Interviews with Australian scientists

Dr William Blevin

Dr William Blevin
Applied physicist

William Roderick (Bill) Blevin was born in Inverell, NSW in 1929. He completed his secondary schooling at Tamworth High School (1945) before deciding, in a circular fashion, to study at New England University College (NEUC) to become a science teacher. Blevin graduated with a BSc (Hons 1) in physics in 1950. He continued in research for his masters of science (MSc, 1952). Blevin completed his DipEd in 1951 and spent a year as a lecturer in physics at NEUC.

In 1953 Blevin joined the CSIRO Division of Physics as a research scientist. Here he led the optical radiometry group and progressed to chief research scientist in 1976. During this time he was awarded a DSc from the University of New England (UNE, 1972). Blevin served as acting chief (1979-80), assistant chief and chief standards scientist (1980-88) and finally chief (1988-94) of CSIRO Division of Applied Physics before his retirement in 1994. One of Blevin’s major achievements while at CSIRO was to have the SI unit of light intensity (the candela) redefined in 1979 to be on a firm physical basis.

During Blevin’s career he was also active in the international standards community. He served as president (1980-96) of the Consultative Committee for Photometry and Radiometry, and as vice-president (1992-96) and secretary (1997-2000) of the Comité International des Poids et Mesures (CIPM, the International Committee of Weights and Measures). In 1998, at the request of CIPM, he completed a strategic plan for the 21st century for the worldwide measurement system and, in particular, for the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures), located at Sèvres in France.

A short teaser video of the Interview with Dr Blevin is available from our video gallery here.

Interviewed by Professor Neville Fletcher 30 March 2010

Contents

Family history
School days
Decisions for the future
Beginnings in research
Move to CSIRO
What is a National Standards Laboratory?
Photometry, Radiometry and Colorimetry
Additional honorary roles
Establishing contacts overseas
Contributions to optical radiometry
Stefan-Boltzmann constant
Doctor of Science
Redefining the candela
Focus on industrial research and revenue raising
Move into the ‘administrative quagmire’
Term as Chief of Division
Retirement and continuing work with BIPM
Evaluating the future of measurement in Australia

Teachers notes to accompany this transcript.You can order the DVD from us for $15 (including GST and postage).

Sponsered by National Measurement Institute

Good morning, Bill. It’s great to be talking with you. We’ve known each other for a very long time, haven’t we?

Yes, Neville. Let me see. I started university at New England University College in 1946 as a student in residence. You, I think, came the following year as a student living at home in Armidale.

Family history

I didn’t get to discover anything about your pre­university days. I would be interested to hear just how you came to the university and what life was like before that.

I’d be pleased to tell you a bit about the family background. My mother was a McRae and her grandfather had come out from Scotland in the 1850s, no convict blood in my family line. In 1890 her father (my grandfather) selected a property in virgin bush some 56 kilometres east of Armidale in New South Wales, up in the New England area. It really was a lonely bush settlement. My mother was born in 1894, and that was her home until she married much later. Also, that property which they called Ferndale, with mainly cattle and sheep, was the only place when I was a child that we ever went for our annual Christmas holidays. We always went back to my grandparents’ place at Ferndale.

It’s nice knowing your family background, isn’t it?

Yes. My father’s family had come out even earlier. They came from Ireland and arrived in Sydney in 1841, so they got out just before the potato famine. They also went up into northern New South Wales. They had one generation around the Maitland area and then they moved up into the Tamworth area. They were mainly into farming, a bit of gold scratching and raising horses, I guess. But my father, born in 1888, at the age of 15 became what they used to call a pupil­teacher. So he started being a primary schoolteacher, without any real, formal training, up in the north-west of New South Wales.

Yes. That seemed to be the way they did it. My grandmother was a pupil-teacher too.

I don’t think they had teachers colleges in those days; they started a few years later.

You were born in Inverell?

William Robert Blevin
William’s father, William Robert Blevin, in the First Australian Imperial Force, World War 1.
The Blevin family: (left to right) Doug, William (father), Bob, Harry, Elizabeth (mother – nee McRae), Bill, Mary and Flora at Brodies Plains via Inverell NSW, 1936.

Yes, I was born in Inverell. Before my parents married, my father went off to the First World War. Actually, how they came to meet was that there was a little school a few miles from Ferndale, where my mother lived, and the McRae family always boarded the teacher. My father came along as one of the teachers and I guess they paired up. But, when his mother died in 1916, he went off to the First World War, so it wasn’t until after he returned that they married in 1920. But then they made up for lost time: they had six children in about 13 or 14 years. I was the fifth of two girls and then four boys and I was born in 1929. I was born in Inverell, as you say, and then in 1937 my family moved to the Tamworth area.

School days

So you grew up and went to school mostly in Tamworth.

Well, I went to primary school where my father was the teacher, because there was a teacher’s residence provided. So I started in a little place called Brodies Plains, which was just outside of Inverell. Then we moved down to Duri, near Tamworth, and I went to primary school there. Actually, that was a bigger school and there should have been two teachers, but during my time there was mostly only one. Some of the pupils, including me, used to get called upon to do a fair bit of teaching to assist my father. Teaching a lot of kids all in one room was a pretty difficult job for him.

Then, for high school, I took the train into Tamworth, which was 12 miles or 19-or-so kilometres away. That was a bit of a trek; we had a fair walk at each end and a train trip. But I had all my secondary schooling at Tamworth High School. As far as science was concerned, at high school we did combined physics and chemistry for three years, which I found quite interesting. When it came to the fourth and fifth years, there were only five years of secondary education in those days, Tamworth only offered chemistry; it didn’t offer physics and it didn’t offer biology. So I took chemistry and quite liked it.

Apart from what you learned at school, your hobbies are often pretty important. Did you have any particular hobbies while you were at high school?

The thing that sticks out in my mind most is catching rabbits and selling rabbit skins to earn pocket-money. We were not a well-to-do family, as you might imagine; it was a big family and there was just one modest income. Rabbit skins brought extraordinarily good prices during World War II because they were used for military hats and various things. So that was a big hobby. But there were other things, such as crystal radio sets and I started to do a bit of photography. The previous teacher at Duri had left a shed full of old stuff like 19th century photographic gear, acetylene bicycle lamps and the like, and I found that there was a lot of fun to be had with those things. I played a bit of tennis but I was never a great one for athletics and certainly not for singing or music.

Decisions for the future

What led you to enrol in science then and why at the New England University College in Armidale?

The first big decision was whether or not to go to university. I really got very little vocational guidance from my father about that. He was pretty much of the feeling, I suppose, coming out of the depression, that what I wanted more than anything else was security. He thought that security probably lay with working with one of the major banks or with the Public Service. However, when I was in my last year of high school, I actually had a vocational test done by some people who came up from Sydney or Newcastle; they put me through a rigmarole of tests with a lot of numerical testing. They had sort of gear trains and you had to turn one gear and know where the other gears would go. They had lever systems and that sort of thing. I think their report, more than anything else, steered me towards science. If you don’t mind, I’ll read you an extract of that. They say:

“VOCATIONAL GUIDANCE BUREAU REPORT
ON
William Roderick Blevin
Aged 15 years 8 months
Tested 18th July, 1945

The test results showed outstanding capacity for intellectual development, particularly in the sphere of number. All other results were good. The implications of the tests suggest that you should have little difficulty in coping with University studies of an honours standard.
Your school record corroborates the test findings and you should gain a University Exhibition and Bursary at the Leaving Certificate Examination this year .”

Well, that was pretty encouraging, I must say. But, despite that, I applied for various other positions, including in the bank—which I was offered and didn’t take. Until I had done my leaving certificate, I had never been to Sydney and I had never seen the sea. We were very much a bush family. But I applied for a few jobs in Sydney. One, I remember, was with the railways department, which was advertising for a laboratory trainee in chemistry. I still remember being interviewed by a couple of fairly elderly, kindly gentlemen from the railways department who heard me out and then just said that I was completely overqualified for what they had in mind and should go to university.

