AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH by G. C. McVittie [presented 1977, died 8 March 1988]
This sketch was prepared at the request of the Royal Society of Edinbugh who have asked each Fellow to write a “personal record”. The headings of the sections are those suggested by the Society, but I have omitted Sec. VI “Circumstances, influences and relevant memories of childhood” and Sec. XII “Additional information” because these items are adequately covered in the remaining sections.
I. - Surname: followed by forenames
McVittie, George Cunliffe
II. - Birth - date and place. Number of brothers and sisters, and your place in the series
Birth: 5 June 1904 in Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey.
One brother: Wilfred Wolters McVittie (1906 - );
One sister: Dora Elsie McVittie (Mrs. John C. Crowley) (1908 - ).
I am the eldest of the three.
We were all born in Smyrna under the “Capitulations” system of extra-territoriality by which we automatically became British subjects, our father having been born in England.
Though Smyrna might well be regarded as an out-of-the-way spot in which to be born, a curious circumstance regarding the city may be mentioned. The population of Smyrna and its surroundings villages can hardly have exceeded a quarter of a million round the year 1900. Yet within a few years on either side of 1900, it produced a number of men who, to a greater or lesser degree, made their mark in the world. There was Aristotle Onassis, eventually to become a shipping magnate in Greece; (Sir) Alec Issigonis, the designer of automobiles in Britain; Jason Nassos (later Nassau), for long the Director or Warner & Swasey Observatory in East Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A.; and my brother and myself.
Father: Francis Skinnner McVittie, born Blackpool, Lancs., 1872, died Purley, Surrey, 1950.
Mother: Emily Caroline McVittie (née Weber), born Smyrna, Turkey, 1877, died West Buckland, Devon, 1942.
As far as I know, my father came from a poor family and received some education in the state schools of the period. He was then apprenticed to become a solicitor’s clerk but shortly after 1890 came to Smyrna as secretary to the director of McAndrews & Forbes, which for over one hundred years has exported liquorice from Turkey. My father seems to have done well in the company and was well enough off to marry my mother in 1903. Two years later the control of McAndrews & Forbes passed to American interests and my father lost his job. Hard times followed but in 1907, after a visit to the U.S., my father returned to Smyrna with an agency to import American roll-top desks. By 1914 he had developed a shop in Smyrna which was a primitive version of a department store. A 1922 advertisement lists for sale, office equipment, household furniture, sports goods, revolvers, books, boots and shoes, oils and many other goods. The shop consisted of a long narrow showroom with plate glass windows at the front and along one side. At the far end was an office where my father and his chief assistant worked.
The city of Smyrna had no municipal fire brigade; therefore the various western European fire insurance companies had organized and financed a fire brigade, which was run by a committee of local insurance agents. My father was the secretary of this committee and appeared to be largely in control of the brigade.
My father’s only sources of income lay in Smyrna and so, like a number of other British people in the same situation, he decided that we should stay in Turkey at the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. On the decleration of war, the Turkish authorities rounded up British and French subjects and interned them in houses in the Turkish quarter of Smyrna for a brief period, after which they were released. When the Turkish police came to collect my father, he demanded how they expected the fire brigade to operate if he was interned. The question apparently presented such an insoluble problem that he was left at liberty. After the war the incident was held against my father; but it was typical of the ambivalent attitude of the Turkish authorities in Smyrna towards British, French and other Allied nationals throughout the war. Whenever the Germans applied pressure, a few of the poorer Allied nationals would be rounded up and incarcerated in the houses of the Turkish quarter only to be released again after a few days.
During 1915 the commercial life of Smyrna, and the supply of food, was disorganized by the Allied blockade but there was a rapid recovery thereafter although the blockade continued. Somehow my father’s business picked up momentum: he was able, for example, to rent a house at the seaside for us in the summer of 1917. After the war he prospered greatly, buying from the Royal Navy stores that were deposited in the Aegean islands and reselling them in Smyrna. He also supplied oil to the Greek Army that had occupied the province of Smyrna in 1919 and was ejected again by the Turks in 1922.
