Memoirs of a Boffin

Chapter 7: The McGill Fence (1951-1955)

We arrived in Montreal on “The Empress of France” on Sept. 10th, 1951. We stayed for a couple of weeks in the Berkeley Hotel on Sherbrooke Street until we found temporary furnished accommodation in the old Annapolis College building on Peel Street, north of the Faculty Club. A few weeks later we rented a lower duplex in Snowdon, at the corner of Bourret and Coolbrook Streets, near Décarie Boulevard. We had very little money available, because what little we had in England was tied up by UK currency regulations and could only be taken out of that country for a specific, approved purpose, such as buying a house. We had transferred our bank account in the UK to the Bank of Montreal in Waterloo Place, London some weeks before we left. Later, when we needed the money, that turned out to have been a very smart move. The Bank of Montreal had a real interest in getting the money into Canada and were exceedingly helpful at all stages. It paid off for them too, because they have retained our custom (such as it is) ever since.

I had been interviewed by Cyril James, the Principal and Vice Chancellor of McGill University in England, on one of his many visits. It was more like a social call than anything; the interview served to rubber stamp the correspondence that had already passed back and forth. I was to report to Professor Garfield (Gar) Woonton, the Director of the Eaton Electronics Research Laboratory – a building high up on the McGill Campus, which had been endowed by Lady Eaton not long before I arrived.

Unfortunately, Cyril James had not given me a clear idea of what to expect in the Eaton Lab. My first impression was that there was very little activity there yet, compared to the space available. Furthermore, I soon realized that my idea of an active laboratory and that of the Director were miles apart. It had clearly been unwise to accept the post without meeting the Director of the laboratory first. I had come from a position of considerable freedom, power, authority and access to resources and the narrow, petty attitudes I was perceiving (rightly or not) were completely foreign to me; they were closer to my image of the Victorian era. To the Director I probably appeared overbearing and threatening, because I was used to running my own show and he probably feared, with some justification, that I wanted to run his. In spite of that Gar Woonton tried his best to be friendly and helpful. Nevertheless it was an unfortunate start from which our relationship never really recovered. Perhaps it was never really established. We were an unfortunate mismatch, which was probably mostly my fault, because it was my very first experience of a restrictive environment. De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

The Chairman of the Physics Department, Norman Shaw, was a delight and was always helpful and friendly, as was Stuart Foster the Director of the Radiation Laboratory next door to the Eaton Lab. So were my colleagues in the Physics and Engineering Departments in the Eaton Lab itself and in the Faculty Club. We made many new friends during that period.

At a dinner in the Faculty Club one evening, someone (I don’t remember who) told a story about Stephen Leacock when he was on the McGill Faculty. Apparently it was Leacock’s habit to wine and dine at the Faculty Club on Saturday evenings. The story goes that one Saturday, just as he was leaving for the Club, his landlady called him to look at her goldfish, which had developed mysterious lumps on them and did not look well. She urged him to take them in to a university laboratory where, she had faith, a cure could be achieved. Leacock, hating to turn her down, wrapped the goldfish in a wet handkerchief, put them in his overcoat pocket and plodded through the snow to the Faculty Club. There he filled one of the basins in the washroom with water and freed the fish to swim around while he had his dinner.

After he had wined and dined, he returned to the washroom to pick up his charges. Once more he wrapped them in a wet handkerchief, stuffed them in his overcoat pocket crossed McTavish Street and waded through the snow across the McGill Campus. Halfway to his goal he felt a sneeze coming on so, without thinking, snatched the handkerchief from his pocket. The goldfish flew in all directions, each drilling a tiny hole in the snow. Leacock bent down and scrabbled feverishly in the snow, fearing the wrath of his landlady if the goldfish were lost. At this moment a heavy hand descended on his shoulder and a stern voice asked “What’s going on here?” Leacock said, in an alcoholic breath, “I’m looking for my landlady’s goldfish.” Just as the policeman was grabbing his collar to escort him to the station, Leacock’s scrabbling bore fruit and his hand came up holding a wriggling goldfish by the tail. The tale ends there without any word of what happened to the cop, the goldfish or the landlady.