I had been offered a teachers college or education department scholarship to train to be a science teacher. That would have specified that I do a science degree at Armidale at the New England University College (NEUC), which in those days was a college of Sydney University, and then do the teaching part of the training at the Armidale Teachers College. I accepted that, to start with. But then I did get a university exhibition, which paid for the university tuition fees, so I rejected the teachers college scholarship and started doing a science course.

William and Elizabeth (nee McRae) Blevin
Blevin’s parents, William and Elizabeth (nee McRae) Blevin, 1948.

After two or three months, without any prompting from my parents, it was becoming clear to me that the expenses involved, such as the living away from home expenses and sundry other expenses, were going to be a hardship for my parents. I decided that I would try to recover the teachers college scholarship. The college principal, Mr C. B. Newling, was a character of a chap, everybody used to call him ‘Pop Newling’. He used to come out to the university to give lectures in education to the arts faculty. I saw him coming out after one of his lectures and going to his car, so I went down and told him, rather naively I guess, that I’d been thinking about my future again and had decided that I thought I was cut out to be a teacher after all.  If possible, I should like to get my teachers college scholarship back. He looked at me with his head on one side and asked, ‘What do you want son? £100?’ He had read me like a book. My heart fell, but he went on, ‘And how’s your dad and how’s your brother Bob?’—he had trained to be a primary teacher earlier—and then I knew that I was in. So I recovered the scholarship. Of course, it meant that I was under a financial bond to go teaching, but that’s what took me into the New England University College.

A lot of the students at NEUC in those days were training to be teachers, weren’t they?

The majority. Of course, there weren’t all that many. I think the total number of undergraduates at NEUC was slightly less than 300 the year I entered. And that was a sort of boom year because, as well as the students coming from school, a significant number of ex-service people, men and women—mainly men in those days, were coming back, and they were older and a bit more mature than us. But, yes, many of them were trainee teachers.

What was it that led you to go into physics instead of chemistry, which was the subject that you studied at high school?

J. M. (Jack) Somerville
J. M. (Jack) Somerville, founder of the Physics Department at the New England University College, 1962.

Well, when I came to the university, I at first thought that I would major in chemistry. But by the end of the first year, I’d eliminated chemistry. But I’d taken quite a liking, particularly to physics, but also to geology. I think those decisions were probably based on the quality of the teaching as much as anything else. In physics I was greatly influenced by a chap there, called Jack Somerville, who was the founder of both the physics and the mathematics departments at the New England University College and later became the first professor of physics there. I had to take the junior physics course, because I hadn’t done physics at high school. Somerville always took it himself, I think because he thought that, if you were going to enthuse students, the time to do it was in the first year. Similarly, I was enthused with geology but perhaps not to the same degree, and less so with chemistry.

Then at the end of the second year I had a few months as a vacation student in Tasmania with Alan Voisey, the head of the NEUC geology department. I also met up there with Professor Sam Carey, a geologist from the University of Tasmania, who was also a consultant to the hydro­electric commission and who later became a Fellow of the Academy. They were enthusiastic—there’s no doubt about that—but the geology down there was extraordinarily boring. We had aerial maps from which we could tell every rock boundary that we were supposed to be mapping before we got there, and we were going around checking them; and there were no fossils. So I came back and decided to go for physics, and I’ve never regretted that.

Beginnings in research

So you went on and did an honours degree in physics, which was a fourth year, and you did well with that.

Bill Blevin
Bill Blevin when a fourth year (honours) undergraduate in physics, New England University College, 1949.

Yes. At fourth year we started to think quite a bit in the direction of research. Jack Somerville had some history in researching various aspects of glow discharges and that sort of thing. But in 1949, the year that I did my honours, he decided to start a new field; it was still related to gas discharges, but this was studying transient arc discharges. These were discharges, little arcs, just going a few millimetres through the air onto metal cathodes and the aim was to study what went on at the cathode. When I started that work for him, we were looking mainly at the molten sort of marks or sometimes just discoloured patches and we were studying the thermal conduction and trying to work out the properties of these arcs, which were of the duration of anything from milliseconds down. I think the shortest ones that I looked at had a duration of one microsecond, which is a millionth of a second, of course. So that was good fun and I was pleased to be awarded Honours Class 1.

Then, of course, the next year, if you remember, you came along. You also started to do research for what I guess was your honours year.

Yes, that’s right.

I was now enrolled as an MSc student. Your research was in essentially the same field but using quite different techniques. You were making what they called Kerr cell cameras, which allowed you to take photographs of the whole arc. I was still looking at the electrodes and we could wed our results. I remember that we had a joint paper published with Somerville, and that drew on both sources.

That was our entry into research in physics.

Some years after us, a gentleman who later became a Professor of Physics at the University of Western Australia came along, Jim Williams, and he also did work in this area, but he was looking at arcs of much shorter duration and he did some good work in that area. So it’s interesting that the three of us have all eventually been elected to the Academy of Science. I thought, ‘Well that says something; Somerville didn’t pick a bad field when he decided he’d start off some work on arcs.’

Yes, it was a good field, interesting and doable.

Yes; and with very modest apparatus, in lots of ways. Many of our electronics components were from captured Japanese equipment and we had to measure the characteristics of the thermionic valves and then decide whether or not we could use them. Of course, there were no transistors in those days; everything was thermionic valves.

Yes. I remember the basement of the building being full of old radar sets. Then you got to be a temporary lecturer in physics for a while?

Yes. Well, it wasn’t quite my intention in one way, but Jack Somerville had two things he was very keen to do. He’d done quite a bit of research, but he didn’t have a doctorate. He was keen to compile or bring together his research and submit a DSc thesis, but he was also keen to have a sabbatical year away, actually at Swansea in Wales. The NEUC department was so small that they had to appoint somebody to help fill in, so here’s this young guy who got appointed a temporary lecturer for a year—for my own good but also, I think, partly to let Jack Somerville get away.

It was a good year and I carried on some more work on anodes, the other electrode from which the arcs went. In fact, I’d started that in my honours year. The original direction was pointing us towards studying the cathodes. But, just for the hell of it one day, I thought: ‘I wonder what would happen if I reversed the polarity and looked at what happens to the other electrode,’ and it was a very different phenomenon. Instead of messy sorts of molten areas, there were nice pools. So it ended up that there was quite a bit of research to be done at both ends. I think that, you and I, and no doubt Jim after us, all did work on both anodes and cathodes. That was an interesting year. I am not sure how good a teacher I was, probably not bad.

Move to CSIRO

At the end of that year, 1952, you decided to leave your position at NEUC and join CSIRO. What was it that led to that decision?

Well, it was my own decision. Somerville was still away at Swansea; I didn’t communicate with him about it and I probably should have done. I think he was disappointed. But I had been told by various people that you shouldn’t stay too long in the institution where you do your first degree. Of course, the done thing was to do a PhD. In those days you could not do a PhD in any Australian university and I didn’t really think, with my economic circumstances, there was any way I could get away to do a PhD overseas. But I still had this in my mind: that I should be getting out into a bigger pool than what was a quite small physics department at Armidale.

So I applied for two jobs, both with CSIRO and both in Sydney. One was with the National Standards Laboratory (NSL) on the Sydney University campus, which we’ll come to later on; and the other was with a new Division just being set up, which was the Division of Wool Physics at Ryde. This was being set up by Victor Burgmann, who later became Chairman of CSIRO, and I was offered both jobs. Some of my decisions, on looking back, were not very sophisticated; they were pretty naive. I chose the one at the National Standards Laboratory simply because it was an existing and much bigger Division. So, essentially, that’s what took me to the National Standards Laboratory.

Somerville, when he came back, told me things I didn’t know. It just shows that I hadn’t been very inquiring, I suppose. He said, ‘Well, you know, we expect to get autonomy in just one more year.’ If I’d stayed on one more year, NEUC would have become the University of New England. And he thought that I needed only about one more year of research and I’d have enough research to put in a PhD thesis. All the universities in Australia were about to start awarding PhDs. Anyway, it was too late for me, but my younger brother, Harry, went on to gain BSc (Hons) and PhD degrees in physics at UNE, under Somerville’s supervision.

Bill and Doreen (nee Graham) Blevin
Bill and Doreen (nee Graham) Blevin on their wedding day, Weston NSW, 20 December 1952.

