Personalities do affect history

I’ve referred previously to the fascinating historical interplay between the two key British reactor pioneers, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist John Cockcroft and engineer Christopher Hinton. To put it plainly, they did not get along, though they both tried to make the relationship work, in different ways in different periods. The way they grated against each other is mostly airbrushed from historical documents; where it is mentioned, it is rarely explicated. So this letter from Hinton to Edwin Plowden, his boss and Cockcroft’s boss from 1954, was a fine find for me. I also like the way Hinton expresses a very ancient battle between engineer and scientist:

I wonder whether you appreciate the difference in outlook which underlies the two schools of thought. Cockcroft, with the majority of the members of the Board, takes the view that information should be as widely disseminated as possible and that the more information is spread, the faster will the bounds of knowledge be advanced.

This is typically the scientist’s point of view, and from the point of view of pure science, is correct and well justified.

I, on the other hand, take the view that knowledge is of value only to the extent that it can be used and that it is not worthwhile to pay for any knowledge which cannot be put into use. This is the industrial point of view.

In undertaking to supply details of the Calder Hall reactors to the Americans, we are paying a very high price. Some American research information is already available to use under the terms of the present agreement. Most of the additional information which will become available under the terms of the new agreement cannot be used by us at present and it is therefore not worthwhile to pay a high price for it.

I feel a little unhappy about sending Cockcroft to Washington to spell out the details of the agreement because I think that this will inevitably be done with the basic outlook of the scientist.


Hinton, Christopher. 1955. Hinton to Plowden, Mar. 28, 1955. AB 19/13, National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.