Robert Allan Smith

Last updated

Robert Allan Smith

Born(1909-05-16)16 May 1909
Died16 May 1980(1980-05-16) (aged 71)
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
Spouse(s)Doris Marguerite Louise Ward
ChildrenJoy, Margaret and Alistair
Scientific career
Institutions Cavendish Laboratory
University of St Andrews
University of Reading
Bawdsey Research Station (BRS)
Royal Radar Establishment
University of Sheffield
Heriot-Watt University

Dr Robert Allan Smith CBE FRS PRSE (14 May 1909 – 16 May 1980) was a Scottish mathematician and physicist. [1] [2] [3]



Smith (known to his friends as Robin, and more widely as “RA”) was born in Kelso on 14 May 1909, the elder of two sons of George J T Smith, a tailor, and his wife, Elisabeth (née Allan), a ladies’ dressmaker. His education was initially at local village schools, followed by Kelso High School. In 1926 he entered the University of Edinburgh to study mathematics and natural philosophy, and gained his MA with first-class honours in 1930. He was also awarded a scholarship that took him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he read for the Maths Tripos Part II, obtaining his MA in 1932.

Smith's first research was at the Cavendish Laboratory, where he worked on the theory and experiment of atomic collisions. [3] An extension of this work, with Harrie Massey, led to his first paper, with Massey, in 1933. They then turned their attention to negative ions, and further papers resulted. Smith was awarded his PhD in 1935. After brief spells at the University of St Andrews and the University of Reading, he was engaged in war work. He joined the staff of Bawdsey Research Station (BRS) on the Suffolk coast, working on the Chain Home {CH} network of early warning radar stations.

BRS moved to Dundee at the outbreak of war, and then to Worth Matravers, near Swanage. It was later renamed the Telecommunications Research Establishment, and Smith was now working on beacon navigational systems, and especially Gee. In May 1942 TRE moved yet again, this time to Malvern College. At the end of the war the College's facilities were needed again, and so TRE moved elsewhere in Malvern, to HMS Duke, later becoming the Royal Radar Establishment. Smith's work in the war years was recognised by the award of a CBE in 1960. [4]

In 1961 Smith was invited to become Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield, but it wasn't a world he felt comfortable in, [3] and he started exploring the idea of going to MIT. The following year he was elected FRS. He then joined MIT and was appointed Director of the Materials Science Center. He was provided with 14 000m2 of space for research and teaching, and, by 1967 was in charge of 55 professors, 19 other academic staff and 179 graduate students. “R A ’s main contribution was to bring groups of people together and create suitable conditions for collaborative research to flourish”. [3]

In 1968 Smith was appointed Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University. Before he retired from this post in 1974 he oversaw major expansions in building programmes, the quality and quantity of students and staff, degrees awarded, papers published, new research grants and 12 new Chairs. In recognition of his many achievements Smith was awarded an Honorary DSc in July 1975. [5]

In 1973 Smith was appointed to the Council of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in October 1976 was elected its 32nd President, which office which he held until October 1979. He was elected FRSE in 1969. [6]


Smith met his future wife, Doris Marguerite Louise Ward, through the CICCU. They married in Cambridge on 15 December 1934, and had three children: Joy, Margaret and Alistair.

Robert Allan Smith died on 16 May 1980.


Related Research Articles

The Royal Radar Establishment was a research centre in Malvern, Worcestershire in the United Kingdom. It was formed in 1953 as the Radar Research Establishment by the merger of the Air Ministry's Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) and the British Army's Radar Research and Development Establishment (RRDE). It was given its new name after a visit by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957. Both names were abbreviated to RRE. In 1976 the Signals Research and Development Establishment (SRDE), involved in communications research, joined the RRE to form the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (RSRE).

Heriot-Watt University University based in Edinburgh

Heriot-Watt University is a public research university based in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was established in 1821 as the School of Arts of Edinburgh, the world's first mechanics' institute, and subsequently granted university status by royal charter in 1966. It is the eighth-oldest higher education institute in the UK. The name Heriot-Watt was taken from Scottish inventor James Watt and Scottish philanthropist and goldsmith George Heriot.