There was another complication too. In my later years as an undergraduate, I’d become rather attached to a young lady, Doreen Graham. Doreen was also training to be a science and mathematics teacher and, while I was fiddling around doing research on arcs, she had gone teaching to Wollongong. So we’d been essentially that far apart for a couple of years and we were thinking it was just about time we got a bit closer and even got married. That helped me to decide to come to Sydney. She managed to get the Education Department to move her from Wollongong High School, where she’d spent her first two years, to North Sydney Girls High School and we began our married life. I’d just like to say that we had a very long and successful marriage. Doreen passed away just over a year ago, but we really had a long time together and she helped in my career in many ways.

And so began the next part of your life in 1953 in Sydney. Whereabouts did you live in Sydney?

We started off renting part of a house in Epping and, two or three years later, bought a modest house in Carlingford, where we stayed for 11 years. By then we wanted to get closer to the railway and to schools since we had produced three children fairly quickly in the first five or six years of our marriage. So we moved to Cheltenham and lived there for over 40 years. We weren’t great ones for hopping and skipping around.

And I guess that, from Cheltenham, you had to catch the train into the CSIRO every morning? In those days, CSIRO’s National Standards Laboratory was at Sydney University?

That’s right. I’d get the train to Redfern and walk to the University from there.

What is a National Standards Laboratory?

What did the National Standards Laboratory (NSL) do, particularly in those days, and what was the bit of its work that you were involved in?

Well, CSIRO had been around for quite a while but, prior to the war, most of its work had been in biological sciences and it was interested in the application of science in industry and so on. The decision was made just prior to the war, not to do with the war but independently, that it should get more into physical sciences and one of the first things recommended was to set up a national standards laboratory that would maintain Australia’s physical standards of measurement. The NSL would be the final arbiter as to how long a metre was, how long a second lasted and all sorts of units, including nuclear quantities etc.

They really set out thinking that the NSL would be a subset of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in London, which had had that job for Britain since about 1900. Most of the major countries had set up national laboratories at about that time. Certainly they had done so in Russia, in Germany and in the USA. So Australia came to the party some 40 years later. NSL quickly became the leading organisation in Australia’s national measurement system, collaborating closely with the National Standards Commission (NSC) involved in legal metrology, the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) involved in laboratory accreditation, the Standards Association of Australia (SAA) involved in documentary standards, and the States’ Offices of Weights and Measures which took care of trade measurements.

Photometry, Radiometry and Colorimetry

Soon after the war, NSL was structured as three Divisions of CSIRO. One was Metrology, dealing with length and mass and a lot of things like that; one was Electrotechnology; and another one was Physics, which had temperature, light and the other bits. The bit that I was brought in to do was probably one of the least accurate ones and that was basically what they called the photometry section, which is the measurement of light. Light had been measured for over 100 years and it was different from the other units in that the detector used to measure light was traditionally the human eye. There were few other useful detectors at that time. So photometry essentially had a biological element to it. Right up to World War II, most measurements in photometry were done visually with special instruments. It’s amazing how accurately the eye can compare the brightness of two patches of light, provided that certain conditions are met. But photocells were starting to appear and there was starting to be a move towards physical methods of measuring light.

We were also interested in a subject called radiometry or optical radiometry, which is a similar subject: you’re still measuring radiation, but you’re not taking any account of the visual effect. So you measure optical power in watts, just like you measure electrical power in watts and so on. Colorimetry was more related to photometry; it took into account physiological effects. It was more complicated than photometry because, with photometry, particularly in daylight, there is one curve that more or less tells you how sensitive the eye is to the different colours of the spectrum. It’s a bell shaped curve, peaking in the yellow-green and falling off rapidly at each end of the spectrum. In colorimetry you need three curves and you can actually measure colour digitally and end up with numbers and uncertainties and so on, just like other physical quantities.

Ronald Gordon Giovanelli

So the group that I was brought down to take charge of was concerned with all three of these, although there were other people already there so I was learning from the technical assistants for a while. There were plenty of applications of these things, and I must say that didn’t worry me a bit. In fact, I think I was attracted by being in some area of physics that had immediate and varied applications. I reported to a chap by the name of Ron Giovanelli, who had looked after this group. He was one of a number of people who had spent a period at NPL in London just at the outbreak of World War II in order to learn how to run a standards laboratory. But when they came back they were very much diverted for some years by wartime problems. However Giovanelli did arrange for a lot of equipment to be sent out to Australia soon after the war, including a lot of so-called standard lamps that would be the Australian standards for photometry. A few of them had been calibrated, but a lot of them needed to be calibrated by us. They were specially made tungsten filament lamps, for the most part.

One of my first jobs was to supervise and participate in the calibration of some hundreds of these lamps which were of different powers and operated at different filament temperatures. I immediately found some scope for research because tungsten filaments in new lamps are unstable things and, when they are first operated, they recrystallise. So I set myself the problem of deciding whether in order to stabilise them, it was best to do what other people had done and run them at the temperature they would finally be operated at? Or could you do it, and perhaps even do it better, by using a lower temperature and a longer time? That turned out to be an interesting area of research. We had people in the Division who were quite good on metal physics and could give me some guidance. That was my first published paper out of the National Standards Laboratory and it got quite a bit of attention around the other standards labs.

But the range of interest in these subjects just amazed me, really. It was far from limited to just providing standards for Australian lamp manufacturers. For example, we collaborated extensively in the development of improved street-lighting technology and of more effective colour signals for road traffic, airport runways and maritime applications; and we encouraged and assisted a wide range of manufacturers to adopt physical rather than visual methods to control the colour of their products. There were scientists requiring assistance in developing deep-sea photometers to measure light deep under the water.  There were other people who were researching aurorae in Antarctica and wanted accurate calibration of an artificial aurora that they had made as a reference standard. You had to sit in the darkroom with it for half an hour before you could even see it and then they still wanted to know how bright that was, in the photometric units. With the Vietnam War, I remember the great trouble that the military had in measuring some of their high-intensity flares that were shot high in the sky and lit up the countryside, and we were able to sort out what was wrong with their apparatus.

One of the activities that had started in Giovanelli’s day and actually related to colorimetry in a way, was measuring the haemoglobin content of blood. Giovanelli got to know Dr Bob Walsh, who at that stage was the head of the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service in Sydney. They serviced not only all of Australia but also the region around us and needed access to very accurate spectral measurements. For example, spectrophotometry was used to measure the different absorption characteristics of oxidised blood and so on. Giovanelli set up an arrangement with Walsh whereby we would periodically calibrate a sample of blood for him, a sample of a big amount that the Red Cross would then distribute throughout the region. So we helped to maintain the haemoglobin standards for years and years. I think they used to send some samples to Europe, just to check that our region agreed with their region and so on.

Later on, Dr Wootton of the Post-Graduate Medical School in London got in touch with us. There was a new method coming out where, if you mixed blood with hydrogen cyanide, you got a derivative called cyanmethaemoglobin, which had the advantage over oxyhaemoglobin of being extremely stable. It could go for months without changing; whereas the whole nature of oxyhaemoglobin is that it’s meant to be unstable so that you can get oxygen into the haemoglobin and out of it again. There was an interest in making accurate measurements of the spectral properties of this derivative. Dr Wootton could actually do the chemical determination of how much haemoglobin was in a batch of this chemical, but he wanted someone to collaborate with, who was more expert than he in spectral measurements, and he couldn’t really get people interested enough in Britain. So we did it remotely and we had samples of blood and cyanmethemoglobin going backwards and forwards.

Our measurements contributed to the internationally adopted value for that, and I must say that led to my one and only paper— a shared paper—in the Lancet. It’s nice to be able to say you have had a paper published in the Lancet. I always like telling my GP: ‘When I published in the Lancet’. Anyway cyanmethaemoglobin was so stable that it was developed as a commercial product, although not by us but in America. There was no need to have us involved in haemoglobinometry any longer so that’s when we bowed out of that field.

Did CSIRO make a lot of money out of it?

No. CSIRO used to be very kind to people in those days; we charged almost nominal fees for most things. We did these things for the public good, you might say.

