Michael Perrin (1905 - 1988)

Born: 1905 | Died: 1988 | Grave: A 005 | Category: Science | Tags: Atomic Bomb, Polythene, Radar, Scientist, World War II
Sir Michael Perrin, © Perrin family

Sir Michael Perrin, © Perrin family

Michael Perrin was a scientist who had a varied and interesting career in science and commerce. He was involved in the development of polythene, and played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Personal history

Michael Perrin was born in Canadain 1905, the son of English parents – his father was the Bishop of British Columbia. At the age of 6 his parents moved back to Englandand from 1911 he lived in Hampstead, where his son still lives. He gained degrees in chemistry (Oxford) and physics (Toronto) and became a scientist who had a very varied career. He was involved in the 1930s in the development of one of the most important commercial materials of the 20th century – polythene (also called polyethylene) – and during World War II in one of the most significant military research programmes – the development of the atomic bomb. After the war he became chairman of the Wellcome Foundation – a pharmaceutical company – and oversaw the rebuilding of its research and marketing activities over the next 20 years.

Perrin family grave

Perrin family grave, (A5 in ABG)

Three bishops and a wedding

When Michael Perrin married Nancy Curzon in the Spring of 1934 there were three bishops at the wedding – Michael’s father (the Bishop of Willesden) performed the ceremony,Nancy’s father (the Bishop of Stepney) gave the bride away, and the Bishop of London delivered the address. They had a daughter and a son. Michael Perrin died in 1988 at his home in Christchurch Hill and is buried in the ABG.

Polythene – an accidental discovery

In 1935 Michael Perrin headed the team at ICI (thenBritain’s largest chemical company) which created the first practical polythene. Recognising the importance of the material, he led the work to develop and manufacture it on a large scale. Although other scientists had known about the substance before they hadn’t understood how to re-create it.

Polythene is a story of accidents. It was first discovered by accident in 1898 by a German scientist, Hans von Pechmann, when he found a waxy residue at the bottom of a test tube. He had no idea of the material’s significance.

Years later in 1933 two scientists at ICI, Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson, were doing experiments under high pressure using ethylene, a very light gas prepared from petroleum. The scientists noticed that the experiment produced a white waxy substance but the value of this substance was not recognised and the experiments were abandoned because of explosions. However Michael Perrin did think it was worth looking at again and two years later, in 1935, he led a team to try and repeat the process. This time they obtained 8 grams of a white powder – polyethylene. The experiment was tried again and this time no polyethylene! The reason the earlier experiment was a success was down to chance – in the successful experiment the equipment leaked, which allowed oxygen into the system to start the reaction. If the equipment had been working properly it may well not have produced polythene. But it took months of hard work to realise the “happy accident” that had happened. It was only because the scientists kept very careful notes of everything they did that they were able to work out the secret. A bit like working out a recipe – but it took rather longer: over a year of hard work. Only once they had worked out the recipe, and knew more about the material, could they work out how to manufacture it on a large scale.

Michael Perrin had to be very focussed to work out how to manufacture polythene – “he hung on like a bulldog, devoted his entire existence to the work for a year or two, and talked about nothing else”.

Uses of polythene in World War II

Radar was used in World War II to detect enemy aircraft and to identify where, and how far away, they were. Detectors would send a signal back to a plotting room, which controlledBritain’s defences against bombing raids. But at first scientists could not find a suitable insulator for the cables carrying the signal that would preserve it. When Michael Perrin heard of the problem he suggested using the newly discovered polythene. This worked extremely well, allowing the British forces to detect the approach of enemy aircraft even sooner. This gaveBritaina significant strategic advantage and puzzled the Germans.

The availability of this light-weight insulator also allowed the allied forces to use airborne radar, which gave them an enormous technical advantage in long-distance air warfare, most significantly in theBattleof the Atlantic against the U-boats (submarines), which had threatened to starveBritainof supplies of food and raw materials. The use of polyethylene in this way was a Top Secret during the war. But after the war it became a very important commercial product, and over 80 million tons are now produced every year. Polythene was used to insulate the first round-the-world telephone cable, but today its main use is in food packaging.

Polythene manufacture

Express polythene, Nicky Getgood on Flickr

Michael Perrin and the atomic bomb

Both during World War II and afterwards Michael Perrin was involved in several top secret operations. He was part of a programme known as ‘Tube Alloys’ which very few people, even in the government, knew about. This was the code name used to hide the existence of the British nuclear weapons programme.

Initially, the British government understood the significance of the atom bomb before theUSgovernment. However when Michael Perrin went to theUSin 1942 he realized that theUSgovernment was catching up and he encouraged the British government to collaborate more closely with the work being done in theUnited States. The work of the Manhattan Project, as it was called in the US, eventually led to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan – this ended the war in the Far East, which otherwise might have continued for a long time.

Involvement in other vital work

In addition to the top secret nature of polythene and his work on the atomic bomb programme, Michael Perrin also did important work to try and find out about the German atomic bomb programme and helped a famous Danish nuclear physicist, Niels Bohr, to escape from the Nazis.

That’s not all. Five years after the war ended, when he was working as the deputy Controller of the Atomic Energy Authority, he was responsible for interviewing Klaus Fuchs who had been giving British atomic secrets to the Russians. It was important to work out how much secret information had been given to the Russians, but Fuchs said that Michael Perrin was the only man he would talk to in detail.

As his final career move he became Chairman of the Wellcome Foundation, an international pharmaceutical company, where he stayed until his retirement in 1970. He oversaw the rebuilding of its research and marketing activities over the next 20 years, generating profits for the Wellcome trust which it used in the expansion of university research and training in medicine, pharmacology and allied disciplines. He was knighted for this work in 1967.

Sources

  • The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Obituary – The Times, August 22, 1988
  • Conversations with:
    • Maurice Freeman, a scientist who for many years worked in the plastics division of ICI; he was very helpful in describing polythene and its properties
    • Nicola Perrin, a grand-daughter of Michael Perrin and also a scientist, who is writing a biography of her grandfather; she commented on a draft of this worksheet.

This page was last updated on April 27th, 2012.

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