I was in touch with Dr. Lewis, (my former boss in TRE, now head of the Atomic Energy Research Laboratories at Chalk River) soon after I arrived at the Eaton Lab. He had put forward the idea of using a double-doppler radar technique to meet a new air defence operational requirement for a ‘cheap’ trip-wire line of radar defence along the 50th parallel, across Canada. The Eaton Lab was in the preliminary stages of playing with this idea when I arrived. Lewis urged me to take it over. I think Gar Woonton was glad to see me do so. I also acquired a graduate student, Hugh Hamilton who helped a great deal during this period. His cheery presence certainly brightened up the Eaton Lab.

The Defence Research Board, in the person of Vice-Chairman George Field, arranged with McGill that I could consult to them on this double-doppler project, which later came to be known as the McGill Fence and still later as the Mid-Canada Line. So I soon had an office in Ottawa, as well as one in McGill. The research on the double-doppler breadboard electronics, and on the theory behind it went very well and, on behalf of DRB, I was soon able to contract with an advanced development group at the RCA Victor Company in Montreal to develop an engineering model. The group was headed by Dr. Ross Warren, who was a delight to work with. He was particularly strong on the theoretical aspects and we wrote a major, even definitive report on the subject together. Stan Pinnell and Herb Lax of Ross Warren’s group looked after the Engineering aspects most effectively. So I acquired a third office, this time at the RCA Victor Company Ltd. in Lenoir Street.

In 1952 we found a house we liked at 366, 41st Avenue, Lachine and set in motion the request to release our money for the deposit from the UK. Ours was the first offer, but the owner, Gino Caspani, had several other offers while we were waiting. The lease of our apartment also ran out. The Caspanis were immensely kind. They not only accepted our offer, but they invited us to stay with them until the transaction was completed and they could leave. Gino was a celebrated bartender in Montreal and was heading off to Miami to a job at Delmonicos. We inherited from them, at little cost, a much needed washing machine, a Shopsmith convertible power tool, hand tools and a whole assortment of screws, nuts and bolts, some of which I still use today.

366 41st Avenue, Lachine

By this time my contact in DRB was Guy Eon, a friendly man of military bearing but happily unmilitary imagination. It was largely due to Guy that the project went ahead to completion. It was obvious that flight trials of a test double Doppler system would be essential. We decided to locate a test line along the Ottawa Valley from Ottawa to North Bay. RCA built enough equipments to enable seven or eight stations to be erected and Ross Warren designed a most ingenious antenna which was not going to be too costly.

I should say a word about the double-Doppler principle at this stage. When you receive broadcast TV and an aircraft flies across the line between the TV transmitter and your receiver, the signal fades in and out in a regular way. This is due to the waves reflected from the moving aircraft having a slightly different frequency from those that go directly, because of the Doppler effect. At the receiver the waves reflected from the aircraft interfere with the direct waves to produce the pulsation that you see.

The McGill fence used a refined version of this phenomenon in which the circuits were designed to enhance this effect rather than the transmitted data. Conventional Doppler radars have the transmitter and receiver in the same location. Ours was called “double” because the transmitter and receiver were at opposite ends of each link. With 50’ towers for the antenna, links as long as 30 miles over normal terrain were possible. We planned to have seven in the Ottawa Valley test line.

