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Alexander Lamb Cullen OBE FREng FRS

From the Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School

Occasional Paper No 36


Peter Harrod


Alexander Lamb Cullen, the eminent electrical engineer, was born in Lincoln on 30 April 1920, and was educated at Lincoln School from 1930-38. He died on 27 December 2013, aged 93. The Admissions Register in the Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School recorded that Alex Lamb was admitted to Lincoln School in September 1930. He lived at 89 Longdales Road, and had attended St John’s Preparatory School. His father’s occupation was listed as ‘railway official’.

Whilst in his first year at the School, the young Alex announced his presence in an ‘original contribution’ in The Lincolnian magazine. Writing about a visit with his uncle to Brooklands near Weybridge in Surrey, he informed readers that the real object of his visit was to be present at the testing and racing of a new car which was being built by his uncle. It was a huge car, with an aluminium body and a pressed steel chassis. He wrote that the wheels were of the wire spoked type, and painted blue, whist the body was chromium-plated. The car was called the ‘Tornado Eight’, and was to be driven by ‘Whirlwind’ Brown. However Brown’s mechanic had sprained his wrist, and if Alex is to be believed (it might have been a piece of scarcely disguised ‘creative’ writing!) he was asked to ride in his place. Clearly, if the story is true, health and safety were not considered to be an issue in the early 1930s! In a race of nine cars, Tornado Eight was second for most of the time, but suffered from a tyre burst on the Byfleet banking, and wasted valuable seconds changing choked plugs on a later lap, resulting in their being placed fourth at the end of the race. Clearly there are clues that suggest an embryonic engineer in the making, but eloquent phrases such as ‘tremendous roar of vibrant power’, ‘tottered weakly from the cockpit’, and ‘dust-begrimed features, are indicative of a young boy with a poetic flair as well!

Indeed, a further ‘original contribution’ in the Summer Term 1935 edition of The Lincolnian confirms his poetic potential, and also indicates a mischievous sense of humour in a poem called ‘The Garden’.

The Shepherd standing on the Lee,

Looks through the morning Hayes,

And sees two men, their Baxter him,

Watching a bonfire blaze.

The fire’s so hot it scorches Wood,

And Withers lives nearby,

The Smith appears upon the scene,

And words of wisdom fly.

Water is brought, the flames are quelled,

Now everything’s in order,

And Plants and shrubs and Williams sweet

Are growing round the border.

One can only speculate about the reaction in the tobacco smoke-infested masters’ common room, as the names of many ‘beaks’ appear, scarcely concealed within the narrative of the poem!

Alex Cullen left Lincoln School in 1938, and the Christmas edition of The Lincolnian magazine recorded that he had been awarded his Higher Certificate, and had gained a place at the City and Guilds College, part of Imperial College, of London University, where he read engineering, gaining his BSc with second class Honours. He must have gained his qualification after two years of study, as the May 1940 Lincolnian reported that he had been awarded his degree, and was employed in research in connection with aeroplane radio equipment under the Ministry of Supply. I do understand that there were short-cuts to degrees during the war for high-flyers such as Cullen, and I have read in the press recently that ‘fast tracked’ degrees are on the agenda once more. Further reports in the School magazine revealed that he became a Scientific Officer with the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in 1944, and was appointed Lecturer in Electrical Engineering at University College, London in 1946, where he worked with Harold Barlow in building up microwave research. At that time he was listed as a member of the Old Lincolnians’ Society, and his address was given as North Farnborough, Hants. The Old Boys’ Chronicle of July 1951 recorded that AL Cullen had taken his PhD.

On the same page the successes of other eminent Lincolnians were celebrated, including Charles Garton, Neville Marriner (who will be 90 years old next month) and Dennis Townhill. Those who have since pursued successful local careers included John Hunt, John Hunter, Tom Jackson, Dick Rollett and John Wright. Such an ‘embarras de richesses’ is illustrative of the contribution that Lincoln School has made to the nation, and to the local community.

The story of Alexander Cullen is taken up in his obituary in The Daily Telegraph on 25 February 2014, which summarised his considerable contribution to the field of electrical engineering as follows:

‘Professor Alexander Cullen, the electrical engineer, who has died aged 93, made important contributions in the field of microwave research. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977 and was awarded the Royal Medal in 1984, in particular for his research on microwave antennae - devices widely used in radio communications which use the principle of the parabolic mirror to focus incoming signals on to a reception point or direct signals from a focal source point into a directed beam.’

Among many other achievements, the obituary informed us that he developed a method of measuring the radiation pattern from an antenna using a modulated near-field scatterer, a device which charts the scattering of radiation round antennae, producing ‘maps’ which allow engineers to detect faults. He also developed methods of measuring the flow of power through waveguides - structures that direct waves, such as electromagnetic waves or sound waves, to their destination.