The destruction of Smyrna by the Turkish army in September 1922 [views not shared by the editor of this web site] found us on holiday in England. My father and mother suddenly faced, if not total ruin, very straitened circumstances. They never returned to Turkey. By 1924, through the contacts with British Fire Insurance companies he had made while secretary of the Smyrna fire brigade, my father began to build up a small business in London for the import of oriental carpets and for the invisible mending of these carpets when they had been damaged in household fires. The firm provided my parents with a modest income. They lived in a small house in Purley, Surrey, and my father died there in 1950.
My mother’s upbringing contrasted strongly with my father’s. She was educated privately in Smyrna according to Victorian notions of female education: how to be a housekeeper, to play the piano and to sing, to speak and write French as well as English and to learn some German. Though her parents were not rich, as she grew older she was able to travel with friends or relatives to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, to Switzerland and to Constantinople after her brother was posted to the German Embassy there. Western European nationals in Turkey under the “Capitulations” system lived a life of relative security and ease against an ever-present background of lawlessness and violence. Picnis, tennis parties, dances in each other’s houses were frequent forms of entertainment and the First World War, while it curtailed these activities, did not destroy them. They were vigorously resumed after 1918. Yet my mother was a serious and rather reserved woman with a great taste for reading. Probably this sustained her after 1922 in the lonely life she and my father, brother and sister led in Purley which could not have contrasted more with the life she had been accustomed to in Smyrna. She suffered a stroke in 1933 and was bed-ridden thereafter. In September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, she was evacuated to West Buckland in Devon, with a nurse to look after her, and she died there in 1942.
IV. - Ancestry and relatives, with special reference to any who have been noteworthy in science, learning, public service or other ways.
I have little information about my father’s family. He was the son of John McVittie and his mother’s maiden name was Ann Little. John McVittie was born in Longtown, Cumbria, and is described in birth or death certificates of some of his children that I possess, once as a commercial traveller and once as a lodging house keeper in Blackpool. Ann Little was the daughter of Christopher and Margaret Little; her mother had been Margaret Cunliffe before her marriage. My father set considerable store on this connection with the Cunliffes and indeed I was given my middle name because of it. He left notes indicating that Margaret was the youngest daughter of Henry (1764-1825) and Ann (1766-1852) Cunliffe, of Blackburn, Lancs., and that she had a brother James. This is presumably the James Cunliffe (1798-1854) whose name commences the entries in Debrett referring to the descent of the present Lord Cunliffe, Baron Headley.
There is rather better information concerning my mother’s family. Her mother was Eugenia Wolters (1840-1926), eldest daughter of the Rev. Johann Theodor Wolters (1805-1882), who officiated in his latter years in three Anglican churches, one in Smyrna and the other two in nearby villages. He is said to have ridden on horse -or donkey- back between them each Sunday. His father had been a German Lutheran missionary in the Caucasus and South Russia regions. Eugenia Wolter’s mother was a Scotswoman, Elizabeth Galloway (1815-1882) and, though Eugenia no doubt knew German, her preferred language was English.
My mother’s father was Georg Weber (1840-1910), a native of Alsace (town of Reichenweier, near Colmar), who came to Smyrna at a date now difficult to determine. A family legend has it that he came as a result of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. However the Treaty of Frankfurt which ended the war was signed in May 1871. This hardly gives time for him to emigrate to Smyrna, meet and marry Eugenia Wolters and produce a son by 6 January 1872. Moreover a sketch-book survives, without indication of ownership, which contains minutely detailed pen, or pencil, drawings of archaeological sites some of which are reproduced in Georg Weber’s books. One or two have dates, the earliest being 1867, so that it must be presumed that he came to Smyrna in the middle 1860s. He spent his life as a teacher in the Evangelical School in Smyrna, a school run by the Greek Orthodox Church on the lines of a French lycée, or a German gymnasium.
My grandfather must have been born a French national, was educated in France and was identified in later life as a Frenchman by those who knew him. His preferred language was French though he knew both German and English. It is not clear when or why he and his family became German nationals, but this must have occured in the early 1870s.
Georg Weber was one of the early archaeological explorers of the Smyrna-Ephesus region, and seems to have devoted many of the school holidays to producing maps and plans of archaeological sites. I have been unable to discover how the travels involved were financed and I assume that they must have been paid for out of his salary, which can hardly been large. But in the Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology (Vol. VII, p.226, 1882) are printed letters that passed between the then Secretary of the Society and my grandfather regarding the “so-called Tomb of St. Luke at Ephesus”. The Secretary urges him to carry out more excavations and Georg Weber replies that he “obtained a workman” to clear part of the ruin. There is no indication as to who paid, perhaps because a reference to finance was beneath the dignity of the Transactions. This particular ruin at Ephesus was an abiding interest of Weber’s and his conclusion that it was not the tomb of St. Luke was accepted by Sir William Ramsey (“Historical Geography of Asia Minor” p.110. John Murray, London 1890). Ramsey also refers to my grandfather’s map of the Ephesus region as the only reliable one at that period.