It was in the summer of 1953 that we set up the test line along the Ottawa Valley from Ottawa to Mattawa, on behalf of the Defence Research Board. There were stations at Ottawa, Arnprior, Haley Station, Meath (near Pembroke), Deep River, Bisset Creek and Mattawa. Each station consisted of a small wooden hut which enclosed a transmitter-receiver unit. A 50-foot scaffolding tower carried a large rectangular antenna, with the reflecting surface made of wire netting. My headquarters for the test line were in a wooden hut on the site of the old prisoner-of-war camp in Deep River. The project carried the code name “Spider Web” and a gifted graduate student, Hugh Hamilton, volunteered to create a “Spider Web” Coat of Arms. It carries its 47 years quite well. The Latin motto translates “They Shall Not Cross Unseen”:

Bill Patterson of RCA Victor was my engineer in charge of the maintenance of the equipment and he and I chased back and forth along the old Highway 17 all that summer. I had bought a 1939 Oldsmobile with 100,000 miles on it when I came to Canada and I put a further 14,000 miles on it that summer. The Police in Pembroke got to know us and were very tolerant of our rapid transit between sites, when they knew it was a priority job. I remember one occasion when I was returning to Deep River in the middle of the night and looking for Bill coming the other way on the old Highway 17. I saw lights approach but, by the time we recognized each other, at a relative speed approaching 200 mph, we were half a mile past each other before we were able to stop. Black fly and no-see-ums were a menace during the tests. There is nothing as unpleasant as driving off in a boiling hot car with a dozen black fly as passengers.

Flight tests were a problem because, incredibly, the Defence Research Board had not a single aircraft of its own, much less its own airfield and large fleet of military aircraft as we had at TRE. I had approached the Operational Research Group at Air Defence Command in St. Hubert, South of Montreal. Harold Larnder, who had pioneered Operational Research in the UK and whom I had met at Bawdsey was there, as well as George Lindsey, who recently retired as another celebrated head of the Operational Research and Analysis Branch of the Department of National Defence. They became great friends of ours. Through them I met the Commanding Officer of Air Defence Command, Air Vice Marshal James and Air Commodore Hendrick. They agreed to have their K-flight ferry me to an airfield in Killaloe – the nearest suitable airstrip to Deep River – whenever we needed flying. I would be met by station wagon at Killaloe and the aircraft would stooge around until I arrived at the HQ to conduct the tests. Then it would fly back and forth across the line at various heights while we took the observations.

Beechcraft Expeditor Mark III

The navigator for these flights was Flight Lieutenant Andrew (Andy) Matthews, the senior RCAF Officer assigned to the project. He became an enthusiastic, indispensable part of the team not only in 1953, but when prototype tests were made in 1954, in the Eastern Townships. I respected him greatly, not only for his ability but for his integrity, loyalty and dedication. I showed that respect when a few years later, in Ottawa, I was his first passenger the day he received his civil pilot’s license. He became a lifetime friend.

We needed some faster, jet aircraft to fly tests on the line. The RCAF had just acquired a De Havilland Comet I, the first 4-engined jet passenger aircraft.

RCAF Comet

We persuaded them to give us about 60 hours of its flying time. Andy was delighted to have the opportunity to fly in it. I never got the chance, as I needed to be on the ground during tests.

The trials of the McGill Fence were successful and it was decided to engineer and produce the equipment and to set up a single link in the Eastern townships which would be as nearly as possible a prototype of the stations to be sited on the 50th parallel. I was not yet familiar with the perversity that is a persistent feature of Canadian governments faced with decision, so I was astounded when the contract for the system was awarded to Bell Telephones and not to RCA. When I confided this to a senior colleague in Ottawa he asked me, cynically, who I thought ran Canada, anyway.

Early in 1954, I received a call from a Vice-President of Bell Telephones of Canada. He said he had been talking to the Defence Research Board and they had agreed to lend my services to Bell to design the prototype link and run trials in the summer of 1954. Bell would provide supporting staff. It gave me a good deal of satisfaction to point out to him that, while delighted to do the work, I was not an employee of DRB, but of McGill University. I would be pleased to let him know the terms on which he could hire me as a consultant; but I would need to call him back.