Leonard Horner

Leonard Horner FRSE FRS FGS was a Scottish merchant, geologist and educational reformer. He was the younger brother of Francis Horner.

Telecommunications Research Establishment

The Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) was the main United Kingdom research and development organization for radio navigation, radar, infra-red detection for heat seeking missiles, and related work for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II and the years that followed. It was regarded as "the most brilliant and successful of the English wartime research establishments" under "Rowe, who saw more of the English scientific choices between 1935 and 1945 than any single man."

Harrie Massey Australian mathematical physicist

Sir Harrie Stewart Wilson Massey was an Australian mathematical physicist who worked primarily in the fields of atomic and atmospheric physics.

Sir Robert Lewis Fullarton Boyd was a pioneer of British space science and founding director of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

Prof Philip Ivor Dee CBE FRS FRSE was a British nuclear physicist. He was responsible for the development of airborne radar during the Second World War. Glasgow University named the Philip Ivor Dee Memorial Lecture after him.

Kenneth Murray (biologist) British molecular biologist

Sir Kenneth "Ken" Murray FRS FRSE FRCPath was a British molecular biologist and the Biogen Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh.

David John Finney, was a British statistician and Professor Emeritus of Statistics at the University of Edinburgh. He was Director of the Agricultural Research Council's Unit of Statistics from 1954 to 1984 and a former President of the Royal Statistical Society and of the Biometric Society. He was a pioneer in the development of systematic monitoring of drugs for detection of adverse reactions. He turned 100 in January 2017 and died on 12 November 2018 at the age of 101 following a short illness.

Paul Anthony Madden, is a British chemist and former Provost of The Queen's College, Oxford.

Sir David Roberts McMurtry, is an Irish billionaire, the co-founder and executive chairman of Renishaw plc, the UK's largest supplier of metrology equipment. As of October 2021, his net worth was estimated at US$1.7 billion.

Steve Chapman (chemist) Australian teacher and chemist

Steven Kenneth Chapman is Vice-Chancellor of Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia. Previously he was Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Albert Rowe (physicist)

Albert Percival Rowe, CBE, often known as Jimmy Rowe or A. P. Rowe, was a radar pioneer and university vice-chancellor. A British physicist and senior research administrator, he played a major role in the development of radar before and during World War II.

John Burland South African engineering academic in the UK

John Boscawen Burland is an Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Investigator at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Imperial College London.

Sir Alistair George James MacFarlane was a Scottish electrical engineer and leading academic who served as Principal and Vice Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and Rector, University of the Highlands and Islands.

J. A. Ratcliffe British radio physicist

John Ashworth Ratcliffe CB CBE FRS was an influential British radio physicist.

Sir Eric Eastwood FRS, CBE was a British scientist and engineer who helped develop radar technology during World War II.

Sir James Baddiley FRS FRSE was a British biochemist.

Prof Charles Kemball CBE PRSE FRS FRSC FRIC was a Scottish chemist who served as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1988–91) and as President of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (1974-6). He pioneered the use of mass spectrometry. and was a leading expert in heterogeneous catalysis.

Harry Melville (chemist)

Sir Harry Work Melville, was a British chemist, academic, and academic administrator, who specialised in polymer research. He spent his early career in academia as a lecturer and researcher, before moving into administration as a civil servant and university college head.


  1. SMITH, Prof. Robert Allan’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012 ; online edn, Nov 2012 accessed 15 May 2013
  2. [ dead link ]
  3. 1 2 3 4 S.D. Smith, Robert Allan Smith, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol.28, 479-504, 1982.
  4. "Robert Allan Smith, Esq., Chief Scientific Officer, Royal Radar Establishment, Ministry of Aviation". Supplement to the London Gazette: 3983. 11 June 1960.
  5. "Heriot-Watt University Honorary Graduates" (PDF). Heriot-Watt University. Retrieved 17 December 2020.
  6. "Former RSE Fellows 1783-2002" (PDF). Royal Society of Edinburgh. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 September 2020. Retrieved 17 December 2020.