Former head of department of electrical engineering, University of Edinburgh
Born: 12 December, 1911.
Died: 12 October, 2005, aged 93.
WILLIAM Ewart John Farvis was the first professor of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, an outstanding teacher and an inspiration to his colleagues. During the 1939-45 war he made a significant contribution to the work of the Radio-Countermeasures (RCM) division at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) under the leadership of Dr Robert Cockburn. He took the terms of the Official Secrets Act seriously and many of his friends and colleagues were quite unaware of this work until a few years ago when he was persuaded to give a talk as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival.
Educated at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Bristol, Ewart Farvis left school at 16 and as an apprentice electrical engineer with ES&A Robinson of Bristol attended evening classes at the Merchant Venturers' Technical College. He progressed to Bristol University where he graduated with first-class honours in electrical engineering in 1936. His first appointment after graduation was at Dundee Technical College. He was then appointed assistant lecturer in University College Swansea in 1937 and following the outbreak of war he volunteered for work in the Scientific Civil Service and was appointed scientific officer at TRE, Swanage, in July 1940.
Having expressed an interest in aerials and direction-finding, he was allocated to the aerials group in what were the early days of radar. In mid-August he was sent as an observer to the radar station at Foreness, Kent; there the operators urged him to go on the telephone to Stanmore to impress upon them the unprecedented number of radar echoes received, which they thought must represent at least 50 aircraft and which proved to be the start of the daytime raids of the Battle of Britain. In September, following the arrival of Dr Cockburn from the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), Farvis became involved in the work to counter the Knickebein and later the X-Gerat and Y beam-systems used to guide enemy bombers to their targets.
In preparing for Operation Overlord, his task was to identity the German radars along the French coast and their normal operating procedures in order that phantom targets could be created, so that the Germans might be confused as to the scale and location of the invasion.
After the invasion of Germany, he was attached to Robert Watson-Watt's teams to investigate German electronics research. With the temporary rank of Squadron Leader (and a revolver), he was flown to Munich to interrogate German engineers and scientists.
On returning to academic life at Swansea, he found time to study for a degree in physics from the University of London. In 1947, Professor Arnold, a distinguished mechanical engineer who had been appointed from Swansea to the Regius Chair in Edinburgh, attracted Ewart Farvis to expand the electrical activities in the engineering department (previously these courses had been taken in Prof Say's department at the nearby Heriot-Watt College). This he did with his usual enthusiasm, also introducing a new postgraduate course in electronics and radio supported by local industry. Contributors to this course included Sir Edward Appleton, Dr RA Smith from TRE (later principal at Heriot-Watt University), and other leading figures of the day. Often ahead of his time, he pioneered Industrial professorships, modular undergraduate courses, open-book examinations and undergraduate project work. He also built up a wide range of research in close collaboration with industry and scientific bodies, and he was a consultant to the director at the RAE.
When the first chair in electrical engineering was created at Edinburgh University, there was intense competition for the post, but he was the obvious candidate to fill it. He was then responsible for the planning of the new laboratories for the department at King's Buildings. His foresight was illustrated by his decision in the early days of semiconductor devices in the 1960s to completely reorientate the departmental research activities into the area of semiconductors and microelectronics. Existing members of staff were encouraged to make the change and new staff appointed, thus laying the foundation for what was to become one of our leading departments in this field, with a top 5-star rating for research. In 1968, he attracted funding for the Wolfson Microelectronics Institute (now an independent company, recently sold for around 200 million) and established strong links with industry long before the "Silicon Glen" was conceived.
Farvis was a strong supporter of his profession, serving on the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and as a member of its Merriman Committee into standards for his profession. He played a significant part in shaping the examinations of the CEI and Engineering Council from 1971-96 and served on the lEE Accreditation Committee for the assessment of electrical engineering courses. For many years, his views were sought in Whitehall; for example he was a member of the MoD Electronics Research Council from 1964-77 and chaired the Radar Committee from 1971-77. He served as a member of the Council of the Science and Engineering Research Council and chaired a number of its committees. Further afield he served on UNESCO and FEANI committees. He retired from the university in 1977, but continued for many years as a consultant and examiner.
After a major operation for cancer in 1986, he made a remarkable recovery, making light of his problems and continuing to live life with his spry and youthful enthusiasm. His counsel will be greatly missed in the electrical profession, but he will be remembered with affection by generations of students who can still picture him cycling in to his morning lectures. Many of them have carried his ideas into practice in electrical departments throughout the UK and overseas.
His contributions were recognised by his election to fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and as an honorary fellow of the TEE. He was appointed OBE in 1972 and CBE in 1978.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1939, and by their daughter and son.