Gustav Wikkenhauser

Gustav Wikkenhauser the unknown engineer and television pioneer

We remember the mysterious Hungarian engineer Gustav Wikkenhauser, described as a pioneer of television and nautical scientific instruments, whose unforeseen recognition was triggered by his troubled past.

"I'm sorry. I have no idea who he is."

That's the response that is all too common when we mention the name Gustav Wikkenhauser, described in a newspaper obituary as 'a pioneer of television'.

If he was indeed a pioneer, why does his name bring no recognition? Professors of modern history, technology and science are clueless about this elusive engineer. So who was Gustav Wikkenhauser, whose ingenuity has become lost in the mists of time?

E&T magazine was contacted recently by the IET assistant archivist, Jon Cable, who acquired some papers donated to the IET archives; the subject being the mysterious Wikkenhauser. The papers would have been filed away but coincidentally, the National Archives released a document about Wikkenhauser's naturalisation application on 30 October 2014, 31 years early from its 100-year classification. The declassified document involved Wikkenhauser's problematic application to become a British citizen. Had it not been for this, we would have not given him the recognition he thoroughly deserves.

Wikkenhauser was born in 1901 in Budapest, Hungary. At 20 years of age, he joined the University of Budapest, studying mechanical and electrical engineering. He graduated in 1926, was employed by Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft AG in Germany and relocated to Berlin. During his employment, he built the two 30-line television receivers that the Hungarian engineer D'nes von Mih'ly demonstrated at the 1928 Berlin Radio Exhibition.

Wikkenhauser took up a position in Mihály's Telehor Television Company on its formation in 1929, and there he met a young GW Walton, a fellow inventor. In the same year, he married a Hungarian woman called Aranka – her maiden name is unknown.

Scophony Ltd and naturalisation

In 1931 Wikkenhauser was invited to take up employment at Scophony Ltd (in the United Kingdom), where he would work on the early development of television. Beginning as a technical assistant engineer, he was soon to climb the ranks of the industry, becoming a Fellow of The Television Society in November 1936.

Scophony Ltd was initially established to utilise patents by GW Walton, who worked alongside Wikkenhauser in Telehor's laboratories in 1930. Walton had a high opinion of Wikkenhauser's technical ability and character, encouraging him to move to England and further his career.

Scophony Ltd was described as one of the most ingenious television manufacturers of the 1930s. A significant patent from the international company was the Projection Television System; several were installed and ran successfully. However, none were sold due to the impending war.

The systems projected a high definition image upon a screen using mirrors fixed on rapidly rotating drums; the process of their manufacture was hailed as truly innovative.

Wikkenhauser's wife Aranka grew tired of life in Great Britain after six months and wanted her husband to give up his work and return to Hungary with her. Wikkenhauser, whose primary passion lay in his inventions, was unwilling to resign from his employment and refused.

Aranka returned to Hungary, and their child Ferenc was born in December 1932. Records show that their divorce was finalised in August 1950.

Wikkenhauser applied for naturalisation to become a British citizen in May 1939, four months before the beginning of the Second World War.

In the naturalisation process, character references were essential. GW Walton, now technical advisor and a director of Scophony Ltd, wrote that Wikkenhauser's service had been "wholly satisfactory, and he has become genuinely attached to this country, and has acquired the same mental outlook or mode of living as people in this country."

William H Field, a good friend of Wikkenhauser, found him "to be both honest and straightforward in every respect.

"He should make an excellent British citizen should he be given the opportunity.

"His sympathies and outlook are British in character and his concern is for the country of his adoption."

Unfortunately, the Aliens Department of the Home Office found the backing "lukewarm" and not "cogent" it was "highly undesirable" to grant the "privilege". Matters of war were a priority.

War and victory

As the BBC ceased TV broadcasting during the war, Scophony Ltd could no longer proceed with manufacturing and selling of television equipment and halted production altogether.

As a contribution to the war efforts and to keep the company afloat, it took on contracts for instrumental work of a highly confidential character with the Aircraft Ministry and Ministry of Supply. Wikkenhauser, as one of the leading authorities on television, took charge of technical operations. He was approved for Auxiliary war work in May 1940.

Dr Phil E Judkins, of the University of Buckingham Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, told E&T: "Scophony's development work for the Air Ministry and the wide-ranging inventiveness of their staff such as Wikkenhauser, are illustrated by the fields in which he worked.

"These were: the high-speed cameras in 1939; aircraft direction indicators in 1940, and gyro-driven turn indicators in 1941; high-cycle three-phase ground power units in 1942; clinometers and autopilots in 1943, and radar navigation displays in 1944. One particular development was that of linking navigation charts to the radar information to give a single unified display, a technology much later brought to public notice by its use in Concorde."

