Automatica, January 2000, Volume 36, No. 1


John F. Coales

Professor John Flavell Coales

C.B.E., F.R.S., F.R.S.E., M.A., Hon. D.Sc., C.Eng., F.I.E.E., F.I.E.E.E, F.Inst.P., F.I.C.E.

JOHN COALES, Emeritus Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, the fourth President of the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC), and one of the founder members of the Federation, died in Cambridge, England on the 6th June 1999 in his 92nd year. He attended seminal meetings in the 1950s that led to the formation of IFAC and he has played a major part in its development ever since. It is particularly appropriate that this obituary should be published in Automatica since it was John Coales who negotiated the unique publications agreement between Pergamon Press and IFAC in 1976; an agreement that has proven so beneficial to the Federation in subsequent years.

As in everything else he did in his long and successful life, John Coales committed himself tirelessly to the success of IFAC. Between 1966 and 1969, he was Immediate Past President and he then served as a member of the Advisory Committee from 1969 to 1972.  Following the negotiation of the publications agreement with Pergamon in 1976, he became Honorary Editor of IFAC and then Chairman of the Publication Management Board, continuing this involvement in publications matters until the early 1990s. He was also instrumental in the creation of a new Constitution for IFAC in the early 1980s, in response to its greatly expanded activities. Together with Janos Gertler, Stephen Kahne and others on an international task-force, he evolved a Constitution, based around National Member Organisations (NMOs); a Constitution that has enabled IFAC to expand and develop over the last two decades and provides a firm basis for its activities into the new Millennium. For those of us lucky enough to attend the very successful IFAC World Congress in Beijing this year, it was sad not to see John's smiling face and effervescent personality enlivening the proceedings, as they had done for every Congress since the first one in Paris in 1957, as well as innumerable other IFAC Conferences and Symposia over the past forty years.

John Coales was born at Harborne, Birmingam, England, in 1907, and educated at Berkhamstead School and Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge. Although his undergraduate years in Cambridge, where he read mathematics and physics, ended in 1928 with the award of a degree in Natural Sciences, they were only the prelude to a later, and very successful, association with the University that continued until his death. Before his return to Cambridge in 1953, however, John experienced one of the most important periods of his life: thirty years, which covered the trauma of the Second World War, the rapid changes in Great Britain during the immediate post-war years and the early growth of the computer industry. Prior to the start of War, John Coales was a scientific civil servant working in an area of research and development that would have a profound effect on the outcome of the War and would prepare John for the important role he would play later in the Allied War effort. In particular, from 1928 until the outbreak of the War, he worked for the Admiralty at H. M. Signal School, Portsmouth working on radio direction finding. Following the establishment of the famous Watson-Watt research team on radar at Orfordness in 1935, the Controller of the Navy directed the Signal School to start work on the possible naval uses of radar and John was put in charge of a research team working on transmission and reception of decimetre radio waves, with application to radar. Based on the work of his team, and through liaison and discussion with the General Electric Company Research Laboratories, he was able to recommend the cessation of work on the 23 cm wavelength and concentration on 50 cm. This was the wavelength that most gunnery sets in UK ships then used so successfully in the rest WW II. John was justly proud of this work and, in 1985, he conceived the idea of a book to record the story of radar in the Royal Navy. This book, {\em Radar at Sea,} by Derek Howse, was published by MacMillan Press in 1993, and is based in large part on the contributions by John and many of his wartime colleagues.

In 1946, John Coales left Government Service to found the Research laboratories of Elliot Brothers (London) Ltd. at Boreham Wood. In its first six years the "Elliot's Labs,'' as he called them, became a significant force in the new industries of post-war Britain and made important contributions in the areas of military radar, the emerging field of digital computers and industrial instrumentation. By 1950, the Labs had grown to a staff of 450 and was involved in the design of Elliot computers for industry. It is interesting to note that the Elliot 401 digital computer was the first working machine to be developed in the UK outside the Universities and was a precursor to a series of successful Elliot digital computers.

