1966 Fredericton Convocation

Graduation Address

Delivered by: Gordon, John Rutherford

"Man on the Move" (13 October 1966): 22-35. (UA Case 69, Box 1)

I am deeply conscious of the honour of being asked by your new chancellor to be the first to deliver this address during his chancellorship. A chancellorship which I trust will be as ling and fruitful as his father’s.

The thought of making it has given me anxious moments. Those who preceded me have been academics or politicians. I have, alas, no academic qualifications and my views about politicians and politics might be a little too cynical for the occasion. So instead I propose to take a broad look at life as it is today compared with what it was three-quarters of a century ago when I was born.

I have seen life transformed by inventions and discoveries more swiftly and more tremendously than in any previous century in the story of mankind. It has been the most exciting century in history. Certainly the most revolutionary and fruitful, in the benefits it has brought to us.

In the space of my life I have seen the coming of the motor car which has opened up the byways, which the railways left untouched, the airplane which has so shrunk distances that the remotest place on earth is less than 20 flying hours away from us wherever we may be, and now the space rocket which goes to the moon faster that our grandfathers could go to Canada.

Oddly enough none of these life-transforming discoveries was regarded very seriously when it came. We laughed at the thought of traveling by air and, of course, making contact with the moon was just the most absurd idea. As was for the motor car, it was a rich man’s toy until Ford set out to make it every man’s necessity. What we ordinary people thought about it is shown by a prophecy which I recall being made by my grandmother as I stood holding her hand while the first motor car ever seen in our remote Scottish village chugged on its way. She said: “That’s all very well, but someone will be killed in ones of these things one day”. As for the airplane, when I was a boy living in the town of Dundee, on the broad Firth of Tay, Lord Northcliffe, of the Daily Mail, the most enterprising publisher until Beaverbrook came on the scene, offered a prize of 1,000 pounds for the first man who flew the 20 miles wide English Channel. A leading shopkeeper in the town at once put a notice in his window offering 1 million pounds to the first man who flew the two miles wide Tay. Most of us thought that wasn’t a bad bet. And that, remember, was not much more than half a century ago.

I have seen medicine make such progress that diseases regarded as inevitably fatal in my childhood are now mere passing discomforts. I have seen the coming of radio and television. I have seen communications so speeded up that over a large part of the world yesterday, today and tomorrow have become blurred into one. To our great benefit though sometimes I fear to our great hurt.

I have seen the atom split and the opening of the new age of nuclear power. Sometimes to the enormous benefit of man. Sometimes I fear by misuse bringing upon him the threat of greater dangers than ever faced those who came before us.

I have seen agriculture so developed that the world now produces more food than ever it did before. But still over vast tracts of the earth people live precariously in hunger.

I have seen men do more to destroy the world in which they live and kill their fellow men in stupid quarrels than in all the earlier ages of history, by the development of more terrible weapons and seemingly unrestrainable national arrogance. But I have also seen the growth of a social consciousness, the first glimmer of a realization that be we rich or poor, powerful or weak, white, black, brown or yellow, we are a brotherhood which must tolerate and help each other and go forward together. That, I think, has been the most precious discovery of all.

When you look at the record of human discoveries, you may be astonished as I am at the simple ideas man missed for generations until some sharp-witted fellow suddenly saw what others had failed to see. So one piece of advice I would give you if your ambition is to give the world something it needs is to keep your eyes open. Keep your brain alert and inquiring. And never forget that what seems a very small discovery may do just as much for mankind as a very great one. It may even open the way to a great one.

Take one of the commonest things in daily use all over the world – the match. A British invention. Discovered accidentally by a young Stockton chemist.

Preparing an inflammable material he accidentally rubbed it on his hearth and it burst into flames. Being a man blessed with an inquiring mind he tried it again and again. And it worked. So he made some matches and began to sell them at 50 for a shilling. He didn’t patent his idea, so like many inventors he didn’t make the fortune others made from it later. But he made enough to retire comfortably.

Take another accidental discovery which had tremendous results because if a man’s quick perception. Stainless steel.

Harry Brierley, of Shefflied, researching into the causes of erosion in gun barrels by dipping steel samples into acid, left one sample in a damp atmosphere and it didn’t rust. He told a friend, an expert in the cutlery industry that he thought he had found a steel which would make a knife that would keep bright indefinitely. The friend’s reply is historically worth preserving alongside the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle. He said: “That’s bloody likely. Why, its contrary to nature.”

Credit for inventions sometimes becomes confused. On this side of the Atlantic it is often claimed that America invented the vacuum cleaner. In fact it was invented in England by Hubert Booth, and first used, it may interest you to know, to clean the streets of the little Surrey town on the edge of which Lord Beaverbrook has his home. Its noise alarmed horses so much that the inventor received about 30 court summonses in the first year of its use. Because of that hostility the invention might well have died there and then.