A body had been set up in Australia called the Australian National Committee on Illumination, and Giovanelli had been the secretary of that until I came along. Quite clearly, he was offloading some of his responsibilities on to me, so I soon became the secretary. That was an interesting eventuality because one of the Committee members, Dr Albert Dresler, who later became the president was quite a distinguished German.  He had been brought up in Britain and was an Anglophile but, during World War I, he had gone back to Germany or been exchanged, and there he became a prominent electrical engineer and head of the lighting laboratory of Siemens in Berlin. After World War II, his big aim was to get as far from Europe as he could, so he came to Australia. He worked as a lighting consultant with the Department of Labour and National Service in Melbourne and he used to come fairly frequently to Sydney. He didn’t have a lab any more and he used to come and visit Giovanelli and me. He was a wealth of information about what had happened in lighting circles and photometry circles in his day.

Additional honorary roles

You mention being secretary of a number of organisations in those days.

Joseph Lade Pawsey
Joseph Lade Pawsey (1908 – 1962)

Yes. I guess when you come as a new, young fellow to an institution they’re always looking for somebody to fill honorary positions. There was not an Australian Institute of Physics in those days. Britain had actually had two institutes of physics, one they called the ‘Institute of Physics’ and the other the ‘Physical Society’. Then they combined but kept the two names, so it had this unwieldy name of the ‘Institute of Physics and the Physical Society’. When I came to Sydney, the chairman of the New South Wales branch was a very distinguished radio astronomer, Dr Joe Pawsey, and I was invited to be secretary. That was an advantage with coming to a big institution because I got to know Joe Pawsey very well. The two of us would be organising the monthly talks and meetings and so on. He was a delightful man and first-rate physicist, of course.

There are a couple of interesting things that I will mention. One is that it was at about that time that the decision was made by physicists from around the different states to set up an Australian Institute of Physics, so I was involved in the meetings going on about that. Another interesting thing, it harks back to Armidale a bit, is that the physics department at UNE had on board a Dr Kurt Landecker, who I think had come up from Sydney University.

Yes, I remember him.

He had done some work on a method of making very strong radio pulses that you could reflect off the moon; of course this was early days in looking beyond the earth. He went to patent it and the strangest thing happened; the Americans put their nose into the matter and they banned publication of Landecker’s invention. It wasn’t to be published and a patent wasn’t to be granted et cetera. Of course, Somerville really went to great lengths to get this overturned.

Yes. That was for security reasons, wasn’t it? They thought it would be useful for military operations.

Military purposes, yes. The American demand could not be disregarded however because the next thing the Australian government sent Landecker a similar letter. Eventually, Somerville did get the demands overturned but, as part of my job as secretary of the physics institute I had the interesting task of writing this incident up and getting it published in the Australian Journal of Science, warning that sometimes it pays to publish first and patent second. That was an interesting episode.

In addition to your work with haemoglobin, did you have any other work that had different medical applications?

Yes. There was one interesting episode that I really only had a fairly minor part in. Dr Doug Cohen, the senior surgeon at the Children’s Hospital, which in those days was not far from Sydney University, was tooling up, wanting to do his first open-heart surgery. He had the cooperation of a manufacturer of pumps up in Brookvale, in northern Sydney. He used to work with the pump manufacturer at weekends, a man by the name of Ebsary. He had made a lot of use of the temperature specialists at the National Standards Laboratory—particularly a man named Alan Harper, who was the head of that section—in preparing the apparatus to cool the bodies down and to control the temperature of the blood. They then asked me whether I would make a little haemoglobin meter so that they could measure the amount of oxygen being put into the blood. So I went along a few times to the factory.

The last time I participated I got a phone call  —I can remember that it was in October 1958—saying that my wife was going into labour quite a distance away, expecting our third child. So I rushed home and all ended happily. I was invited to be present at some of the first uses of this apparatus for open-heart surgery; Harper was certainly there, controlling temperatures, but I opted out.

Establishing contacts overseas

So far we have talked only about your work on standards with CSIRO. Did you have any contacts and influences from overseas?

Susan, Julie and Doug Blevin
(left to right) Susan, Julie and Doug Blevin at home in Carlingford NSW, 1960.

Well, there were lots of interactions with other people. Of course, I had ‘written interactions’ and did a lot of reading of their published work but I did not actually get to travel abroad until 1959. Giovanelli was very keen that I take an extended trip and visit many places, which I did. It’s a wonder that my marriage didn’t end at that stage, because I left my wife with a baby only seven or eight months old and two other young children and not much money. But it was of great value to me and I think to CSIRO. I quickly learned that we were better off than I had thought we were. When I say ‘better off’, I think we were more skilled than I had thought. We could compare pretty well with many others in the field. I went to most of the major standards labs, starting off with Japan, then India, Russia, Britain and several places in Western Europe and, eventually, the United States and Canada. I visited a number of lamp manufacturers, such as the General Electric Company in England, Siemens and Philips in Europe, and GE in America; and laboratories that were interested in physical colour measurement, such as ICI and Imperial College; and I went to a number of conferences.  

Dresler, the German guy whom I mentioned before, and I both attended a quadrennial session in Brussels of the International Commission on Illumination. It had been the major international body dealing with many aspects of lighting and photometry ever since the turn of the century. They ranged from applied things, like architecture, street-lighting and so on, back to more basic things like vision and measurement. Dresler introduced me to all sorts of people, and that was of great value. It was a very tiring journey but one which, I think, did a lot of preparation for the rest of my career in that field.

Contributions to optical radiometry

And, when you got back, did that experience influence in a large way what you did for the next several years?

Yes. One thing that I certainly learned was that the subject of optical radiometry, that is, the measuring of radiation without worrying about vision, was in a pretty poor state. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if we can’t measure radiation in ordinary physical units to determine how much power there is in watts or microwatts or whatever, it’s surely going to be harder to do the equivalent measurement while also allowing for the curves that control vision.’ It seemed to me that it was important that we learn to measure radiation better. In other words, it did persuade me to spend several years concentrating on radiometry rather than photometry. Although we had to keep up with the photometric needs of our customers. I might say that Giovanelli was opposed to that. He said, ‘Oh, that’s an old classical subject,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but we’re no good at it; nobody’s any good at it.’ Anyway, he gave me my head, so we did quite a lot of work improving radiometry.

Two of the people at NPL in England had done some good work in this area and they had even been talking about perhaps some day being able to perform radiometry accurately enough that one could base photometry on radiometry, and this was in the back of my mind too. By this time, our Australian laboratory was starting to cooperate with the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris. It was only after World War II that Australia had become a signatory to the Metric Treaty of 1875 that established that laboratory, but we were now being invited onto several of the related technical or consultative committees. This included the Consultative Committee for Photometry (CCP) that dealt primarily with photometry but also radiometry. The CCP organised some comparisons of radiometric measurements between the member laboratories, most of the preparatory work being done by the NPL in England. But, from the work that we had already done, I was able to point out a few shortcomings in what they were planning.

People had got too used to doing photometry but were overlooking things that were very basic; for example, hanging a black cloth up behind a lamp to absorb the radiation. That worked fine with visible light, but virtually every black cloth is white as soon as you get outside the visible spectrum, particularly into the infra-red; just like black cattle are white in the infra-red, as I was to find later. Although optical path-lengths of only about a metre or so were being used, absorption by atmospheric water vapour, even in the very near infra-red, could not be ignored; so it was necessary to take the laboratory humidity into account. The most common way to establish a radiation scale was to use a so-called electrical substitution radiometer, which incorporated a blackened thermal receiver that could be heated alternately by radiation and by an inbuilt electrical element. So you had to know quite a bit about the optical and thermal transport properties of black surfaces. In fact, the amount of time I spent researching black surfaces was quite amazing.

Some of the blacks that were in use at that time were quite interesting. One was a black paint made in England that had actually been developed during World War II to make their night-flying military aircraft harder to see. But it wasn’t very good for radiometry, because its optical absorption properties varied too greatly across the spectrum, it wasn’t all that black after all! I researched and made much use of gold-black coatings, about which I had gained some information from my earlier trips to the German standards lab. If you evaporate gold and it arrives on a surface hot, it forms a normal crystalline gold structure and looks like yellow gold; but, if it’s dead cool when it arrives it forms a very low-density structure that is as black as can be. If you deposit a patch of it on black paint it looks like a black hole because it’s so much blacker than any black paint. So there were things like that that I was able to contribute. Previously we had used overseas standards for radiation measurement but now, for the first time, we had developed some Australian standards that we had more faith in.

