Beware the Ides of March

My dad, through the years until shortly after his illness in 1983

Last week, I realised that it was exactly 38 years since my father had his first of three subarachnoid brain haemorrhages. He was 38 years old.

This has been the first anniversary of Dad’s first haemorrhage without Mum which is maybe why I’m writing about it now. I’ve also been scanning a lot of photos from my Mum’s collection which is helping piece together some of the puzzle.

The soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar warned the Roman emperor about the 15th of March, “Beware the Ides of March”. It’s a phrase that took on a very real meaning for our family.

On Tuesday 15 March 1983, my father Keith Saunders was in his birthplace of Nottingham to deliver the 1982/83 IEE Faraday lecture The Photon Connection about how fibre optics (light) would revolutionise communications. Shortly after he had stepped off the stage in Nottingham (I think it was at the Royal Concert Hall) he was giving an interview to the BBC about the lecture tour when he suddenly felt very ill. He turned, vomited and collapsed onto the floor. (I’ve often thought, somewhere, at some point, the BBC had footage of my dad vomiting!)

It had begun as an ordinary Tuesday in March but one that changed all of our lives forever.

Continue reading Beware the Ides of March

The Photon Connection

Poster for The Photon Connection
Poster for The Photon Connection, the 1982/83 IEE Faraday Lecture presented by STC.

In 1982-83 Standard Telephones and Cables Plc (STC) marked the start of its centenary celebrations (1883-1983) by presenting the annual IEE Faraday Lecture.

The IEE Faraday Lecture was founded in 1924 to commemorate the life and work of Michael Faraday. As a pioneer in the field of electricity and electromagnetism, his work laid the foundation for many of today’s advances in technology.

At the time my father worked for Exacta Circuits Ltd in Selkirk, which was owned by STC. Dad was one of only eight people selected to present the lecture. Other lecturers included Sir Kenneth Corfield and David Brown (now Sir David and chairman of Motorola). It was a real priviledge for Dad to present it.

Dad presented the first lecture at the Usher Hall, here in Edinburgh on 5 October 1982. I got special permission to miss school to travel up from Selkirk to be there in the audience — mostly school pupils and students — for the matinee performance. I loved it and got to go backstage afterwards, meet the crew and I even got a few souveniers, which I still have. I later made the set in Lego — that’s just how good I rated it — which Dad photographed (using the Kodak-equivalent of a Polaroid camera) and showed it to his fellow lecturers and the backstage crew.

When Dad died there were two things that I wanted of his: a copy his signature (something so personal and unique to him) and his copy of the Faraday lecture that he presented: The Photon Connection. I got both, and I have his autograph bluetacked to my PC monitor right here.

The lecture was about light. It was about how optical communications (optical fibres) would change the way that we communicate, locally and globally. This evening I read it through again — the first time I’ve read through it for about ten years — and it struck me as incredibly far-thinking for a piece of work from 1982.

This is from the conclusion to the lecture:

Photons, not electrons, will connect us. When we master these techniques we shall have a resource limited only by our own imagination. And our imagination is already at work.

We know that we shall not just talk on the phone, but talk and see each other, too. Send pictures.

… Send data as far and as fast as we wish. Run dangerous processes from a safe distance.

We’ll shop from home if we like. Order our goods. Pay for them. Book our holiday. Or an evening out. Check our balance in the bank! Vote on vital issues. Receive our newspapers electronically. And our mail. We’ll work, perhaps, from home. We shall have as many television channels as there are human interests.

The disadvantages of distance will diminish. And those of time. We will communicate anything to anyone, anywhere. With all the speed of light.

The World Wide Web wasn’t invented until about 1989, while the Internet had been around for quite a while.

And today we have all of these things. I take some pride that in a small way my Dad was part of bringing this about, and part of spreading the news. He was certainly influential in nurturing my interest in computers, in communications, in information architecture.

If you’d like to read the lecture for yourself, you can download it in PDF format, for which you will require a PDF Reader program such as the free Adobe Reader.