Weber published a number of archaeological articles in the “Revue Archéologique”, the “Revue des Etudes Grecques” adn the “Mitt. des Deut. Archäol. Inst. Athen” during the period 1880 to 1904. His principal writings consist of three books:
“Les Sipylos et ses Monuments: ancienne Smyrne (Navlochon)”, Ducher & Cie., Paris, 1880;
“Guide du Voyageur à Ephèse”, Imprimerie “La Presse”, Smyrne 1891;
“Dinair (Gueïkler) Célènes Apamée Cibotos” Delagrange-Louys, Besançon, 1892.
The first of these is much used as a source-book by C.J. Cadoux in the opening four chapters of “Ancient Smyrna” (Blackwell, Oxford, 1938) -segment- and even as late as 1967 George E. Bean reproduces Weber’s plan of the ancient city of Erythrae in Aegean Turkey (Ernest Benn, London, 1967).
Prehistoric archaeology has been an abiding interest of my own from the time I began to read the books of Sir Leonard Wooley after leaving the University. This may have arisen as an unconscious inheritance from my grandfather, for it was not until late in life that I discovered his writings and read reviews of his books. Formerly I had vaguely supposed that Georg Weber, like many other Europeans living in Turkey, had some amateur interest in archaeology. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that his contemporaries regarded him as an authority on the classical archaeology of the Smyrna-Ephesus region.
My mother’s only sibling, Theodor Georg Weber (1872-1956) was educated in Germany and after receiving his doctorate in jurisprudence and studying Turkish and Oriental Languages, entered in 1895 the Foreign Service of the pre-1914 German Empire in the “Dragoman” service. In those days, three types of career were available to senior members of the German Foreign Service: the diplomatic, the consular and the Dragoman. I am indebted to Dr. Sareyko, of the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany, for an extract from an “ancient document” which, inter alia, states: “Since the Ambassador and his deputy were not conversant with the Turkish language, the official business between the Embassy and the Turkish authorities, in so far as it could not be conducted in the French language, was conducted exclusively through the agency of the first Dragoman of the Embassy”. A Dragoman was therefore an official interpreter and the “ancient document” goes on to expatiate on the importance and responsibility of the post. My uncle had reached the rank of First Dragoman in the German Consulate-General in Constantinople (Istanbul) by 1901 and in the German Embassy by 1911. He had also entered the consular service by examination in 1908 and headed the consulate in Smyrna as Consul in 1917-18, one of the brief periods before 1919 when he worked outside Constantinople. The years 1919 to 1924 present a confused picture: Theodor Weber serves in various government offices in Berlin, acts as interpreter at the Versailles Treaty negotiations, is on a mixed Anglo-German “Court of Decisions” in Berlin 1922-24, and so on. Finally in 1925 he is appointed German Consul-General in Salonika (Thessaloniki) and stays in that post until his retirement in 1932.
Theodor Weber’s nephew Wilfred McVittie also made a career in the Foreign Service, this time that of Great Britain. During the 1920s he lived with our parents and sister in Purley, working by day in the city of London and studying by night at King’s College, London. He entered the British Consular Service in 1929 and was posted to Japan where he was Consul in Yokohama in 1938 and later Mukden (Manchuria) and Formosa (Taiwan). He was detained by the Japanese from December 1941 to August 1942, then served in the U.S.A. and was finally seconded to the War Cabinet Offices in 1945. After the war, Wilfred McVittie was appointed First Secretary (Commercial) in the British Embassy, Buenos Aires (1946), Commercial Counsellor in the Embassy in Mexico City (1948), and then to a similar post in Lisbon (1952) where he was also Consul-General. He completed his career as H.M. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic from 1958 until his retirement in 1962. Wilfred McVittie was awarded the C.M.G. (Companion, Order of St. Michael & St. George) in 1958.