There is no doubt that John enjoyed this period of his life where he was able to influence the industrial developments of the time: he often reminisced about his work with Elliots, as well as the joys of his family life in Borehamwood with his wife Thea, whom he married in 1936, and their growing family. But after six years in industry, a new opportunity arose which very much attracted both John and Thea, as well as John's mother, who had always taken a great interest in her son's career, particularly following his father's death in 1942.  John had always wanted to return to academic life and, in 1953, he was invited by Sir John Baker, the Head of the Engineering Department at Cambridge, to form a group for post graduate teaching and research in the area of advanced automatic control systems.

One of the most important early initiatives of the Control and Systems Group, as it came to be known, was the postgraduate course in control that John set up in 1955. Using his great gifts of charm and persuasion, he was able to induce many, often sceptical and rather conservative, industrial companies into sending some of their brightest employees back to university for the year-long course. There are now many graduates of the course, all over the UK and abroad, many in positions of considerable seniority, who enthuse about their sojourn in Cambridge and how valuable the course was to prove in their subsequent careers. They also talk of the strong impression John Coales made on them and the fact that he often went out of his way to maintain contact with them for many years later.

But, throughout his life, John Coales was basically a man who was most excited by research and development, and it was the expansion of research activities at Cambridge in the area of control and systems that was his major concern up to his official retirement in 1974. During these years, John did some personal research in collaboration with others. Of particular note was some innovative research with John Billingsley on model-based predictive control, which pre-dated the more recent research on this subject by many years and exploited a hardware-driven, rather than a software approach to the problem. However, he largely overcame his desire to pursue his personal research activities and, in the greater good, became one of the most influential R&D entrepreneurs within the British University system. In this manner, he defined, directed and managed the main aspects of the research programme, but left the more detailed research activities to the strong academic team that he had gathered about him. Amongst the academics who later distinguished themselves in many ways, this team included Howard Rosenbrock, Harry Nicholson and Tom Fuller. By great coincidence, Tom Fuller, a protégé of John's who also remained at Cambridge until his retirement, died at almost the same time as John. An obituary for Tom will appear shortly in the International Journal of Control, which he edited for many years.

In 1965, following his promotion, first to a Readership and then to a Personal Chair, his Control and Systems Group was awarded a very large grant by the then UK Science Research Council and the Group was designated a 'Centre of Excellence'. The primary aim of this grant was to set up a hybrid (combined analogue-digital) computer and to carry out advanced research on the adaptive control of complex processes.   Although the subsequent advances in digital computing have made this hybrid solution no longer attractive, it seemed at the time an obvious way to investigate the control of complex industrial processes. And, for the next few years, this huge computer, supplied by Elliots in collaboration with Electronic Associates Ltd, was to prove invaluable in research on many different kinds of system, from aircraft and missiles, through chemical processes to nuclear power plants.

For those of us who were research students in the Group at the time, it was an exciting and stimulating period that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We will recall it, however, not only because of the exciting research atmosphere and the stimulus this gave for our own research activities, but also because the distinguished Professor who headed the Group was not at all remote and made our stay in Cambridge enjoyable in most other ways.  For, above all things, John Coales was a man of great personal charm and kindness who always ensured that, in addition to working hard, the junior members of his team were happy and contented. It was not unusual, for instance, to be asked to drive his large automatic Daimler car to London for a technical meeting and to then be taken for dinner at his club - the Atheneum! Or, during his Presidency of IFAC, to be invited to be a scientific secretary at the 1966 IFAC World Congress in London, with all expenses paid (including accommodation and a banquet ticket!).