I strolled over to the Radiation Lab, next door, to see John Stuart Foster who was, by this time, Chairman of the Physics Department. He and I always had an affinity for each other. I think one reason was that he always spoke like a cryptic crossword, hinting at his meaning but refraining from even nearly approaching a topic directly. He had little respect for people who lacked the facility to follow his pattern of thought. He did not suffer fools gladly. I had always been pretty good at cryptics and he was clearly delighted that we could carry on long conversations by means of hints, clues and inferences. It must have been difficult for a third person to understand it. Foster was a great asset to McGill and a real friend to me. He really made his students think – not a common accomplishment for professors today.

When I told Foster of Bell’s approach and my response to it, he roared with laughter and indicated in his cryptic way that he knew the circumstances and there was no reason for me not to profit by them. So I asked him if McGill had any guidelines. He said as far as he was concerned the sky was the limit. So, with his blessing, I negotiated a stiff fee. Even so, in the event, it was little enough for the amount of work that was done.

The prototype trials took place in the Eastern Townships, south of Montreal in the summer of 1954. We had a Lancaster of Coastal Command, from Greenwood N.S. assigned to us for the trials, complete with crew. The Captain was a Yorkshireman, Tommy Aitken; Andy Matthews joined them to do the navigation because of his intimate knowledge of the project, not to mention his skill as a navigator. I was still getting over my disbelief at the lack of flying resources allocated to defence research in Canada. I had come from a single defence research establishment in Britain, which had a large airport of its own and more than 100 aircraft allocated to its exclusive use at any given time. Our main concern had been to keep them busy. Now I found that the entire Defence Research Board of Canada had the part-time use of one Lancaster. And it took a lot of persuasion to get that. At TRE, we had worked hand in glove with our counterparts in the RAF; flown with them, played snooker in the mess, dined with them and established a high degree of mutual trust. Few Defence Research Board scientists, on the other hand, had any significant contact with their counterparts in the military and even fewer had gained their trust. The fact of these two solitudes, more than anything, led to the eventual dissolution of the Defence Research Board, to the great detriment of research in Canada. Research establishments like DRTE did a great deal of high quality research, but they made few attempts to sell it to their nominal clients.

One of the double-doppler sites in the Eastern townships.
(Daughter Valerie got into the picture)

For the trials in the Eastern Townships, we persuaded AVM James to contact his counterpart in the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) to ask them to include our link in some of their routine flights of SAC jet bombers over Canada. There was a USA bombplot unit at St. Hubert, which was able to measure the position of an aircraft to an accuracy of a few feet and display the track on a 4’ square piece of paper on a vertical board. We could draw the line between the two stations 30 miles apart on the screen and then talk the Lancaster into any position we wanted relative to it. On one test I wanted him to fly at a height of 100 feet above the ground, exactly along the line, from one end to the other.

Andy Matthews, the senior RCAF Officer on the project was in charge of this precision navigation. He had found that he could best keep the aircraft on track by lying in the perspex nose of the Lancaster and making minor corrections using the fine controls on the auto-pilot. In the meantime, Tommy, the pilot sat back and did nothing, which, in itself, must have taken nerves of steel. In this way Andy became so good that he succeeded in making at least one run without deviating more than a fraction of the wingspan of the aircraft from the line. On an earlier flight he had suddenly deviated much more in the middle of a near perfect run. I was in radio contact and said, “What happened Andy, you’re a bit off course?” Andy replied, “The cow must have moved.” At the end of this pass he discovered that Tommy, the pilot, having nothing to do, had dozed off in the cockpit. Oh to be so relaxed.

Almost 50 years later, in October 2002, Andy was given a flight in a Lancaster that has been meticulously maintained by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton Ontario. It is one of only two Lancasters in the World that are still flying. (The other is in the UK.)