V. - Marriage - date and place. Wife’s full name and parentage, with relatives of scientific or public interest. Offspring, name and sex of each, with brief details of careers.
My wife and I were married at Adel Church, Leeds, Yorks., on 3 September 1934. She was Mildred Bond Strong (1906- ) second daughter of Professor John Strong, C.B.E., F.R.S.E. (1868-1945) and Mrs. Strong (née Ethel May Dobson). Dr. Strong had been successively Rector of Montrose Academy, Rector of Royal High School, Edinburgh, and then from 1919 Professor of Education in the University of Leeds. While in Montrose he had written “A history of Secondary Education in Scotland” (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1909). My wife’s only brother is Major-General Sir Kenneth W.D. Strong (1900- ), a professional soldier. In the Second World War he was Head of Intelligence (1943-45) to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and, after the war, became the first Director of the Joint Intelligence Bureau, Ministry of Defence (1948-64) adn the first Director General of Intelligence (1964-66), Ministry of Defence. Kenneth Strong is the author of “Intelligence at the Top” (Cassell, London, 1968) and of “Men of Intelligence” (Cassell, London, 1970).
My wife and I have no children.
VII. - Schooling - primary and secondary with dates. Teachers of influence and special circumstances affecting your education. Entrance or leaving scholarships. Scientific education and opportunities, if any.
My early education was dominated by the fact that the fact that the family remained in Smyrna, and so was cut off from England, for the four years of the First World War. My brother and I never went to school but were educated privately by governesses, largely on the lines of French education, up to 1914. During the war I can vaguely remember being taught at home by a sequence of men and women teachers. I suspect that some of the men, who were British and like us had stayed behind in Smyrna in 1914, were being helped financially by my father in this way. Somehow my brother and I and later our sister, learnt to read and write English and French and acquired a knowledge of such subjects as geography, “histoire ancienne” - chiefly Greek and Roman history - and selected French literature (Racine, Corneille, etc.) and arithmetic. But my brother and I owe our pre-University education mainly to the Rev. Lucius G.P. Fry (1881-1935) who was the Church of England Chaplain to two of the churches in the Smyrna area during 1919-1922. Also to some extent to a Greek schoolmaster, whose name I can no longer remember, who taught us Modern and then Ancient Greek during the same period. In a testimonial letter of 1923 date, Mr. Fry records that I was a pupil of his from January 1920 to March 1922. Mr. Fry organized in Smyrna in December 1921 a University of Cambridge Senior Local Examination which my brother and I both passed. I had offered English, English history, Greek, French, Mathematics and Advanced Mathematics, and obtained a distinction in French and Mathematics with Second Class Honours in the examination as a whole. These details are given as a tribute to the excellence of Mr. Fry’s teaching: however willing to learn a pupil may be, it is still a remarkable pedagogical feat to cover essentially the whole of a normal the nineteenth century novelists, poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth secondary education in two years.
My father was the Honorary Secretary of the British Chamber of Commerce in Smyrna and in the spring of 1922 I was employed as Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. During this period I learnt typing and shorthand but I continued reading mathematics on my own. My father had obtained for me through his book-suppliers a book on Einstein’s theory of relativity supposedly at a semi-popular level. Though it excited my curiosity, its contents seemed to me to be not only unintelligible but remarkably close to being nonsensical!
Apart from formal tuition there was my parents’ collection of books; Shakespeare, centuries all provided reading material. There were also books that had come from my grandfather’s library: books by Sir William Ramsey and an enormous early edition of the Larousse Encyclopaedia, which was a mine of information to a boy. The start of a life-long interest in astronomy I attribute partly to a habit we had as a family. In the long Mediterranean summer we were accustomed to enjoy the cool of the evening by sitting in the garden after dinner. Deck chairs were used, seats which made contemplation of the heavens unavoidable. There was no street lighting to speak of in Smyrna or in the outlying village of Boudjah (Buca) where we lived. On moonless nights the stars blazed down in a fashion I was not to see again until I visited Colorado many years later. A boy’s interest could hardly fail to be aroused by the display, stimulated as it was by reading Sir Robert S. Ball’s “Story of the Heavens” and by gazing through a 3-inch Naval telescope my father bought me in 1919.
VIII. - University and other higher education. Scholarships. Subjects of study. Professors and teachers of influence. Prizes and distinctions. Degrees (with dates). Undergraduate researches if any.