Horace Newton Barber
Horace Newton Barber (1914 – 1971)

Unforeseen applications for a new measurement capability often appear faster than you expect. For example, lasers came along and people using them wanted to know whether their lasers were safe. They looked to the National Standards Laboratory to have standards for laser power, and we had the expertise already because of our radiometry research. Then we had other interesting people contact us. There was a professor of botany from the University of New South Wales, a Fellow of this Academy and of the Royal Society, the late Professor H. Newton Barber. You probably know his son, Michael Barber, who is also a Fellow of the Academy. Professor Newton Barber was interested in foliage on trees and other plants growing up near the tree line in the Australian alps and he was wondering whether their radiative properties were different from those of other plants. He had a PhD student working with me at NSL for a period, using equipment we that we had developed to measure the optical properties of materials in the near and middle infra-red regions of the spectrum. Perhaps the reason the alpine plants could survive was that they held on to their heat and didn’t radiate it out? It was an interesting proposal, but the measurements showed that they were just as effective as radiators as other plants.

So there were lots of instances like that. Once you get a new capability to do measurements it’s amazing how the opportunity arises to use it. Optical fibres came along. People dealing in optical fibre technology in due course became expert themselves, but earlier on they wanted help from us on measuring the power being transmitted through optical fibres and so on. So radiometry had a lot of applications.

I guess that all this work done in Australia had an influence on what was done in overseas countries and on overseas international standards. Is that right?

Stefan-Boltzmann constant

Yes. However I think that our greatest influence on international radiometry was the thing that we did next, and that was to tackle a problem that again I’d learned about from colleagues in Germany. This problem had been recognised but unresolved ever since the year 1900 when Max Planck derived his celebrated law governing the spectral energy distribution of the radiation emitted by a blackbody at absolute temperature (T). Some 20 years earlier Stefan and Boltzmann had discovered that the amount of heat emitted by a hot body varies as the fourth power of its absolute temperature. So, if you increase the absolute temperature by a factor of two, the amount of heat radiated goes up 16 times. The constant of proportionality is known as the Stefan-Boltzmann constant. When Plank’s law came out, it became possible to calculate the value of this constant from three other and more fundamental constants. The trouble was that nobody could ever get agreement between the theoretical value calculated from these fundamental constants and the measured value.

That had gone on for 50 or 60 years and reflected adversely on the confidence held in radiometric measurements. It wasn’t a minute disagreement; it was about 1.5 per cent on average and quite often worse than that. So we decided that we’d have a go at measuring the Stefan-Boltzmann constant. It was a very difficult measurement, perhaps the most demanding bit of experimental work that I and my partners undertook, and I must say that in all this work I had partners; one particular partner by the name of Bill Brown did a lot of work with me throughout my career. The measurements had to be done in a vacuum. For the radiation source we developed a cavity radiator (blackbody) operated at the melting point of gold, which is a very dull red sort of a heat, and for the detector a sophisticated electrically calibrated radiometer operated at room temperature.  

Many potential sources of error were identified, often common to other areas of radiometry. We even found instances where Planck’s law had been used incorrectly.  Further, it was necessary to make a more careful analysis of the bending or diffraction of the radiation beam as it passed through apertures, even ones large enough to be able to put your finger through. There were many such factors to consider but, at the end of the day, our measured value for the Stefan-Boltzmann constant agreed with the theoretical value to within slightly better than 0.1 per cent, and that was about the limit of the accuracy of our measurement.

At that time we happened to have a visit from the then Director of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, Dr Lewis Branscombe, who was very impressed by the work that we were doing, and that had a significant influence on later developments.

This takes you back to UNE and your doctorate and your subsequent membership of the university council, doesn’t it?

Doctor of Science

Muriel Somerville, Bill Blevin and Doreen Blevin
(left to right) Muriel Somerville, Bill Blevin and Doreen Blevin at Blevin’s receipt of a UNE Distinguished Alumni Award. Muriel Somerville is the widow of Blevin’s first physics mentor, Jack Somerville. August, 1995.

Yes, that’s right. Ron Giovanelli, who long before now had become Chief of the Division of Physics, had always stressed to me that, when I had the appropriate amount of published research, I should submit a thesis for a doctor of science degree. I had to decide whether I’d submit it to the University of New England or to the University of Sydney. My earlier BSc and MSc degrees were University of Sydney degrees, although the work had been performed at the New England University College. But for two reasons I chose New England. One was that that is where my sentimentality was, my feeling of most connection. The second reason was that people were still trying to ‘calibrate’ Harry Messel. I probably would have had the same overseas assessors of the thesis either way. Anyway, I’m glad that I went with the University of New England and, of course, was pleased to be awarded a DSc. I was only the second DSc in physics from the University of New England; Landecker, whom I’ve already mentioned, was the first. Then I was pleased later to serve on the UNE Council for 10 years or so, and honoured in 1995 to receive a UNE Distinguished Alumni Award.

Redefining the candela

And then back to radiometry: you had international interactions, didn’t you, to get improved standards and things like that in the photometric area?

Yes. We decided that we’d done a fair bit for radiometry, and that we should now get back to basing photometry on radiometry. We had to broaden the radiometry that we’d done, which had been mainly broadband and not splitting the spectrum into lots of narrow bands; we had to do a lot of that sort of work. I won’t dwell on that, although I had some very good support staff doing that, but personally I was keen to get back to getting photometry onto a proper base. I’d absolutely convinced myself that it was much better working from the receiver end, i.e. the detector end, in both of these fields, rather than dealing with high temperature sources. It was always difficult in practice dealing with high temperature sources. The Consultative Committee for Photometry (CCP) normally met every four years. In 1971, I managed to persuade them that we ought to broaden the name of that committee to include ‘radiometry’, which they did. Also at that meeting I formally proposed for the first time changing the definition of the SI base unit of photometry, the candela, to relate it directly to the watt. The Committee members didn’t agree to that proposal spontaneously, but some of them were interested in it and a few were doing rather similar work already. Anyway, soon after the 1971 meeting, I decided that I was really going to push for this redefinition and make it almost like a mission. It became clear to me that I’d have to persuade at least one of the major standards labs around the world to partner me on this mission.

By coincidence it was at about that time I received an invitation to spend a year at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards as what they called an ‘expert consultant’. The invitation came from a subsequent NBS Director, Dr Ernest Ambler, although he told me later that it was actually initiated by Branscombe after his visit to NSL a year or two previously. They wanted to see whether I could add to what they were trying to do at NBS in the whole area of radiometry and photometry. I saw it principally as an opportunity to talk them into supporting the redefinition of the candela. It was an interesting process because I tended to find, and this happened around the world, that the older people took a lot of persuading but the younger people would come on board pretty quickly. By ‘younger’ I mean people of my age or younger, and I guess that I was in my mid-forties at that stage.

During my year at NBS, 1973,  we prepared and published a major joint paper, which detailed the case for changing the definition of the candela. It was a big deal to change the definition of one of the seven base units of the International System of Units (SI). We tried at first to go one step further and get them to adopt the lumen, which is the unit of luminous flux, as the SI base unit, instead of the candela. But we lost that argument out of hand on the grounds that SI was only 20 or 30 years old and not yet fully accepted worldwide—‘And the last thing we want to do is destabilise it.’ It wasn’t for any technical reason, but I could see the merits of their argument.  