Andy Matthews DFC (red sweater) shown heading for a nostalgic flight in a Lancaster
(Photo courtesy Andy’s daughter Mary Komarnitsky)

On another test, this one at 20,000 feet I was talking to Tommy on the radio when the background noise suddenly stopped. “It’s gone very quiet,” I said. “Yes,” said Tommy in a relaxed voice, “we just lost four engines; stand by and I’ll make enquiries.” There were a few anxious moments until we heard Tommy’s voice with a background of engine noise telling us that they had restarted them. Apparently the lever had stuck when the crew were changing from one fuel tank to another and the engines had dried up. Their combined efforts unstuck it. “We only lost 11,000 feet,” Tommy said, ignoring the fact that it was about the only test that we had ever held at a height above 5000 feet.

One day I drove Andy Matthews from Montreal to the test site in the Eastern townships. We were in a hurry and I drove with a heavy foot. When we arrived, Andy must have looked a little distrait when he entered the hut. Already knowing something of my reputation with cars, one of the boys said, “What’s the matter Andy, don’t you like driving fast?” Andy gave the reply that sealed my reputation for ever. He said, “I don’t mind driving fast – it’s flying that low that bothers me.” But it was not until 1959 that I was able to buy our first Jaguar.

The McGill Fence went into service as the “Mid-Canada Line”, quite successfully, a year or two later, but I was no longer involved because the research phase was over. The fees from Bell Telephones for that summer’s work, modest as they were, enabled us to pay off a substantial part of the mortgage on the house in Lachine. I had moved out of the Eaton Lab, down to the old Physics Building, near Sherbrooke Street. The lab I occupied, which had just been vacated by Dr. David Keys, was one that had been used by Rutherford during his period at McGill. This was now the third university I had worked in where Rutherford had performed his celebrated research (Manchester and Cambridge were the others). It was not until several years after I left that it was discovered that, many years earlier, Rutherford had spilled a long-lifetime radioactive liquid down the back of the glass-fronted cupboard near the door. It had been giving us a dose of radiation every time we went in or out of the room.

During this time when I also had an office at RCA Victor, the President of that Company often invited me to lunch with the top brass in the executive dining room. I must have sold the idea at these lunches that the company should set up Canadian research laboratories. If I did, it was quite disinterestedly, for I had no intention whatever at the time of going into industry.

However, as time went on, the mixture at McGill turned increasingly sour. When Foster’s retirement was impending, I enquired from Principal James what his intentions were regarding the Chairmanship of the Physics Department. He reassured me that he would not make an appointment from inside the Department. About that time, RCA made me a good offer to join them as Director of Research, to build up Canadian research laboratories for them. I turned it down, almost casually, on the basis of Cyril James’ reassurance. Then James went ahead and made an internal appointment I could not live with. I went straight to his office with my resignation in my hand. He seemed to be astounded and tried to talk me out of it. Fortunately RCA Victor had just come up with an even better offer than before, and were willing to give me a free hand, so the decision to make the move was not difficult.

Nevertheless, I was very surprised when one of our close friends on the staff of the Physics Department, Syd Wagner, told me he would like to join me in the move to RCA Victor. This happened over lunch at Ben’s delicatessen at Burnside and McGill College Avenue. Ben’s was a small store at the north-west corner then, with Ben Kravitz himself making the now famous smoked meat sandwiches. Syd revealed that he was leaving McGill for the same reason I was. But he had given no previous sign that he also was discontented with the McGill management. Syd was probably one of the best physics teachers McGill ever had; Cyril James had no idea of the magnitude of his loss. The student newspaper made great headlines out of our resignations. Syd became one of my first two employees as I also took with me a brilliant young post-doctoral researcher, Morrel Bachynski, who had received his Ph.D. for research in the Eaton Lab about a year before, at the age of about 21. I was delighted that he also asked to join me. Morrel now runs his own very successful high-technology company, MPB Technologies, which was created out of the remains of the RCA Victor Research Laboratories, when the Federal Government managed to destroy them, with characteristic myopia, long after I had left. But that is another story.

The year 1955 also saw the arrival of the new member of our family when our son was born in Lachine General Hospital on my birthday. We christened him Michael James Rennie – the “James” added because it is my first name and Nesta’s family name. So 1955 was a very busy year.