The Daily Telegraph obituary pointed out that Professor Cullen was also an accomplished jazz musician and in later life took up the vibraphone. His blossoming musical talents were recognised in Steve Race’s autobiography. Alex and Steve were contemporaries at Lincoln School in the 1930s, and were described by Steve as ‘best friends’. They met in rather striking circumstances. Steve had requested permission from Lincoln School master Mr Marriott to ‘leave the room’, which was granted, but with a glance at the master’s watch indicating that the absence would be timed. So, being an obedient new boy, Steve ran down the corridor, opened the outside door, and sprinted as hard as he could to the ‘bog’. Unfortunately another boy was running equally as hard in the opposite direction, and they both ended up sprawled on the cinder path which led from the main school building to the ‘Prep’, a ‘temporary’ wooden building some hundred yards from the main school. Despite that unfortunate accident, they formed a bond on sight, and later found that they had many common interests including music. Alex played the drums, and it was his avowed ambition to become a famous drummer, whilst Steve confided in him that he intended to be the most famous pianist the world had ever known.


Alex (left) and Steve (right) at Lincoln School in 1936

Alex and Steve were best friends from that moment on, and they met at every available opportunity both in school and at Alex’s home, where they played duets on the piano and drums. Not satisfied with the cosy atmosphere of the drawing room, they sought a wider audience and the rewarding sound of applause, and at the tender age of twelve formed a band called The Silver Linings. Handbills were designed and duplicated, and pushed through half the letter-boxes of Lincoln advertising ‘The Silver Linings: two-piece band unexpectedly available’!

Despite canvassing astonished owners of cafés and restaurants as far afield as Skegness, business did not come their way lightly, although they did get one engagement; a never-to-be-forgotten night at the Nettleham Village Hall where they were well and truly ‘given the bird’! Reassuring themselves that the public were not yet ready for their style of music (Gustav Mahler must have felt the same!) they found other interests. In Alex’s case this included building a radio, and reading every wireless magazine about he could lay his hands on. Thus, the two drifted apart.

Steve’s musical interests continued unabated, whilst Alex’s became more and more technologically and scientifically orientated and he gave up the drums (a broken arm following a cycling accident didn’t help matters) and became more interested in building an eight-valve ‘superhet’ radio! The two did briefly get together years later in a recording studio in London to record ‘China Boy’ and ‘Someday Sweetheart’ with the jazz saxophonist Freddie Gardner, and they met on occasions during the war. Alex was in a special branch of the Air Ministry at Farnborough presumably, as Steve Race speculated, so that he could build ‘superhet’ wireless sets. However it later transpired that Alex was busy developing something called ‘Radar’!

The photograph below, which appears in Steve Race’s biography, shows Steve playing his xylophone, and wearing his brother Philip’s while flannels. Philip Race was Chairman of Governors at Lincoln School and later at LCHS from 1966 to 1990.


The Daily Telegraph obituary took up the same theme, pointing out that Cullen’s interest in science began with a schoolboy fascination with Meccano and radio. This was apparently fostered by a science master at Lincoln School, who I am assuming might have been physics master Mr George Stollery. However, as his career developed, Cullen maintained his musical interests, and during his spare moments he played the drums in a semi-professional jazz band, for which he arranged several pieces. He left University College, London in 1955 when he was appointed to the Chair of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, but in 1967 he returned to UCL to succeed Barlow as Pender Professor of Electrical Engineering and Head of Department. From 1971-73 he held the Pender Chair of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and was Dean of the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Science.

After his retirement Cullen continued to do research and consultancy work, but he also found time to pursue many other interests. In recognition of his accomplished academic career, he was given the title of Emeritus Professor of the University of London. At the age of 89, he took up the vibraphone and taught himself to play. He also played the clarinet, and wrote a series of songs, some of which his son David arranged to be recorded by the Radio Big Band and Bob Bryan of Cantabile, and which can be heard on ‘Taxi’, a website dedicated to Cullen’s music.

Cullen was the author or co-author of a number of papers and books on electromagnetic waves and microwave measurement techniques. He was appointed OBE in 1960 and, among other distinctions, received the Faraday Medal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. In a warm tribute By Professor Hugh Griffiths, a colleague at UCL, Cullen was described as combining the sharpest of scientific minds with a gentle personality, and a great sense of humour; the ‘last gentleman in the business’.

Professor Alexander Cullen died on 27 December 2013, and is survived by a daughter and two sons. He should be celebrated in Lincoln as one of the city’s most celebrated sons, and he enjoys several mentions in Professor Charles Garton’s Lincoln School: a Summary Honours Board, not least for his Presidency in 1987 of the Union Radio-Scientifique Internationale. He was awarded the Faraday Medal of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, and was invited by the Royal Society to deliver the Clifford Paterson Lecture on Microwaves: the Art and the Science. He was also awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society. His book Modern Radio Science was published in 1988, and translated into Russian and Chinese. In January 1986 he had the courage to be a signatory to a letter to The Times calling on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to ‘Save British Science’. A snapshot of his distinguished career may be seen in Who’s Who.


The Daily Telegraph, 25 February 2014   Alexander Lamb Cullen   Obituary

Garton, Charles (1988)   Lincoln School: a Summary Honours Board   OCHLS Lincoln

Race, Steve (1979)   Musician at Large: an Autobiography   Eyre Methuen

UCL on-line Newsletter

Who’s Who

Appendix (see below)

The letter below was sent by Alex Cullen to Headmaster GF Franklin on 17th December 1938 from the City and Guilds College in London University. It shows that, in addition to his musical talents, Alex had the opportunity to tread the boards in that classic Agatha Christie play, ‘A murder is announced’.






Peter Harrod     

Assistant Archivist at LCHS

March 2014