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Gilbert A. R. Tomes 19142008: In Appreciation of his Life

by Douglas Brown

Sadly, I have to report that Gilbert A. R. Tomes, or 'Jumbo' to most of his family and friends, died on 18 June 2008 at the age of 94. He was one of the last surviving television pioneers to have worked with John Logie Baird during the decade 1935 to 1945.

”A When I first met Jumbo in 1999 I was halfway through researching for a PhD on the history of the Baird Company when I received an impromptu telephone call from Gilbert Tomes, and to be honest I had no idea who he was, but recalled that I had heard the name somewhere before. He introduced himself and explained that not only was he a former Baird employee, but he kept a diary recording the events. It was a chance meeting brought about after the death of another former Baird employee Dr C. S. Szegho, whom I had the good fortune to interview in Chicago in 1990. Gilbert was looking for a photograph of Szegho taken in the nineteen-thirties but his widow redirected him to me.

Born on March 26, 1914 in Dulwich, London, when a famous elephant was performing on stage, Gilbert Arthur Richard Tomes, a rather chubby baby was lovingly nicknamed 'Jumbo,' a nickname that would follow him to the end of his days. Interested in all things scientific, Tomes attended a technical course from 1933 to 1935 at the London Polytechnic, sponsored and organised by the British film industry. As part of the final year exam, students had to produce a documentary film judged by the British Film Industry. Having specialised in studio lighting he produced a fascinating film entitled 'Wheels' that recorded the work of the 'Wheelwright' using only the available light. When his documentary received a 'special mention' one of the college board members who more importantly was also the Technical Director of Baird Television approached him. Captain A G D West congratulated him and invited him to attend an interview at Baird Television where they were looking for a studio lighting person for a new electronic television camera. However, when it came to the interview there was no mention of 'lighting' or for that matter the camera, but nevertheless, he started work on 15 July 1935 as a junior in Dr Szegho's cathode ray tube research laboratory and was on top of the world!

Quick to learn, Tomes became Szegho's assistant in 1936 and together they developed the first large-screen television projector cathode ray tubes. This was so successful that a subsidiary company, 'Cinema Television' was created.

Over the next three years, Jumbo was to witness three incidents that damaged Baird's interests, the first was the devastating Crystal Palace fire of November 1936 that destroyed Baird's studios and laboratories, followed by the loss of the BBC contract to 'EMI' in 1937, but Baird Television was resilient and focussed on producing high quality electronic television receivers. The third and final blow came at the outbreak of war in 1939 when the cessation of television transmissions forced the company into liquidation. Fortunately, the assets of the Baird Company were absorbed by the new subsidiary, Cinema Television with Captain West firmly at the helm. Although the Staff reduced from 400 to about 40, Szegho and Tomes remained in employment.

On 9th of September 1939 Gilbert married the love of his life Mary Spencer a love that never faltered to the end of his days.

During the war years, Tomes applied, but was turned down, for military service due to his position in a reserved occupation. He was placed in charge of top-secret military projects at Cinema Television, including the design of a special photocell. This was the forerunner of the highly successful radar fuse, designed to detonate rocket projectiles within close proximity of enemy aircraft. When the photocell contract for the proximity fuse was completed, he received further contracts to produce cathode-ray tubes for radar.

The next phase of Tomes' life began in 1942 from his interest in beekeeping. While still working for Cinema Television, Tomes and associate Alex Tidmarsh privately formed the basis of a small business to market the 'Tomes Queen Bee Detector.' A tiny spot of luminous paint placed on the back of a queen bee activated a mechanism when she began to move, diverting her into a newly prepared hive. After a demonstration at London Zoo in 1944, it was hailed as a breakthrough and Press headlines read: 'Scientist finds the Lady' and 'Queen Detector and Divining Rod Spots the Queen,' but at this stage it was only a hobby.

Three months after VE Day the nuclear age arrived with the staggering news that an atomic bomb had fallen on Hiroshima followed by another on Nagasaki with equally devastating results. With the overnight demand for Geiger-Müller tubes, Tomes resigned from Cinema Television and formed '20th Century Electronics.' At this point, John Logie Baird offered him a position working for his newly formed company John Logie Baird Ltd, but he was doing well and declined the offer.

Tomes became sole owner of the company in 1949 when 20th Century Electronics became a limited company. The company grew rapidly with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) at Harwell and began to export products and knowledge around the world. By the late Sixties the workforce had grown to around 350. In the Seventies the company was manufacturing neutron detectors for nuclear power stations worldwide and also for defence. In 1978 the company began trading under the new name Centronic, derived from the original name of the company.

In 1982 a small public limited company, 'First Castle' wanted to expand, using Centronic as the flagship of its operation and this saw the end of Gilbert Tomes' business links with the company that he had created.

Throughout his life, Gilbert fought for good causes and had been an active member of the Toc-h and Rotary since the Nineteen Fifties. From the Fifties until the late Nineties he made good use of his talent for portrait painting and undeterred by limited sight was still making and editing films a few months before he died. His recent documentaries such as the Swans of Broadwater, Squirrels and London Parakeets were first class. We would regularly debate during Sunday morning telephone calls and recently discussed the pros and cons of LCD and Plasma screens. Despite requiring, to sit within about a foot of his new Plasma screen, he was impressed and spoke at length about the improvement in definition gained with the HDTV broadcast standard. He was keen that we complete the Sommer story but always had at least two other projects simultaneously on the go. He was a keen chef and always prepared the main meal for himself and Mary. Over the last ten years or so, the deterioration of his eyesight accelerated due to macular degeneration. However, it seemed that nothing could stop him.

That brings us full circle.

Gilbert is survived by Mary Tomes, and their son and daughter Richard and Barbara and their families.

Dr Douglas Brown
John Logie Baird Historian
30 June 2008