As I have already mentioned, the family was fortunately on holiday in England in the summer of 1922. I had been accepted for a Civil Engineering course at Edinburgh University, which was a compromise between my father’s insistence on “practical” studies and my own inclination towards mathematics. As he was to pay, engineering it had to be. I had been left in lodgings in Edinburgh and the family had moved south on their way back to Smyrna when news came in the first week of September that the city of Smyrna had been destroyed in a fire, that much of the population had been massacred by the Turkish army [views not shared by the editor of this web-forum] and that the British residents had been evacuated and deposited in Malta, Alexandria and elsewhere with little more than the clothes they stood up in. My father’s business had apparently been destroyed and this indeed proved to be the case. I abandoned my University course and, later in the autumn, joined my father as his assistant in London. A Relief Committee to help the British refugees, had been formed by members of the wealthier British families of Smyrna and my father had been appointed its Secretary. In order to give the Committee proper legal standing, it was taken over by the Imperial War Relief Fund. It was in this way that, early in 1923, my father and I met Sir John Cowan (1844-1929), chairman of Redpath Brown & Co. Ltd. of Edinburgh. Sir John very rapidly made up his mind that I was to enter on a course in Edinburgh University. He and his friends in the city put together a fund of £600 for that purpose. It was regarded as a loan to my father, repayable if he eventually recovered his business in Smyrna; if not, it was to be an outright gift and so it proved to be. Sir John Cowan’s office administered the fund and paid it out directly to me during my student days in Edinburgh. Sir John had also relied on the advice of Mr. Thomas Wilson, who taught at the Edinburgh Academy, and who had been a friend of my father’s in Lancashire in the 1880s.
Sir John Cowan never revealed the names of all the subscribers to the £600, but when I graduated in 1927 he said that one of them was Sir Alexander Grant (1864-1937), managing director of McVittie & Price Ltd., whom I was able, in addition to Sir John, to thank personally. Also when I left for Cambridge in 1928 I pressed Sir John for a complete list so that, as soon as I began to earn money, I could repay the subscribers. He thanked me on their behalf but said that they were all men who, like himself, would not miss their contributions. But there was one exception, and that was Mr. Wilson, who had insisted on contributing £100, though he was obviously a poor man. I should repay him if I wished and this I gladly did as soon as I got my first job. Mr. Wilson had befriended me in my student days in Edinburgh and I was well aware of the straitened circumstances in which he lived.
I imagine that, apart from Mr. Wilson, the contributors were hard-headed successful business men, of a kind that it is fashionable to denigrate today, in the mid-1970s. Yet these men did not hesitate to support financially a young man of whom they knew no more than that one of their number had presumably been favourably impressed by the young man and his father. I owe them a great debt of gratitude and I can only hope that my thanks to them were adequate when I finally left Edinburgh.
I was to study for a three year course leading to the M.A. degree and Sir John Cowan’s fund was based on such a period. I had however set my heart on a M.A. with honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy which took four years. Therefore bursaries must be obtained to supplement the fund. By studying in the evenings and in the train travelling to and fro between London and Caterham, to which place the family had moved, I succeeded in achieving sixth equal place in the Entrance Bursary competition of 1923 and was awarded the Bruce of Grangehill Bursary of the annual value of £35 for three years. I started on the Honours degree course in October 1923 and, in the following summer, sat the examination for, and was awarded, a Spence Bursary which brought in £50, £40 and £50 in three successive years.
In due course I graduated with First Class Honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1927. During this time, the men whose teaching influenced me the most were (Sir) Edmund T. Whittaker (1873-1956), the professor of pure mathematics, (Sir) Charles G. Darwin (1887-1962), the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy, and N. Kemp Smith (1872-1958), Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. Whittaker had a highly polished lecturing style and persuaded his audience that every topic was easily comprehensible. A subsequent reading of one’s notes showed that this was not so, at least, not until much further work was done. Darwin’s lecturing style was untidy but his asides on the nature of applied mathematics - and of applied mathematicians - and his obvious enthusiasm for the subject intrigued me. I often came away from one of his lectures having understood very little but determined to find out what my chaotic notes meant and what it was that aroused such interest in this man. My introduction to relativity theory came through a course that Whittaker gave in 1926/27. To Kemp Smith’s discourses on Locke, Hume, Berkeley and Kant I perhaps owe the germ of my attitude to mathematical physics which, many years later, Stamatia Mavridès (“L’Univers Relativiste”, p.7, Masson, Paris, 1973) was to describe as that of an “empiriste irréductible” (uncompromising empiricist).
