“Sir Samuel Curran was one of the elite group of British scientists who played a key role in several second world war developments, including radar and foe atomic bomb. He was also a man of great breadth of vision and energy, who was deeply concerned about the interaction of science and technology with the wider world.
Curran was born in Ballymena. Northern Ireland, of Scots and Irish parentage. At Glasgow University, he gained a First In Mathematics and Natural History and, in 1937, was awarded a Doctorate in Radiation Detection, then a rapidly developing area of research. He went on to work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, initially under Rutherford, then largely under the wing of John (later Sir John) Cockcroft, the nuclear physicist who was Rutherford’s second-in-command.
In 1939, like many of the country’s brightest young scientists, he was swept Into military research. With him was one of his research students Dr Joan Strothers [Signatory #183: Lady Curran], whom he married in 1940, and who distinguished herself in wartime radar defence by developing the jamming and deception technique known as “window” from thin aluminium foil strips dropped from aircraft.
Along with Bernard Lovell, Martin Ryle, “Tatty” Bowen and others, who would later emerge as peacetime scientific household names. Curran joined the brilliant assembly of physicists and engineers at the Royal Aircraft Estabilishment at Farnborough.
There he was involved in developing a miniature radar proximity fuse which, towards the end of the war, greatly enhanced the effectiveness of British anti-aircraft defences.
Subsequently, be worked on developing short-wave (centimentric) radar, which was crucial to night-fighter interception of bombers and to location by aircraft of German submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic.
In 1944. he was seconded to the Berkeley…as one of the British members of the Manhattan Project, where heavy radioactive isotopes were being produced for nuclear weapon studies, in what was then the world’s largest cyclotron (an early form of particle accelerator), Curran Invented a highly compact scintillation counter for determining levels of radioactivity, a device which still stands as a polar of radiation measurement After the war, he returned to Glasgow University, where he built the large synchrotron — an advanced form of particle accelerator.By the mid-1950s, in spite of his election as a fellow of the Royal Society In 1953 and his enjoyment of the freedom to create new radiation measuring instruments, Curran became frustrated with academic life and in 1955, joined William Penney (later Lord Penney) at Aldermaston developing the British H- bomb. He never expressed reservations about his work on nuclear weapons, which he saw as essential to the ending of the Second World War and to cold-war stability.
It was while at Aldermaston that his acquaintance with the nuclear physicist and radiation protection expert, Fred Dainton (later Lord Dainton) developed into a lifelong friendship, based largely on their common Interest in the development of university science and technology.
In 1959, Curran was given the opportunity to put his educational ideas into practice when he became director of Glasgow’s Royal College of Science and Technology. In 1964, when the college became Strathclyde University — the first British university to be devoted primarily to science and technology — he served as its first principal- and Vice-Chancellor, posts he held until his retirement in 1980.
Knighted in 1970, Curran was particularly concerned about energy resources and their connections with environmental problems. He was a dedicated family man, fond of the countryside and golf and a rare individual in that, although a world-level mathematician and scientist with great powers of concentration, he could relax completely at a football match–He is survived by Joan and their four children.
(Reconstructed from the Archive.org scan of The Guardian Obituary)
Obituary by Bill Fletcher:
“Although his mother, heavily pregnant, made a short trip from Wishaw to Northern Ireland so that her son would be born there, she returned soon after the birth and Sam Curran grew up, and remained all his life, essentially a Lanarkshire man, in attitude and in speech. Not even Cambridge could change that.
Students at Strathclyde recognised him as one of their own, always willing to listen to their grievances and to right them when appropriate. This was no pampered academic.
After attending Wishaw High School (where he was Dux) Sam took a First Class Honours degree in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University, followed by his PhD for research into methods of detecting radiation. Then he was off in 1937 to the Cavendish Labora-tory, Cambridge, to be accepted by the great Rutherford (the first man to split the atom) and to proceed, under his guidance, to a further PhD on novel methods of detecting radiation.
In the summer of 1939 it was proposed that Philip Dee (Curran’s immediate supervisor) and his team of five scientists should spend five weeks at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Scarcely had they arrived there when war was declared against Germany. Soon they moved to Exeter and were heavily involved in war research, particularly on the development of the proximity fuse and on long-range centimetre radar.