Of course, there are many other tales research students and staff of that time could tell about John and his wife Thea, many of them amusing; but these are more for after-dinner conversations in the future when we will all recall, with great affection, two people who influenced our lives so much. John was devoted to Thea. They enjoyed a long and happy life together and he clearly depended on her for support, encouragement and maintaining contact with their ever-growing circle of friends. Their ability to make and maintain friendships was revealed in 1996, on the occasion of their Diamond Wedding, when no less than 400 guests attended the lunch at Churchill College and another 400 were unable to attend, mostly because it would involve lengthy travel from the many parts of the World the Coales' had visited over the past 60 years.Although he retained his links with Sydney Sussex College and saw the value of the older colleges at Cambridge, John Coales was not a proponent of tradition for its own sake. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was one of the original founding Fellows of Clare Hall, Cambridge, which was set up by Clare College in 1966 to promote academic excellence among foreign and postgraduate students and to provide a temporary home for visiting scholars. As an Academic member of his group in the 1970's and a Fellow of Clare Hall (which is now an independent graduate college of the University), I was able to see the value of this initiative at first hand. And I am sure that the many academic visitors from all over the World who have benefited from its hospitality over the past thirty years, many of them from the control and systems community, will echo my views in this regard.

Of course, John Coales received many awards, accolades and public appointments during his long and distinguished life, far too many to recount here. Amongst the most important of these, he was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his work during WW II; and appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976. Much to his delight, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1970 and received an honorary D.Sc. from the City University (London) in 1971. John was also involved very much in the work of the Engineering Institutions of the UK.  He had a very strong connection with the Institution of Electrical Engineers for most of his professional life and was elected President of the Institution, 1971-72. Before this, he was Chairman of the Measurements Section of the Institution in 1953-'54 and the 1st Chairman of the then newly-formed Control and Automation Division, in 1965.  John was also Chairman of the Engineering Institution in 1975, and a member of the Fellowship of Engineering from its inception in 1976.

In his personal life, John Coales had many interests. Amongst his hobbies, he was a very keen fan and exponent of Morris Dancing (which he continued into old age); mountain climbing; fell walking; gardening; and, from the 1960s, farming (he was a Fellow of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers). He was an avid mountaineer who continued climbing in the Alps until he was 80! Indeed, in his late-sixties, he appeared back in Cambridge from a mountaineering holiday with a great collection of cuts-and-bruises: apparently his party, composed of many friends older than himself, had been involved in an accident and John had played a principal role in the rescue operations! His interest in the English equivalent of mountain climbing - fell walking - led to a love of the English Lake District and, together with his love of farming, it was not surprising that he decided to purchase a farm in Buttermere. He ran this for a number of years from Cambridge, as a hobby and business, until his many other interests made this arrangement infeasible. However, he retained an abiding interest in farming because his son Edward (he had four children: two girls Susan and Alison; and two boys Edward and Martin) decided to move into farming, and now works for the UK National Farmers' Union.

Some of John's other, multifarious activities had a decided scholastic connection. For instance, he had a great interest in books of all kinds and was delighted to show visitors the very large library he built up over the latter part of his life in their Cambridge apartment. It is not very well known, however, that he had a strong interest in macro-economics. During the early 1970s, he arranged a number of meetings between some of us in his group and a number of the distinguished economists in the University at that time, including James Meade, Richard Stone and Nicholas Kaldor, with the object of stimulating research on the application of systems methods to economic modelling. This led to research on the topic by David Livesey, now the Secretary General of the Faculties at Cambridge, and it influenced subsequent research by John's great friend Professor John Westcott and his Group at Imperial College, London. 

For many years, we shared this interest in macro-economics and often discussed our ideas on the subject. Indeed, only a short while before he died, we talked at length on the telephone about a paper that he had just written on the subject (literally "written"' because John always preferred to present ideas initially in his always elegant hand-writing). How many men can still write in their 90s, let alone write a learned paper on a subject as difficult as macro-economics?

There is no doubt that Professor John Flavell Coales was a remarkable gentleman, in the true sense of that word. Those of us who had the privilege to know him and can call him our friend will mourn his passing and miss his company. But we will also rejoice in the quality and accomplishments of his unique life.

Peter Young
Lancaster, September 1st 1999