On the Consultative Committee for Photometry and Radiometry (CCPR) there was some opposition to redefining the candela. The National Physical Laboratory in England was at first not supportive; the people there who had earlier made a somewhat similar proposal had retired and the next generation were lukewarm. The person most opposed was a Russian lady, Madam V.E. Kartachevskaia, who had long been in charge of photometry at the Russian standards laboratory, the Mendeleev Institute in Leningrad. I’d got to know her well over the years; but she was implacably opposed to the proposed redefinition. Eventually, after another meeting or two, the CCPR did decide in 1977 that it would press for the proposed new definition of the candela to be adopted. One of the fortunate things was that often the Russian delegation used to turn up a day late for meetings because they had trouble getting their visas in time. We nearly always met at the BIPM in Sèvres, but the critical 1977 meeting of CCPR, for exceptional reasons, was held at the NPL in London. Madam Kartachevskaia turned up a day late. My first contact with her was an informal one and she said, ‘Well, Mr Blevin, I understand you have decided to change the definition of the candela and to see afterwards whether it is a good idea, instead of the reverse order which is the normal case.’ Oh, she was really biting, I must say. But fortunately Dr J. Terrien, the Director of the BIPM and a very accomplished tactician, was nearby and responded ‘Well, I felt the same as you, Madam Karchevskaya, until I heard all the debate and reasons yesterday and I completely changed my mind—and so would you have done if you had been there.’ Well, that fixed her. It was only later that I discovered why she was so adamant in her opposition; it was because the Russian lab that was expert in radiometry wasn’t her lab in Leningrad, but another optical physics laboratory in Moscow, and she suspected or probably knew that she would lose responsibility for that part of her work—and that’s what happened. So that was her last participation and that was sad.

Anyway, the definition did get changed.  It was now on a firm physical background and allowed the adoption of alternative methods to develop photometric standards, mostly based on detectors rather than sources. Soon afterwards I was appointed chairman of the CCPR and a member of the International Committee of Weights and Measures (CIPM), which is essentially the board responsible for the operation of the BIPM.

Dr Terry Quinn, an outstanding NPL scientist whom I knew well and who became not the next but a subsequent director of the BIPM, decided that he would redo my Stefan-Boltzmann experiment. But he was very ambitious. He said, ‘Well, the trouble with your measurement is’—not ‘trouble’; he didn’t put it that way—‘you use the melting point of gold as your source, but the only temperature we know exactly is the triple point of water’—which is roughly the freezing point of ice—‘because that’s how the temperature scale is defined’. So he argued that the radiator should be way down at that temperature which meant his detector had to be cryogenic, down at liquid helium temperatures. But there were big advantages in radiometry in having a detector at liquid helium temperatures, which I will not try to go into now.  It took some 15 years after my measurement before his result came to light. It also agreed very well with the fundamental constants, somewhat better than mine, and the uncertainty was less.

One of the things that came out of that, however, was that cryogenic radiometers started to get made commercially, both in Britain and in the US, and standards labs started buying these, we even bought one in Sydney. Then there were other new approaches to the subject. The Americans found that there were now some very high-class, monocrystalline, silicon photodiodes available that had almost 100 per cent internal quantum efficiency: every quantum or parcel of light that went in produced an electron. They did some good work on that.
Instead of there being only two or three major labs developing standards for photometry, now there were something like 15 to 20 working on it. So redefinition of the candela had a big influence.

Focus on industrial research and revenue raising

That work on internationalising standards took you to a lot of places overseas, including England and the USA. When you returned from that, did you find that things had changed in CSIRO?

Yes, certainly things were starting to change and they were changing also, of course, in the National Standards Laboratory. Giovanelli, who had become more and more engaged in his personal scientific pursuits—he had quite a group on solar physics—wanted now to work full time on that, so he retired from his position as Chief of Division. That left another long-serving man, Fred Lehany, as the only remaining Chief and the lab was now a single CSIRO Division.  For some years it had been planning to move to a new site. Previously we had been housed mainly at Sydney University, but we had long outgrown the accommodation there. A large, new complex specially designed to be a standards laboratory, with great attention to the physical environment control et cetera, was under construction at Lindfield, a northern Sydney suburb.

There were also political pressures on CSIRO, and the Executive in turn was putting pressures on various parts of the Organisation, to do more for manufacturing industry. In fact, I was asked by Victor Burgmann, who by then was the Chairman of CSIRO, to lead a working party on how the Organisation —the National Standards Laboratory, in particular—could do more to help manufacturing industry. Other members of the working party were John Goldberg from the National Standards Laboratory, which by then had been renamed the National Measurement Laboratory (NML), and Dr Peter Robinson from the Division of Tribophysics. We visited lots of industries, talked to them about the matter and then brought down a report saying that, yes, there was scope for greater assistance and outlining how this might best be achieved.

I was a bit surprised on that mission to find that many of the NML staff had been much less broad in their dealing with industry than I and my group had been. They had done the standards and calibration traceability bit quite well, but had not been looking for wider applications of their expertise to the same extent. The younger NML staff were reasonably enthusiastic about our recommendations but most of the older staff people were anything but. It turned out that our report went up to the Executive in August 1977, at about the same time as it received a much more massive report prepared by a committee led by Professor Arthur Birch following a review of CSIRO as a whole. The Birch Report led to the formation of a system of Institutes within CSIRO, each comprising several Divisions, and it pressed the Organisation to earn much more money. So all these sorts of things were happening soon after my return.

The new NML buildings at Lindfield were occupied in 1977-78 and officially opened on 23 February 1979. By then the Chairman of CSIRO was the distinguished astronomer Dr Paul Wild and, in preparation for Lehany’s approaching retirement, there had been a review of NML, commissioned by the Executive and led by Dr John Philip, Chief of the Division of Environmental Mechanics. Although we knew that the Executive, after receiving Philip’s report in December 1978,  had made its decisions about the future of NML, it hadn’t told Lehany or the staff prior to the official opening, what those decisions were. The official opening of the lab was performed by the then Governor-General, Sir Zelman Cowan, and a wide range of distinguished people, including some from overseas, were in attendance as our guests. CSIRO had told Sir Zelman Cowan of the impending changes to NML for inclusion in his address. So the first we heard of these changes was from the Governor-General at the official opening—and Lehany almost fell off his chair. It really wasn’t well handled.

Times were changing.  Lehany retired soon after the opening  and not long after that, another senior man, Alan Harper, who for years had been running what essentially was the sister body, the National Standards Commission—and during that time had brought metrication to Australia— also retired. Many of the NML people were pointing at me as the guy who now had to get into the ‘administrative quagmire’, as one of my colleagues used to call it. I have often wondered what would have happened to my career if I had opted to keep on being an individual researcher.  But I guess that somebody had to get into the management quagmire and I got in. That was to make a big difference, of course, to my future. It really marked the end of my personal research career.

Move into the ‘administrative quagmire’

Yes, because you were appointed Assistant Chief to John Lowke and also Chief Standards Scientist, weren’t you? So you had a really large bag of responsibilities.

ohn Lowke (chief), Fred Lehany (former chief), Robert Kamper (director of NBS Boulder Laboratories, USA) and Bill Blevin (assistant chief)
(left to right) John Lowke (chief), Fred Lehany (former chief), Robert Kamper (director of NBS Boulder Laboratories, USA) and Bill Blevin (assistant chief) at a function giving the name Lehany Theatreto the National Measurement Laboratory’s main lecture theatre, 1987.

Yes, that’s right. After Lehany retired, I was appointed as Acting Chief for about nine months, while they looked around for his successor. I knew that, when they are looking for a big change, they usually do not look for an internal person to take over, so I wasn’t surprised when they appointed an external person— Dr John Lowke.  John was a good theoretical physicist who, after gaining his PhD in Australia, had spent quite a while working with Westinghouse in the States and then had gone to the electrical engineering department of Sydney University. He was very inexperienced in administration, I might say, and a very nice guy. When he was appointed Chief, I was made Assistant Chief but also made responsible for the standards program. I was determined that I had to do my best at both tasks, give John all the support that I could but also, as best I could in the climate, look after the continuing welfare of the standards program.

The Division was renamed the Division of Applied Physics and made one of the Divisions of the new Institute of Physical Sciences, with John Philip as our first Institute Director. Philip had a pretty wide reputation of being a very fine scientist but very poor in personnel skills. In fact, we generally thought in our Division that he went around trying to upset people. So that made it an extraordinarily difficult period and very bad for the morale of the staff. The resources allocated to the standards—it was CSIRO policy—were getting cut more and more and diverted to other areas of research and assistance to industry. At about that time the Department of Defence, which had maintained its own standards facilities, decided to give that up and transferred quite a lot of people and vacant positions to CSIRO because now it would be looking to CSIRO to do this job for it.