Wikkenhauser was then involved in the display of radar information, and made improvements in the dark-trace cathode-ray tubes known as 'skiatrons', some 25,000 of which had been produced in the war for use in fighter control rooms. Dr Judkins said: "He moved on to develop the technology of the transfer to film of radar cathode-ray tube displays, the rapid processing of that film, and its cinema projection."

Scophony may have secured its work with the Air Ministry through the company chairman, Maurice Bonham Carter, who was also a director of Frank Whittle's firm, Power Jets Ltd.

Maurice Bonham Carter – actress Helen Bonham Carter's grandfather – was another acquaintance of Wikkenhauser, and in August 1940 he wrote to Sir Frank Smith, director of instrumental production at the Ministry of Supply on the matter of Wikkenhauser's naturalisation application: "As you are aware Scophony Limited is doing extremely valuable work for the Air Ministry as well as the Ministry of Supply.

"In charge of the technical work is Mr G Wikkenhauser, now Chief Engineer of the Company.

"The Home Office is not granting in wartime the privilege of naturalisation unless a Government Department makes a recommendation in favour of the person concerned."

Scophony Ltd was now engaged exclusively in government work, and Bonham Carter felt it would have been a great advantage to the company and government departments if Wikkenhauser had the status of a British subject, particularly so as in some cases "special dispensation had to be granted by such Government Departments in order to permit Wikkenhauser to supervise orders of a secret nature".

Bonham Carter specified that Wikkenhauser had no relations and no connections in Germany and hadn't left Britain, except for brief holidays, since January 1932. By that time, Hungary had joined the Axis powers against the Allied forces. According to international law, Wikkenhauser was liable to civilian internment and could be declared an enemy alien, risking deportation from Britain or a time at internment camps where other civilian foreign nationals were rounded up and dumped in terrible conditions. It was important to prove that he wasn't anti-British.

Finding Wikkenhauser to be an asset to Scophony Ltd's wartime projects, Sir Frank wrote directly to the Home Office in August 1940, stating that the engineer was a man of great technical ability "whose services to the country should be retained unless there is some serious objection to him as an alien.

"I have no reason to doubt the good faith of any members of the Company including Mr Wikkenhauser."

Thankfully, in 1941, due to Sir Frank Smith's letter, Wikkenhauser was granted his naturalisation as a British subject and was free to carry out his work without complication of his heritage.

It seems that in the later years of his career Wikkenhauser's efforts in science and engineering were acknowledged. He was awarded an MBE in June 1946 for his work in technology and science and married his second wife Pamela that same year. In 1947, he left Scophony Ltd to work for Kelvin Hughes and became internationally recognised for his investigations in nautical scientific instruments.

Wikkenhauser carried the technology of Scophony with him to his new post. Dr Judkins says that from the time the Hungarian engineer joined them as chief development engineer, Kelvin Hughes pursued three varied product lines: "Its traditional business of navigational instruments such as compasses and sextants, which employed many craft instrument-'makers of many years' service, the rapidly growing business of marine radar and echo sounding, in which it was successful in gaining the first type approval for marine radar from the UK Ministry of Transport in 1948, and a variety of specialised development projects for defence work."

The most complex and perhaps best known of these was the photographic projection display system for fighter control, used in the post-war revision and upgrading of the UK's early-warning system, the Rotor project. Wikkenhauser and Albert E Adams' Film projection with continuously moving film, filed in 1947 and patented in January 1950, was significant in the Rotor's development. Dr Judkins adds: "The Rotor project involved photographing the radar tube displays, processing and drying the film involved, and projecting it onto a large screen, all within some ten seconds, in order to give real-time situation map information to the controllers."

As for the company of Wikkenhauser's previous employment, Scophony Ltd, it closed in 1948, but Scophony-Baird still traded from 1949-1952 and changed its name to Baird Television Ltd in September 1952. Equipment with the Scophony brand could still be seen well into the 1950s.

In March 1956, Wikkenhauser was elected Member of the British Institution of Radio Engineers, and he became a Freeman of the City of London in 1958. The following year he was also voted into the Fellowship of the Institute of Navigation at The Royal Geographical Society for his contribution to the science of navigation.

Are there others?

Wikkenhauser retired in 1967, his last known application for a patent recorded on 11 December 1967. The elusive engineer died in 1974, aged 73, while living in Essex.

Wikkenhauser's lack of recognition could indicate that there are far more European engineers of the Second World War period whose names and work were lost to future generations.

Don McLean, chair of history at the Royal Television Society, believes that Scophony Ltd had a serious part to play in Wikkenhauser's present-day obscurity: "His name does not stand out – a fact not helped by Scophony's own lack of success in the pre-war television industry. Nor is it helped by his focus on opto-mechanical technology for television which was rendered obsolete by the rapid developments in electronic technology."

True, thanks to a set of unfortunate circumstances, the name of this exceptional engineer was all but forgotten.

The sad irony is that E&T's discovery of Wikkenhauser was largely due to the unfavourable circumstances of his naturalisation, not his outstanding engineering.

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