to strength.

I think there is another honour that we ought to mention and that is the celebration of your 70th birthday, which was held here in the Academy at what is now known as the Shine Dome.

Workshop held in honour of Professor Robert Crompton’s 70th birthday, Shine Dome, Canberra, June 1996, photo John Gascoigne. Copyright: JG 96-6-14/2A

Yes, it was indeed. Quite a large number of people came to that. I think it was probably about 30. Here is a picture of that group (indicates) taken outside the front door. We had quite a few overseas visitors come for it. Yes, that was a great occasion. Now, if you please, it was 15 years ago that I turned 70, so it is getting to be ancient history! 

Your father had also just had a memorable milestone, having achieved 100 years, and he received a telegram from the Queen.

It was a terrific occasion, that. My dad at 100 was just marvellous, quite frankly. He went down a little bit in the last 18 months or so. He lived on a bit after his 100th, but at 100, he was just terrific. We went across to Adelaide for the celebration. The then Governor of South Australia, Dame Roma Mitchell, came to see him. He got telegrams from the Queen, the Prime Minister and the South Australian Premier of the day. So it was quite an occasion. He was marvellous. He looked well, he was well and he thoroughly enjoyed it – and so did we. We took across the cake – which Helen made and had iced professionally here – with some trepidation in the aeroplane. It had to go into the overhead locker. We were sure that it was going to get ruined by the time it got there, but it didn’t. It arrived in good shape.

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Fulfilling a dream

After you retired, you got sick of maintaining the Wolseley and so donated it to the Museum, but I believe you have had other activities to keep your hands busy.

Bob Crompton at the harpsichord he assembled himself (after it sat in a box for 40 years!), circa 2006

Yes. I guess my last major project up to the present time was to fulfil a very old dream. When I was in the States in about 1965, I went to the Village in New York to a firm called Zuckermanns, which was just beginning to make harpsichord kits. I think at that stage the firm was only about five years old and its harpsichords were really basic. These days they build magnificent instruments. I have seen one here in Canberra with another friend of ours. They are really beautiful instruments. Mine was very rudimentary, nevertheless, it works. At least it does now! Although the kit was bought in 1965, it wasn’t put together until about 2002. Those bits and pieces lay in their cardboard boxes all over the house, much to poor Helen’s irritation, for years and years, gathering dust and goodness knows what else. Eventually there was time to put it together in 2002 and I had a great deal of fun doing it. First of all, surprisingly, all the bits were still there. Even though some of the cartons had been broken open, all the bits were there. I didn’t have to find a single thing and it plays. Now you have to ask an obvious question, Erich. 

Can you play it?

No, but I hope one of these days to learn. I did begin a little while ago to try to learn music – I can’t even read music – and that is the challenge. Maybe I will give a really first-rate concert in the Llewellyn Hall one of these days, but I very much doubt it!

Thank you very much, Bob, for coming in today and letting us make this interview.

Thank you for a very kindly set of questions, Erich, and for this interview – and for the opportunity to talk.

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