Cyril Hilsum: an interview with CP Snow and Harry Hoff

Cyril Hilsum recounts how a wartime meeting with CP Snow and Harry Hoff decided his future career direction.

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We also now had to think more solidly about what we were going to do afterwards. The arrangements were that if we didn’t pass the degree, and I think that meant we had to get at least a lower second, I don’t think a third would have been adequate, if we didn’t get that we would be called up basically and join the forces and do something that exploited what we had learned, which might meant that we became radar operators or radio operators or something like that. On the other hand if we got a reasonable degree we then would be given the choice of going to a government research establishment of which there were quite a few, TRE doing radar, Hazlemere doing radio and signals and there were establishments for the other forces as well. We could – that was one choice, the other was to go and work in the defence industry. To make that choice we would be interviewed, and that panel would be headed by either CP Snow or Harry Huff, both of them were authors, both of them were scientists and when I turned up I was a little bit surprised to discover that they were both there, it wasn’t one or the other, they were both there. I was surprised, they were surprised with what I had to say because by then I had been contacted by Edward Andrade who was the Quain professor at UCL, though he was not in residence, he was an occasional visitor, so he was a stranger to me, he was a metallurgist. He had clearly discovered that I was top in the class, it wasn’t a big class I emphasise, and came to see me and asked if I would like to stay on and do a PhD with him that was supposed to be on the viscosity of liquid caesium and he gave me some papers to read on work he had done or he had done himself on viscosity of other liquid metals. So I agreed I would do that, and put this to Huff and Snow. They did not take too kindly to this, they sent me out of the room and said they wanted to have private discussions, they may well have wanted to ring up Andrade. When I came back in they said, ‘You will not be given the choice,’ I think they could have added, ‘because of your cheek,’ ‘cause I'd said that it seems reasonable that this should be possible because the war is ending, they did not like the idea of a twenty year old predicting the end of the war. I don’t know why but they certainly didn’t give me the choice. They said, ‘You will go to Hazlemere and work in the radio department on antennas,’ and I think they actually did me a favour because I don’t know what would have happened if I’d finished up doing the viscosity of liquid caesium, I probably would have gone mad.

  • Interviewee Cyril Hilsum
  • Duration 00:03:35
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 2/29/2012
  • Shelfmark C1379/69

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