The years in Edinburg were very happy ones, not only because the world of learning was opening out in front of me. The social side was equally pleasant. Sir John and Lady Cowant welcomed me into their home as if I were a grandson; afternoon and evening parties at the Whittakers and lunch parties at Darwins also stand out in my memory.
On graduating in 1927, I was awarded the Charles Maclaren Mathematics Scholarship (£200 for three years) and the Nicol Foundation (£50 for one year). The second award involved doing some teaching in the Physics Department and I therefore spent the year 1927/28 as a research student at Edinburgh, attending Whittaker’s postgraduate lectures. One set of these was on a unified field theory of gravitation and electro-magnetism, whose author I cannot now recall. During the year I was accepted by Cambridge University as a Ph.D. student with (Sir) Arthur S. Eddington (1882-1944) as my supervisor. I also entered Christ’s College at the suggestion of Mr. S.W.P. Steen who was a fellow of the College at that time and, indeed, for most of his life. He had however been a lecturer in mathematics at Edinburgh University for a couple of years in the mid-1920s and I had got to know him there. We had in fact patrolled the streets of Edinburgh at night together as special constables during the General Strike of 1926. Steen had fought in the First World War and I thought it prudent to attach myself to a man with his kind of experience.
The years of 1928-30 in Cambridge resulted in my writing a thesis on unified field theories which was accepted for the Cambridge Ph.D. degree in 1930. I cannot claim to have fitted well into Cambridge life after the free and easy existence as a Scottish student in Edinburgh. It was also a strange experience to work under Eddington. In Edinburgh I had enjoyed Whittaker’s urbane geniality and Darwin’s bluff and hearty manner; neither had prepared me for Eddington’s remoteness and unapproachability. It is true that by 1928 he was entering those mystical realms of thought that were eventually to produce “Fundamental Theory”. He was pre-occupied with these matters to the extent that at one point he set me to work on the cosmological, forgetting that G. Lemaître who had worked with him a year or two earlier, had already solved it. In a letter to W. de Sitter posted in Cambridge on 19 March 1930, Eddington writes - misspelling my name -: “A research student McVitie and I had been worrying at the problem at the problem and made considerable progress; so it was a blow to us to find it done much more completely by Lemaître”. I well remember the day when Lemaître’s letter arrived and Eddington rather shamefacedly showed it to me.
The Cambridge period includes the only time in my life when I received any formal instruction in astronomy. It consisted of Eddington’s course in Stellar Structure. Otherwise I was self-taught. The books by Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposchkin), Russell, Dugan and Stewart’s textbook, the writings of Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble were my main sources of information. I also profited greatly by listening to the discussions at the meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1931 onwards.
IX. - Postgraduate studies, at home and abroad. Researchers to date. (List of publications to be given separately under XIII). Higher degrees. Pupils and collaborators of distinction. Travels, scientific expiditions etc.
This section is almost entirely concerned with an attempt to describe my “Researches to date”. The figures shown in brackets in the text refer to the items in the bibliography in section XIII.
1. Unified Field Theories. Kinematical relativity.
The first papers (1, 2, 3) arose from my Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge. In the years 1929 and 1930, Einstein had proposed a theory for the unification of electromagnetism and gravitation and Levi-Civita had proposed two more, all three of which made use of the notion of parallelism at a distance for vectors in a Riemannian space (tele-parallelism). I solved the Maxwell-Einstein equations of the 1916 general relativity theory in a particular case and also found the corresponding solutions in the three unified field theories. Comparison of the results was unfavourable to the new theories, which are indeed completely forgotten today. The effect on my mental development was to produce a sceptical attitude towards unified field theories and also to foster the belief that the meaning of any set of field equations could best be attained by working out particular exact solutions rather than by contemplating the field equations themselves.
