Ronald Ernest Aitchison (1921-1996) was an outstanding Australian solid-state physicist and electronics engineer. He graduated with a Master of Science from the University of Sydney.
From 1942 to 1970, Aitchison worked at several institutions including the Amalgamated Wireless Valve Company, University of Bristol, Stanford University, and the University of Sydney. During this period he was elected Fellow of several highly-prestigious physics and engineering institutions.
In 1970 he became Foundation Professor of Electronics at the School of Mathematics and Physics, Macquarie University, with the strong support of professors F. Chong and J. C. Ward.
At Macquarie he established a world-class electronics engineering facility. His impressive electronics laboratory (occupying the whole east wing of E7B, 2nd floor) was equipped with the most advanced Tektronix oscilloscopes, HP waveform generators, and its own HP-2100 computer that was used to remotely control biophysics experiments and to run specialized programs written by advanced students. A comprehensive array of sensitive electronic measurement instrumentation was also available. Among the projects for his students there was the design and improvement of electrocardiogram systems and the design and building of computer systems for specific control, or measurement, applications. He was highly knowledgeable in difibrillation and the electrical pathways of the human heart.
His field of expertise was semiconductor solid-state physics and his theoretical classes at Macquarie focused on the fundamentals. For instance, one of his courses devoted ample time to the derivation, via Fourier theory, of the transistor h parameters.
In addition to his state-of-the-art laboratory, he kept a large storage room, in the ground floor of E7B, full of electrical and electronic surplus equiptment. Radar and microwave electronics was particularly abundant. He also had a rare coil winding machine to manufacture induction coils necessary to build high-precision transmission lines and specialized circuitry. Aitchison had a very sharp eye for electrical safety, always advising on how to avoid electrical shocks.
Aitchison often recounted stories from his long academic career. He disliked cheating in exams so much that his exams were "open book exams." To succeed in his exams the student really had to know the material... books at the exam did not help. He emphasized understanding over memorization.
In the mid 1970s tragedy struck and parts of the Macquarie electronics laboratory burned down. Aitchison led his staff in a relentless work effort that cleaned and rebuilt the laboratory thus creating an even better state-of-the-art facility. That was a great triumph for Aitchison and his devoted staff.
In the late 1970s whilst head of the School of Mathematics and Physics, Aitchison became a strong and vocal supporter of The Macquarie Science Reform Movement that transformed the degree structure of the university. In this regard, he teamed up with Chong and Ward in support of the student movement, led by Frank Duarte, that spearheaded the political effort on the ground. Thus, the School of Mathematics and Physics led the way among the sciences in demanding the adoption of science degrees.
The success of the Macquarie Science Reform Movement, in September 1979, greatly enhanced the scientific image of Macquarie in the community and made possible the scientific success of Macquarie.
Aitchison was a brilliant and hard working physicist-engineer that involved himself in many projects of a practical nature. For instance, he built a satellite receiving station and provided the first satellite images to the Sydney TV-station meteorologists for weather forecasting every evening. Also, his expertise on solid state physics was of great value to the new laser laboratory led by J. A. Piper. This was particularly important in the building of high-voltage power supplies and the reliable fast-switching of high voltages used in the excitation of high-power lasers. Aitchison retired from his chair at Macquarie in 1986.
Quick witted and forthright, he spoke fast, and walked fast. He had a remarkable, and pure, sense of fairness and he was intensively loyal to the advanced students that excelled under his teachings and guidance.
Page published on the 11 of August, 2023
Updated on the 13th of August, 2023