But it was not all work. One member of the team was Dr Joan Strothers [Signatory #183: Lady Curran], and she and Dr Curran married on November 7, 1940. She was to be an enormous support to him for the remainder of his long life. But she was more than that. A distinguished scientist in her own right, it was she who devised ”Operation Window”, the scattering of strips of tinfoil in the air, that was so effective in disrupting enemy radar.
Early in 1944 Sam Curran was sent to the United States to work on the highly secret ”Manhattan Project” – the development of the atomic bomb – at the Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley, California. It was also during this period that Sam Curran invented the scintillation counter – a device for measuring radio-activity that is still in use in almost every scientific laboratory in the world. He got little credit, and no money, for his invention. It was all part of the war effort.
Although at the end of the war, Curran was offered a post at the University of California, he decided to return to Glasgow University to work with his former supervisor, Philip Dee, who had been appointed to the Chair of Natural Philosophy there. Together they supervised the installation of a 200 MeV synchroton for nuclear physics research. During this period, Curran was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Although the Department rapidly gained an international reputation, and although his research was going smoothly, Curran began to feel the need to move again and in 1955 he joined Sir William (later Lord) Penny (with whom he had worked on the atomic bomb project and who was responsible for Britain producing its own atomic (1952) and hydrogen (1957) bombs at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston, as a deputy chief scientist. He took responsibility for a substantial part of the work on the hydrogen bomb and he spent five very successful years there.
But perhaps his greatest achievement was yet to come – the founding of the first new university in Scotland for 400 years and the first technological university in Britain. Only those who served with him during those eventful years can truly appreciate the enormous dynamism and single mindedness of the man as he went about that task. He was extremely forthright in expressing his opinions, as Sir Keith Murray, Chairman of the UGC, discovered when he was arguing the case with him for university status for the Royal College.
Curran knew exactly what he wanted his university to be – a place of useful learning – and he achieved that. Not, however, single-handedly. He always acknowledged the tremendous debt that he owed to his support staff, administrative and academic. He could be ruthless with anyone he thought was slacking or trying to pull the wool over his eyes, but there also was a very caring side to his nature, being very supportive of anyone with good ideas, and kind, helpful, and gentle to anyone in trouble.
One thing that angered him very much was the lack of recognition of the part that science and technology had played in winning the Second World War. There were no scientists in the parades to mark the fiftieth anniversaries of VE and VJ days, yet it was the discoveries and developments by scientists and engineers that made victory possible. He never had any doubt that it was right to use the atomic bomb.
The Currans’ first child, Sheena, born in 1945, was unfortunately severely handicapped. This was a great sadness to them but they threw themselves into work for the disabled, forming a Scottish Society for parents and other concerned people which now has more than 80 branches. Sam Curran is survived by his wife, his daughter, three sons (all PhDs), and three grandsons, who were the light of his life.”
“Sir Samuel Curran (1912-1998) was a British physicist.
Curran was born in Ballymena, Ireland. In his early years, Curran studied mathematics and physics at Glasgow University. He also earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University.
During World War II, Curran joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) along with his wife, physicist Joan Curran, to work on the development of radar and the proximity fuse, which would prove instrumental in the destruction of German V-1 rockets. Curan’s radar equipment would also be used by all Bomber Command aircraft and Coastal Command.
In 1944, Curran went to work on the Manhattan Project at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California. During his time there, Curran invented the scintillation counter, a device used in laboratories around the world to detect ionizing radiation. After the war, Curran returned to Scotland and later helped the development of the British hydrogen bomb. He also served as the first Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Strathclyde University.”
Sir Samuel CURRAN FRS FRSE DSc MA BSc PhD after his first MA BSc & PhD from Glasgow University in 1937, for the outstanding teams at Cambridge’s CAVENDISH LABORATORY, the ROYAL AERONAUTICAL ESTABLISHMENT, MINISTRY of AVIATION PRODUCTION & SUPPLY and their contribution to the MANHATTAN PROJECT and the combined British-American ATOMIC BOMB of Oppenheimer’s LOS ALAMOS team.
As early as Jan 1939, Sir Sam had measured fission, when this highly sensitive knowledge was kept secret & through MAGNETRON work applications was also involved in much war winning scientific work besides PROXIMITY FUSES and CENTIMETRIC RADAR. Knowing Nils BOHR, FERMI and TELLER, he praised General GROVES’S excellent drive & programme management, obtaining the right men & materials to complete the whole project on time.