But despite that growth of resource and increased responsibility, the total numbers that we had in standards kept falling, falling and falling, and I could see disaster somewhere down the road. I had to decide how I could responsibly do something about it. I had to follow CSIRO policy but, on the other hand, I felt a unique responsibility, being the senior standards man, somehow to be heard. The government had appointed me Chairman of the National Standards Commission, which was an independent body from CSIRO, and I decided to use that avenue to organise a conference in September 1982 entitled ‘Australia’s Measurement System … Does it need re-thinking?’  It was very well attended: we got about 250 people along and filled the lecture theatre. There were a lot of people from industry, and I had managed to get the Science Minister, who at that time was David Thompson of the Fraser government, to open the conference and CSIRO Chairman Paul Wild to chair the first session.

After lunch I was to speak and I gave a very factual account of the decreased resourcing of the standards effort over the previous three or four years. But then I became more outspoken and expressed my personal view that it was very dangerous to have this great drop-off and my concern that it would be very harmful to Australia’s standards set-up. I hadn’t been aware—not that it would have changed anything—that Paul Wild, who had disappeared during the morning session, had come back in and was standing at the back of the lecture theatre. He stamped out, obviously in somewhat of a temper, at the end of my presentation. He never spoke to me about it. I’d known Paul for many years, of course. There was quite a long discussion session after that, during which John Lowke defended CSIRO’s policy. A lot of people from industry spoke up and there were different points of view expressed. Some people thought that I was just some guy who didn’t want to do what his boss wanted him to do, but others understood my concern. I remember that Professor Lew Davies, a fellow of the academy, spoke very strongly in support of what I’d had to say. He emphasised that developing new products and devices for industry could be done by all sorts of people, including industry itself, but that only one body—and it had to be a government body—could really be responsible for the national measurement standards.  

Bill Blevin (left) being awarded Membership of the Order of Australia
Bill Blevin (left) being awarded Membership of the Order of Australia (AM) by the Governor of New South Wales, Rear Admiral Sir David Martin (right), Government House, Sydney, 1989.

It ended up that a decision was reached, without discord, that the National Standards Commission should organise to have regular reviews of the whole measurement system going ahead, and that started from there on. Some people thought I’d really done myself in and that I’d never recover from that initiative, but I’m glad to say that that didn’t eventuate. In fact in 1983, the very next year, I was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences, and I suspect that my election wasn’t entirely independent of the conference that we’d had. Then in 1985 I was elected a Fellow of this Academy, and in 1989 I was honoured to be awarded Membership of the Order of Australia (AM) for ‘service to science, particularly in the field of applied physics’.

Also in 1983 a new Institute Director had been appointed, and you know who that was, Neville: it was you.

That’s right.

Anthony George Klein
Anthony George Klein
Blevin (left) exchanging letters of agreement with Dr Ernest Ambler (right), director of the US National Bureau of Standards, recognising the equivalence of key Australian and US standards of measurement, Gaithersburg MD, USA, 1985.
Brian Frizell, General Manager of Philips Defence Systems Australia; and Bill Blevin
(left to right) Brian Frizell, General Manager of Philips Defence Systems Australia; and Bill Blevin officially opening the company's metrology laboratories, Moorebank NSW, 7 December 1984.

You called for a review and particularly of the calibration services, because there’d been a growing amount of criticism from some parts of industry that they weren’t getting adequate services. Anyway, a few things arose out of that that were very good. One was that we were advised—required, actually—to set up a formal Standards Advisory Committee and we made the good decision to appoint Professor Tony Klein from the Physics School of Melbourne University to lead that. There were people on the Committee, of course, from defence and from various other bodies concerned with the measurement system, as well as from industry generally. Tony Klein, who later was elected to this Academy, did a marvellous job. He appreciated the good physics in the standards work and was very good at raising the morale of the people involved.

Another thing that came out of that review was that we were encouraged to make formal agreements with some of the major national labs overseas, recognising the equivalence of their standards and ours. There was quite a bit of interest in offset manufacturing at about that time. An example that comes to mind is the Hughes Aircraft Company. They had a big contract making war planes for the Australian government, but the government wanted as much of that business as possible to be subcontracted to Australian companies.

One of the companies that got quite a lot of very high-tech business out of that was Philips Defence Systems Australia, down Liverpool way in Sydney. Anyway, it took a lot of organising and numerous measurement intercomparisons, but we did succeed in getting agreement with the United Kingdom’s National Physical Laboratory and, for defence reasons particularly, with the National Bureau of Standards in the United States, jointly signing very formal statements recognising the equivalence, to within a certain accuracy, of our standards. That certainly did help a lot in procuring some of these offset contracts; although, even then, Hughes Aircraft wanted to do a direct comparison of their standards and ours. We did that once, but then they agreed that it wasn’t necessarily the way to go. They had a very sophisticated lab at Philips Defence Systems and they were kind enough to get me officially to open it. Later we signed similar agreements with the Canadian and New Zealand standards labs.

Term as Chief of Division

In 1988 there was a big reconstruction of CSIRO, with new institutes and things like that. What happened then?

Well, it took a long while before we knew what was going to happen. But obviously there was going to be a very big change to CSIRO in general. Again, there was more emphasis on CSIRO to be earning more of its money and asking for less from the government. There was a reorganisation of the Institutes and we became part of an Institute of Industrial Technologies. Dr Colin Adam, a man who was pretty new to CSIRO, was made the Director of that Institute. John Lowke’s term as Chief of the Division of Applied Physics had finished and I was asked to take that position. So, again, I still had the job of balancing the standards bit with the industry bit, but obviously I had to do what my masters wanted, which was weighted very heavily on the industrial research side.

Cartoon of the CSIRO Division of Applied Physics management team
Cartoon of the CSIRO Division of Applied Physics management team over the period 1988-94, drawn by staff member Tony Collings, 1988.

Colin Adam had more of a finger in the organisation of the Division than had been normal in earlier days, but we decided that the Division should have five research programs. So I selected and nominated five appropriate people from within the Division to serve as program managers. Colin was happy with four of them but he wanted one from outside—I think, partly pro forma—and we recruited a scientist from ANSTO, Ian Pollock. Thus we had five Program Managers, an Assistant Chief and myself, and essentially we were a very happy group of seven; we got on well with each other. Each research program had part of the standards responsibility and a range of industrial projects, usually in partnership with a company. But the pressures to move resources out of the standards activity didn’t ease up; they were still very heavy. However, I think that, on the whole, the staff found they now had a management team that, within the constraints set by CSIRO policy, was being evenly balanced and getting along. I’m glad to say that most of the feedback I got from staff was that it was a reasonably happy time. Colin Adam was an interesting Director.  He used to come and talk to the Division occasionally and he was a good salesman at getting his line across.

Blevin (left) and science minister Barry Jones
Blevin (left) and science minister Barry Jones during a visit to the Division of Applied Physics, October 1990.

In general, things were somewhat more relaxed than they had been for a few years. Nevertheless, it was getting more and more difficult to carry out the standards function effectively. In fact, I was asked by a few people, both external and internal, why didn’t I try to lead the standards groups out of CSIRO? But I don’t know whether I was just naive or hopeful: I always thought that at some stage things would turn around—which they don’t often do. So I didn’t do that. We were certainly putting our emphasis heavily into other projects—and we had some good projects; there is no doubt about that. One thing that Colin Adam did, which was very effective, was to build up a strong relationship with the Boeing Aircraft Company. A number of Divisions, including ours developed projects with them, which was quite interesting because they were pretty good people to collaborate with.

(left to right) Blevin, Walter Sheehan (Controller of the Royal Australian Mint) and Dr John Stocker (CSIRO chief executive) handing over a sophisticated laser device developed in the Division of Applied Physics for measuring the profiles of coins and medals, 1991.
CSIRO's Bill Blevin (centre), Barry Inglis (third from the right) and Glenda Sandars (far right) meeting with seven visiting scientists from China's National Institute of Metrology, November 1993.