Television too is often accepted to be an American invention. But its inventor was another Briton, John Logie Baird, of Glasgow. His first TV picture was a Maltese Cross. The apparatus with which he sent it was a biscuit tin resting on an old washbasin.

He did most of his early experiments in utter poverty, and like so many inventive geniuses, never achieved more than modest comfort. But what fortunes he made for others.

The moving picture is another invention for which America usually, though wrongly, gets the credit. Its inventor was Friese Green, an Englishman. He opened the first film theatre in the world in London.

Like Baird’s TV, Friese Green’s moving picture which later made colossal fortunes for so many people, didn’t bring him much money. And his end was quite dramatic.

Back in the ‘twenties there was a meeting in a London hall of the moguls of the film trade then – as now – a pretty tough, rich lot, to discuss some trade troubles. Lord Beaverbrook presided. During the discussion a shabby figure rose at the back of the hall, said a few words, then fell dead. It was Friese Green, whose brain had made all those men rich. He had only 2s. in his pocket. No one in the hall knew him. Most had never heard of him. But a few days later as a recompense for what he had done for them, they have him a wonderful funeral.

The motor car was of course the achievement of two Germans, Benz and Daimler. Yet but for a Briton, Dr. Dunlop, it could never have been what it is today. Possibly we wouldn’t have jet planes either. For Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre, without which a motor car couldn’t travel much faster than a buggy and a fast plane couldn’t rise or land. The invention of the motor car was imperilled and might well have been long delayed because neighbours complained that Daimler made too much noise hammering at his engine during the night. They nearly forced him to stop working.

And who had the simple idea of putting pedals on a bicycle which everyone missed for years? A Scottish blacksmith named McMillan. Perhaps an ancestor of our recent Prime Minister whose forebears farmed in the same district.

Whose brains made world agriculture steadily more productive in our generation and the generation before us? A Scottish minister in 1926 invented the reaper. He didn’t patent his idea but it was in wide use locally when Cyrus McCormick, an American seized upon it 20 years later, developed it, put it into world use, and made a colossal fortune. Another Scotsman, Andrew Meikle, invented the threshing machine.

British researchers into breeding and feeding resulted in the eighteenth century in the weight of beasts doubling in a man’s lifetime. Coke of Norfolk discovered the principle of the rotation of crops. And Sir John Bennet Lawes, another Englishman, made the discovery upon which the whole fertilizer industry of the world is based. He spread on his crops bones which had been dissolved in sulphuric acid, achieved fantastic results, and built the first fertilizer factory.

The development of communications in my time has literally transformed the world for us. Perhaps not always for the better. For the swift spread of news can often make mischief. I was six years old when Marconi came to England. He had by then succeeded in sending a wireless impulse the length of his house garden in Italy. Six years later he sent a signal from Cornwall which was picked up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, piping at the post Sir Oliver Lodge, the British scientist, who was experimenting on the same lines at the same time.

Then in 1902 came the most dramatic breakthrough of all. Wireless operators on ships within a radius of several hundred miles were listening to Morse call signals when suddenly, to their amazement, a women’s voice rose in sound from their instruments. It was uncanny. Then came a poem and a violin solo. It was an experimental transmission by R.A. Fessenden, of the University of Pittsburg.

For the first time the sounds barrier of communications was broken. The way was open for radio, television, world telephones, and messages bumped off satellites in high space, though we still had to wait a long time for them.

Soon a Canadian, Creed, of whom I hope Canada is proud, was lifting the speed of telegraphic communications fantastically, by a teleprinter he invented. The same type of machine is still in use, though of course the speed is vastly greater.

Creed’s invention like so many others was scorned by officialdom until the Post Office archaic tapper-key telegraph system collapsed under the strain of the opening of the First World War, which brought a deluge of mobilisation telegrams upon it. Creed was called in and put things right, in about 48 hours.

The nuclear age began when Lord Rutherford’s brilliant team spilt the atom at Cambridge University in April 1939 before the war. The first man to split an atom was Professor J.D. Cockroft, a Yorkshireman.

I remember sending a young reporter to Cambridge to tell the story. The excited scientists – excited because no one was quite sure that splitting the atom would not wreck the world – forecast to him exactly what the effect would be if the experiment succeeded. The benefits it would bring to the world. And the perils, if a power-lust maniac found himself in possession of a nuclear bomb. It was as thrilling a story as ever I read. Yet no one seemed to be the least disturbed by it. Or even interested. It took another 30 years for its significance to sink in.

It was the same when Orville Wright took off in North Carolina in 1903 in the first engine-powered air-plane and made a modest flight of about 43 yards. Nobody was impressed.

