Bolton School Former Pupils

Professor Peter Robson, OBE FREng

Professor Peter Neville Robson OBE FREng (1942-49)
Died January 2010, aged 79.

Peter was born in 1930 and attended Devonshire Road School before entering Bolton School on a Scholarship in September 1942. He was a distinguished scientist and engineer, internationally renowned for his pioneering work in the field of semiconductor materials and devices. Much of his research work sowed the seeds for many technological developments that heavily impact on our lives today such as the internet and mobile phones.

Professor Roy Jackson (Class of 1949), a life-long friend and fellow Old Boy, wrote the following obituary for Peter:

Peter and I entered School in the same year, became friends in our first year, and remained so throughout our lives, though our careers later separated us geographically. He combined an exceptional intellect with marked originality and unswerving devotion to his main area of interest, namely electrical and electronic devices. He was also a keen hill walker and rock climber, a member of the small group that coalesced around John Blakey, a talented mathematician that the School was fortunate to recruit to its Staff.

The War spurred rapid advances in electronics, particularly in the development of Radar, and hints of this filtered down to us even as schoolboys. This, coupled with the flood of surplus equipment that became available as the War ended, stimulated Peter to all sorts of electronic tinkering in parallel with his formal studies. Peter’s acquired expertise enabled him to spend his National Service as a pre-graduate apprentice at Metropolitan Vickers Company, working on electronic devices such as microwave generators and waveguides.

In 1951 he went up to Cambridge as an Exhibitioner of Downing College. There, predictably, he read Parts I and II of the Mechanical Sciences Tripos with concentration in Electrical Engineering. I retained close contact with him throughout these years as I had also gone up to Cambridge in 1951, and we continued to walk and climb together as members of the University Mountaineering Club. Old Boltonians Peter, Roger Bell and Reg. Schofield were also staunch members.

On graduating in 1954 Peter returned to a position at Metropolitan Vickers (now re-named G.E.C. Manchester) as a research engineer working on the development of proton and electron linear accelerators. Here he met and married his wife, Anne, a co-worker and fellow engineer.

In 1957 he accepted a post as Lecturer in Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, and this proved to be the start of an academic career that took him to the first rank of British scientists and engineers. Here he progressed rapidly up the academic ladder, being promoted to Professor by 1968. As Department Head, he built Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Sheffield into a major player on the national and international scene. In 1978 he established SERC’s Central Facility for III-V Semiconductors in the University and served as its Director until 1993. In addition he served from 1984-87 as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and also acted temporarily as Head of the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering. In the course of his career he published over 160 research papers in refereed journals, wrote a major textbook and contributed sections to several others. He also served on over 40 national and international committees, including several major committees of the Royal Society, and gave innumerable presentations at international conferences.

However, a mere catalogue of his activities does not capture the quality of his contributions. This is reflected by the honours bestowed on him. In 1983 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and in the same year’s Honours List he received the Order of the British Empire. In 1987 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1991 the Institution of Electrical Engineers awarded him its J.J. Thompson Medal, and in 2000 his own University of Sheffield named him to an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering. His reputation extended well beyond these shores; for example, he was also a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, India, and a Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (USA).

For the last few years he had suffered from poor health that limited his contact with the colleagues and activities that meant so much to him. He is survived by his wife Anne, daughter Fiona and sister Pamela. Those of his friends and colleagues left behind extend our sympathy to his family and retain happy memories of a splendid scientist and a stalwart companion on the hills.

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Peter Robson Molecular Beam Epitaxy.jpg