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News > Life After Hymers > Bob's Book on a Career in Engineering

Bob's Book on a Career in Engineering

Robert Spence (OH 1942-50) spoke to us about his career after Hymers College
Robert Spence, OH 1942-50
Robert Spence, OH 1942-50

We recently heard from Robert Spence (OH 1942-50), who has just self-published, via Amazon, an autobiography with the title "Engineering can be fun: an academic's engagement with the information age".  He is currently Emeritus Professor of Information Engineering at Imperial College London and is still very active in teaching and research.

Going back to 1942 feels like an exercise for the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope, though I guess 80 years is nothing if you’re dealing in light years (especially billions of them). Memory can, of course, be rather vague: the imposing presence of Mr. Cavill; the school’s fixation on rugby (which I hated and managed successfully to avoid – details on request); and a Combined Cadet Force that lost a potential star by refusing to let me play the big drum. If the term ‘outlier’ is forming in your mind, you wouldn’t be far wrong but then so were most of my fellow students. This probably explains why I was never made a prefect. Our progress, if that is not a misnomer, was recorded for posterity in regular reports, which would now perhaps best be protected by the Official Secrets Act.

Geographically I didn’t move far after leaving Hymers – I was helping Hull Corporation Telephones to keep their service in good nick. That was not a good move, and neither – apparently – was the next one, to a location next to the Paragon Station railway sidings in what used to be an orphanage: It had the grand title of ‘Hull Technical College’ (since then progressively the Hull College of Technology and, eventually I believe, the University of the Humberside). Never mind, after three years there I graduated with Second Class Honours (whether Upper or ‘Desmond’ I never asked).

Not an auspicious beginning, but things changed radically in 1954: I was accepted as a postgraduate student at what is now Imperial College London. Indeed, everything changed! I was the only British student in the class (and therefore held personally responsible for all things British, with lack of central heating and scratchy toilet paper at the top of the list); I discovered how difficult it was to keep warm in the ‘digs’ offered by London landladies (an unusual species of human being); and Saturday evenings were devoted to attending dances at institutions dedicated to training young ladies how to be teachers. Happily, I met my future wife on one of those occasions. Five years later I was awarded a PhD for some research so obscure that reading about it would send anyone to sleep.

And there (Imperial College), off and mainly on, I stayed for the next many years: actually I’m still there doing research and teaching students.  But Imperial College is a wonderful base for all sorts of experiences.  I had great fun inventing in 1967, and bringing to the international marketplace in 1985, the first computer-aided design system that allowed a circuit designer to draw his or her circuit on a computer display and examine its behaviour on the same display. More recently, I designed an app that allows a person with Type-1 diabetes to self-manage their condition: others with appropriate skills are seeing it through clinical trials.

If you really want to know about the fascinating range of experiences I’ve encountered during the last 80 or so years, and especially the fun I’ve had, let me confess that I’ve just self-published a book with the title “Engineering can be fun: an academic’s engagement with the Information Age”. With luck, and after crossing the palms of Amazon with £6, you might have an interesting read.

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