Years later after intrepid men had made many pioneering flights, the wise men of the British War Office – and no doubt the wise men in the War Office of other nations as well – decided that the airplane had no future in war. How good it would have been had that been true. But it would be wrong to laugh at the misjudgment of those experts. Most of us then took the same view.

The story of the tank, a weapon which revolutionised the war, is much the same. It was invented early in the 1914 War through the foresight of Churchill, and pressed by him upon unwilling generals who using it wrongly gave away the precious element of surprise, thus adding years to the war, and millions to our casualties. For which they all got fine titles and fat money gifts. And the inventor Major General Swinton, just £1,050.

Radar, as you know, played a vital part in winning the Battle of Britain, and is now a navigational apparatus of supreme importance.

Sir Robert Watson-Watt discovered it in a most fascinating way. He had been asked to investigate the possibility of a death ray as a defence against attacking air-planes. He came to the conclusion that such a thing was impossible. But he got the idea that it might be possible to locate an aircraft at a height of 7,000 feet. The nation gave him £50,000 as a reward. It may amuse you to know that motoring in Canada later he was caught by his own invention, a radar speed trap, and fined $15.

The jet engine on which modern aviation is based was of course invented by Air Commodore Frank Whittle. His reward was £100,000 – the largest gift awarded to any British warrior except the Duke of Wellington who received in all £663,000. Whittle at first refused to take the money. Arguing that as a serving officer he was not entitled to it.

Now we have the rocket. Not only a powerful weapon in war, but a fantastic aid to man in his explorations is outer space. Within the last month it has thrust two men 850 miles into space. Tomorrow it will be landing men on the moon and even more distant planets.

Modern? Not really. The first scientific paper on the use of rockets for space travel was published as long ago as 1903 by a Russian.

Plastics have transformed life since Bakelite was first invented in 1906 by a Belgian chemist, who beat a British inventor, Sir James Swinburne, working on similar lines to the Patent Office by one day. What life would be without them is now almost unimaginable.

And what a transformation man-made fabrics have wrought since a Dupont employee discovered Nylon just before the 1939 war broke out. They have truly changed the world. Few discoveries made a more immediate impact. When nylon stocking came into production for the first time, 64 million pairs were sold within a year. Few I regret to say in Britain because of the war.

The wonders that have come in medicine in my generation are perhaps most miraculous of all. Because of them we are born more safely, live longer and enjoy health incomparable with that enjoyed by our ancestors.

Two Canadians, Banting and Best, gave life to diabetics. Fleming, a Scot accidentally discovered that great life-saver penicillin – but like too many discoverers didn’t know what to do with it.

In 30 years we have seen the coming of blood drip transfusions – a London invention – and the discovery of how to make blood into dry plasma which enables it to be stored for many years. Also a London discovery.

It was in London also just 40 years ago that a surgeon, Harry Soutar, did the first successful operation on the heart valve of a girl. His achievement aroused such argument in his profession, as alas so many medical achievements have done, that he never did another heart operation. Claiming ever after, somewhat wryly, that at least he was the only surgeon in the world who had never lost a patient in a heart operation.

As for drugs, with them we have conquered diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio and pneumonia in a generation. We have to thank M. & B. for saving the life of Churchill at a critical moment in the Second World War. And in case you may think that a miraculous drug discovery can only be made by a highly educated university scientist, it may interest you to know that M. & B. was the discovery of a British researcher who began work as a boy of 18 with a very modest education and gained his professional qualifications at night school.

In the field of engineering, Faraday gave is the dynamo, and parsons the turbine.

As usual the Admiralty, the Government department most likely to need the turbine, wasn’t even in favour of testing it. So Parsons decided to do some smart publicity. It was the year of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. A great navel review was arranged at Spithead. Parsons went to it in a small yacht run by a turbine.

Against all regulations he mixed himself up with the review and made rings so successfully round the fastest warships that he got more publicity than the Navy itself. The Admiralty was forced to take notice and immediately the turbine was recognized as revolutionising ship engineering.

The equally revolutionary diesel was the invention of a German, Rudolph Diesel. About his death there is an intriguing mystery. He disappeared on September 29, 1913, overboard from the ship Dresden on a voyage from Antwerp to Harwich. It was realized by the German that the diesel engine would be invaluable in war – and war was looming. They tried to stop Diesel allowing other nations to have it. But he wanted its benefits to be enjoyed by all. It is believed that he was on his way to England with such a purpose in his mind, and to stop him the German Secret Service ensured that he vanished.

Now these are only a few examples of how exceptional men changed tremendously the life, comfort, and health of all mankind in a short space of years. I have not even touched upon some of the greatest benefactions of all like the steam engine, factory machinery, and the extractions of gas from coal. All of them – like so many others I have mentioned – the contributions to human welfare by men of our common British stock.

Do you ever wonder why such an unparalleled burst if pioneering originality began in so small a country as England.

