The life and times of Alan Dower Blumlein
Institution of Electrical Engineers 1999
ISBN 0 85296 773 X
Hardback pp 560
£60 (discount to IEE members)
Genius is a mystery to ordinary mortals. The subject of this biography was undoubtedly a genius and the aim has been not only to chronicle the man and his achievements but also attempt to illuminate the nature of genius itself.
That genius is the outstanding 20th century engineer who has been denied a biography for a very long time. His name is Alan Dower Blumlein and he died tragically young. There have been earlier attempts at a biography, reputable and otherwise, which did not reach publication. Now, after an eternal wait, we have two. There is no serious contest between the two volumes. Burns's book is thoroughly researched, accurate, and comprehensive. It is difficult to be so complimentary about the other.
We gain a thorough picture of Blumlein both as man and engineer. There are just a few areas where perhaps Burns's coverage is less detailed than Alexander's. Commemorations of Blumlein's work and the abortive biographical work by Thompson are given relatively little space by Burns. This is a comment rather than a criticism and does not detract from the book.
Most of the book is devoted to charting Blumlein's achievements and placing them solidly in their historical context. These range from his early work on long distance phone lines through stereophony and television to centimetric radar. In some cases, such as the history of radar, there is perhaps a little bit too much context that is remote from the main subject. The bulk of the book is a very readable history; engineering detail has not been omitted but instead largely confined to separate chapters and notes which could be skipped by the less technical reader.
The writing style is slightly academic but not oppressively so and the text is enlivened with numerous anecdotes and quotes from original sources. The book is amply illustrated with both drawings and photographs. There are comprehensive bibliographic and patent references.
The book strays into philosophical territory on the nature of genius. Blumlein's sheer inventiveness and immense practical abilities are legendary. EMI was a notably secretive organisation so there are few contemporary published papers by Blumlein. This must be set against his huge number of patents and the excellent EMI archives.
Any look at the life of Blumlein must pose the question: "What if?" Where would he have shone his intense light after the war. Perhaps there are some clues in the fact that some who worked with him went on to distinguish themselves in the infant computer industry.
This is an essential book for everyone with a feeling for the history of engineering but as so often with IEE publishing the price is a deterrent. If you are saving your pennies to buy just one biography of Blumlein I recommend that you raid your piggy bank to get this one.
Jeffrey Borinsky MIEE CEng