We also had quite a bit of success in many of our projects with local industry. For example, we developed a really first-rate laser device for the Royal Australian Mint, which allowed them to measure rapidly and accurately the profile, or relief map if you like, of the coins and medals etc that they manufactured, including the dies used and their rate of wear. I still remember quite well the presentation of that instrument to the Controller of the Mint by Dr John Stocker, who was the Chief Executive of CSIRO at that time. Similar instruments were later supplied under contract to the national mints of the USA and China.  

Another thing we’d gotten into in the standards area was regional cooperation and the establishment of an Asia-Pacific Metrology Programme, complementing the worldwide cooperation through the BIPM. The experience in negotiating bilateral agreements with the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand had clearly demonstrated the impracticality of having a bilateral agreement with every other country, so we had to get more and more into a multilateral sort of system. That got underway in the Asia-Pacific region in some ways faster than it did in Europe or North America, despite the great disparity in the stage of development of the member states. Countries like Vietnam for example at that stage had a pretty rudimentary industry in many ways, but they still needed measurement skills appropriate for their industry and recognised internationally so that their products would be accepted in other countries. That took off rather well. Anyway, it was an interesting occasion.

Retirement and continuing work with BIPM

That interesting occasion came to an end because in CSIRO you were required to retire before you reached 65. But you were able to stay on as an Honorary Research Fellow and continue activities within the Division.  What happened then?

President Bill Blevin (centre front) with BIPM director, Dr Terry Quinn (to Blevin’s right), at the meeting of the Consultative Committee for Photometry and Radiometry (CCPR) at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, Sèvres, France, 1990.

Well, I had that title; but I decided that, because there was ongoing work with companies, most of which was confidential et cetera, it wasn’t sensible for me to stay on in that sort of area. So, after I retired, I concentrated principally on relating with the BIPM in Paris. By about that time, Terry Quinn, the man who had done the Stefan-Boltzmann measurement after me, had become the Director of the Bureau, and he and I had a very good relationship. Earlier I had been put onto the executive of the CIPM, then appointed Vice-President but, more importantly, after that, Secretary, which was a more executive sort of a position. With much backing from the Asia-Pacific group and particularly Barry Inglis who was running that group, Terry Quinn and I started to set up the guidelines for establishing multilateral recognition of standards and measurement capabilities worldwide, and it was a huge effort. We had to have meetings and get the support of the directors of all the standards labs around the world et cetera. But the decision to proceed was reached by 1998, if I remember rightly, and I understand that in 2009 an international conference was held to review how much had been achieved in 10 years. One of the spokesmen at that conference was a senior executive from Boeing, who said what enormous value the multilateral arrangement had been to Boeing and to their sub-manufacturers. He said that he could hardly have believed that a big modern company like Boeing could gain so much from an initiative under an ancient treaty like the Metre Treaty, which had been signed in 1875.

A bound copy presented to Blevin of BIPM’s strategic plan for the 21st century, The Blevin Report,1998.
Blevin delivering the third Lloyd Rees Lecture on the topic Australian science made to measure. (left to right) Professor Geoffrey Opat, Mrs Marion Rees, Dr Bill Blevin and Dr Peter Hannaford. Melbourne, 30 September 1996.

Then late in the piece I was asked by the CIPM to write the first strategic plan for the BIPM. So a lot of time in my last two or three years was spent on developing a strategic plan for how the measurement system worldwide, but particularly the role of the BIPM, should evolve in the 21st century. Of course this came after consultation with standard labs all around a world. The plan had to go before a General Conference of delegates of the governments of the member states. I’m glad to say that it was adopted.

When I retired from the CIPM in the year 2000—they wanted me to stay on, but I said no, that I wanted to get out before they start asking, “What’s that old bugger still doing around here?” Anyway, they were kind enough to present me with a bound copy of the strategic plan and a nice piece of Sèvres porcelain. 

After my retirement from CSIRO I was honoured in 1996 to be awarded the Matthew Flinders Medal and Lecture and the Lloyd Rees Lecture by this Academy. Then, at about the time I retired from the CIPM, I was delighted to learn that Terry Quinn was being proposed for election to the Royal Society. I was invited, as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science with a broad knowledge of Quinn’s achievements, to support his nomination. The proposer was Professor Ian Mills FRS, a chemist from Reading University, who has assisted the CIPM over many years in the continuing development of the International System of Units. I am very glad to say that Terry was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2002.

Yes. It’s good to see measurement and standards being recognised for the underlining importance that they have for essentially everything that we do in the way of manufacturing and living. It’s also good to see that you too have been recognised for your contributions to standards and to other branches of physics around the world and particularly here in Australia.

Evaluating the future of measurement in Australia

Since your retirement from CSIRO, changes have gone on, haven’t they? Nothing stays still and there have been changes to measurements, measurement institutes and so on in Australia. What do you think about those?

I look back on a long period in the field with which to compare what has happened since. But I would first like to say that I’m very grateful to CSIRO for the long and interesting career I had working in metrology and in other areas of applied physics. Standards, essentially, is applied physics; some of it is applied chemistry these days. I’m grateful for that; although I was disappointed that CSIRO, to some extent, lost the plot in my last 10 or 20 years. Of course, I am a biased observer, but I think that they really were overlooking how basically important it is for every country—more and more, with global manufacture et cetera—to have a first-rate measurement system.

Unfortunately, after my retirement, apparently things got harder with resources for the standards area. Barry Inglis took over as Chief Standards Scientist. He was a first-rate guy. He had worked extremely hard on both the industrial physics and the standards programs, and on developing the Asia-Pacific Metrology Programme. But he just saw, I guess, that my earlier worries were coming true in that it was becoming impossible to operate the standards system effectively. He and a senior man from industry, Bruce Kean, who had replaced Professor Tony Klein as Chairman of the National Standards Advisory Committee, decided to talk directly with the Chief Executive of CSIRO about the impossible situation that was developing for the standards program. It was a different chief executive from the ones that I had known when I was still there. I understand that they got a very poor reception and, indeed, were told that CSIRO ‘tolerated being responsible for the standards and national measurements system but did not welcome it’.

That’s a bit terrible, isn’t it?

Well, it was enough to convince Barry Inglis that he really did have to see whether a suitable opportunity could be found to take that function out of CSIRO. Then some further government review of the measurement and technology area came along that allowed him to do that in a way that persuaded the government to set up a new body altogether, called the National Measurement Institute (NMI). It includes the former CSIRO standards program, the National Standards Commission and another body called the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories, which is essentially concerned with reliable and high-accuracy analytical chemistry. By agreement between the Commonwealth and State governments the state offices formerly responsible for trade measurements are currently being transferred to the NMI also. I understand that initially Inglis thought that the NMI might have been established as a statutory authority, like the National Standards Commission had been; but, in fact, it was set up on 1st July 2004 within the government department that is now the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research—quite a title.

The Institute seems to be progressing extremely well and gaining synergy from having its several components under the one management.  I congratulate Barry Inglis, who was appointed the foundation director of the NMI, with the title of Chief Executive and Chief Metrologist— he was given both positions.  A chemist, Dr Laurie Besley, who also came from my former staff, has succeeded Inglis as Director and also seems to be doing extremely well, as are the staff generally. I congratulate them all and the Department for getting the Institute off the ground and effective so quickly.

I have one serious concern; and that is that the buildings of the National Measurement Laboratory at Lindfield, which were very expensive and designed specifically to meet the needs of a standards laboratory, were not passed over to the new Institute. So, essentially, the National Measurement Institute is a tenant on a CSIRO site. CSIRO is still hard-pressed for funds and one wonders whether the future of that unique building is assured; I certainly hope it is. The other thing is that it is very important that there continue to be an appropriate amount of basic scientific research done within that institute, because it is much easier to see the good things being done at the application end of such an institute, but it does need some long­term thinking to realise that continued research and the esteem of your fellow institutes overseas are essential.

That’s great, Bill. It’s wonderful to look to the future and see that things are going well, and we hope that they continue to develop in a good way. It’s good to see the recognition that your work has received for standards not only in Australia but also overseas. Bill, it has been great talking with you and I hope that everyone enjoys this interview.

Thank you, Neville.

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