Professor Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol College Oxford, advances for that which I find enthralling.

He points out that in the 80 years after 1640, England from being a backward country in science became on of the most advanced. That was the achievement not of university dons, but of merchants and craftsmen. It was done in London, not at Oxford or Cambridge, the then accepted citadels of knowledge. Why was that? The reason was the dominant power which the Church backed by the Establishment exercised over the search for knowledge in the centres of learning.

Up to 1649 no experimental science was taught at Oxford and no mathematics. That last work on natural science, on medicine, and on astronomy was second century stuff. It a professor or student suggested that there was an error in any of that ancient knowledge he was liable to instant dismissal and even imprisonment.

In the eyes of the Church to question or even examine the works of God was heresy and impiety. The recurrent plagues were God’s visitation on man for his sins. It was a long time before we got around to learning that the plague was not due to God but to fleas.

Then came the breaking of the power of the Church to block the search for knowledge. Cromwell then threw out the obstructionists. The break was not complete at first. But it was enough to let the flow of knowledge begin.

About that time a very important thing happened. A group of Master Mariners began to congregate in London. What interested them was scientific equipment to increase their mastery of the sea. They wanted better compasses, sextants, chronometers. It is interesting to note that there was not a college-educated man among them. Everyone was self-educated and the dominations of the Church interested them not at all. This group did more for the advancement of scientific knowledge than had been done in all preceding centuries.

With them began the great forward surge. The way was cleared for the practical-minded English to explore and experiment in complete freedom while other European countries were still absorbed, and for another 100 years were to stay absorbed, in wars and dynastic and religious disputes.

Now I can imagine some arguing even today: “How right and wise the Church was. If the doors to science had never been opened we would not today be in fear of destruction from nuclear bombs”. We may counter that, I think, with the reply that the Black Death of 1349, which killed half of England’s population, must have been as bad as the H-bomb. Yet today it could be stopped by a pinch of D.D.T. Incidentally, a Swiss discovery, not a British one.

What does the future hold? The future which it will be the high privilege of the younger among you to shape. In what fields is progress most likely to come?

The production of food is still one of man’s most urgent problems. Only 10 percent of the world’s surface is cultivated. Scientists tell us that the world needs to produce at least one and three-quarter times more than it does today and double the amount of animal food. We shall certainly learn how to breed and keep our fish in vast ocean fish farms. These are problems the next generation will have to solve. And one interesting facet of them is this, as a British M.P. pointed out the other day. If India stopped the crazy religious nonsense of treating cows as sacred and unkillable, she could raise herself out of abject poverty tomorrow.

A prime need in the solving of our food production problem is water. We must discover how to distil water in far greater quantities, at much less cost, from the limitless water resources of the world. And learn also how to control the weather. By lowering the rate at which hear energy is delivered to the air by water condensation it should be possible to avoid such phenomena as hurricanes and typhoons.

Travel offers the next generation enormous opportunities. New types of planes will be needed. The present barriers to the use of higher speeds – notable the heat barrier – call for solution, which must include the invention of new metals.

In the field of health, we still have to conquer cancer and the diseases of the heart. Perhaps most important of all, discover how to slow down the aging process of human beings by rejuvenation. A cure for cancer would, it has been estimated, reduce surgical operations by 35 per cent.

We shall solve most of our housing problems by finding a way to erect mass-produced houses in a few days. And ease most of our domestic problems by inventing Robots to do our housework and cooking. A week’s work may well not exceed 21 hours.

As for communications, it should be possible to send letters electrically. And world-wide television may be so developed as to eliminate much time-wasting business travel.

It may become a world largely directed by computers. They should be able to take over many burdensome tasks, like directing traffic, reading handwriting, and interpreting the human voice. Indeed, it might even be possible to construct a specialized computer capable of discussing problems with a customer.

What does the conquest of the moon and the planets hold in prospect for us? So far as we know, they are barren and atmospherically unsuitable for life to exist on them. But it may be possible to cope with that problem and solve it.

One suggestion is that we might plant nuclear power stations on the moon by rocket which could work effectively without human attention, and the Laser beam – perhaps the outstanding discovery of recent years – draw all the light, heat, and power we need to our earth. It’s a fantastic idea, but no more fantastic than many dreams that have been brought to reality.

And remember, as I said, earlier, that often it is the small discovery that makes the greater achievements possible. Had Otis not invented the press-button lift, we wouldn’t have sky-scrapers. It was Crookes’ discovery of the Cathode Ray that made Rontgen’s first X-ray picture possible. The vacuum cleaner paved the way for the Hovercraft, which some think may come to rank in importance with the invention of the wheel.

I wish I could live long enough to see what you younger people with do with the world. If someone among you will solve the problem of rejuvenation in time, I might.

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