During the 1930s, E. A. Milne’s kinematical relativity was vigorously advanced as an alternative to general relativity. I was able to show that the theory of teleparallelism could be used to generalize kinematical relativity (13, 14, 18 Chp. V). This arose because kinematical relativity implied that there was a peculiar event 0 in the past; the 4-velocity vector of a particle, or the density-momentum 4-vector of a fluid, at any later event was parallel to the corresponding vectors at 0. The attempt to incorporate gravitational accelerations into the scheme (15) proved as unsatisfactory as was Milne’s. In (20) and (21) I argued the Hubble’s counts of galaxies could be brought into harmony with the predictions of my generalization of kinematical relativity but not with Milne’s original version that employed flat space-time. During the war in 1942, I developed a set of axioms (27) which appeared to be basic to kinematical relativity. The method indicated this theory did not have any necessary connection with cosmology. In 1945, I suggested (29) that Milne’s regraduation of clocks could be incorporated into general relativity. The argument depended on the introduction of “light signal coordinates” in space-times whose metrics had the form
ds2 = dt2 - n-2 (m2dr2 + r2dθ2 + r2sin2θdø2),
where n and m are arbitrary functions of t and r respectively. Co-ordinates of this type were later called “null coordinates” by J. L. Synge (Proc. Roy. Irish Acad. A 59, 1 1957) who discussed them for any spherically symmetric metric.
2. Spherically symmetric solutions of Einstein’s equations.
3. Cosmological investigations.
4. Classical hydrodynamics and gas dynamics.
5. Orbits of particles in general relativity.
X. - Public honours. Honorary degrees. Fellowships. Medals, lectures and awards. Membership of, and office in, British and foreign scientific societies, academies, etc. Membership of official advisory bodies. Scientific editorships.
XI. Appointments held (with dates) - research, teaching, administrative. War service, if any. Publications and activities, other than scientific.
1- Academic appointments.
By the 1960s it had become obvious to me that an astronomy department could not function efficiently without a modern optical telescope. Thus a second improvement in the instrumentation of the University of Illinois Observatory which I was able to achieve was a 40-inch optical telescope located at the Prairie Observatory. This undertaking was brought to fruition with the help of Professor K.M. Yoss who joined the department in 1964. Starting in 1965, land was purchased by the University in the relatively dark-sky region about 35 miles south-east of Urbana, the National Science Foundation provided funds and the instrument and the building to house it were finally completed in 1972. I was also grateful to the University for providing new office accommodation at the headquarters Observatory building in Urbana. The first extension was completed in 1957, the second, much larger one, in 1967.
Though the astronomy department had thus received much financial support from the University and from the Federal Government for which I was very thankful, it became clear to me in the late 1960s that a new era of financial stringency for science had begun. Since astronomy is a science which is very expensive, it was likely to suffer heavily. New men and new ideas would be needed to counteract this trend. I therefore decided that the time had come to resign as head of the department - while retaining my professorship of astronomy - which I did in the summer of 1970. A sabbatical leave in the autumn of 1970 was followed by a year’s visiting professorship at the University of Kent at Canterbury in England. The second semester of 1971/72 found me back in Urbana, my wife having accompanied me on these journeys. In June 1972 I retired from the University of Illinois under the age limit and we returned to the house in Canterbury we had bought in the summer of 1970. There the University of Kent was good enough to make me an Honorary Professor of Theoretical Astronomy and I was thus able to continue teaching and supervising research students, which I am still doing in the academic year 1976/77.
In spite of having lived for almost twenty years in the United States, my wife and I remained British subjects throughout and never applied for American citizenship. I cannot remember that any pressure was ever brought to bear on us to do so. The days when Americans assumed that anyone resident in their country was eager to become a U.S. citizen because that was the best citizenship in the world, were clearly over.
2- War service.
During the years September 1939 to September 1945 I was seconded from King’s College, London, to the Scientific Civil Service and worked at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) located at Bletchley Park (BP), Bletchley, Bucks. There I soon headed a unit that I shall refer to as the “BP Met. group” of which I was initially the only member. The work on which the group was engaged was the provision of observational weather data from areas controlled by the Germans and their Allies, though we also took part in similar work in the Japanese theatre of war. The weather data were needed by our own forecasting services in preparing weather forecasts for the R.A.F. and later the U.S. Air Force in operations over German-held territory. In order to understand the nature of the work of the group it is necessary to give a brief description of the organization of the meteorological services in existence during the immediate pre-war years. A network of weather observing stations had been set up covering Europe and, indeed, the whole world. At certain agreed hours the observers at all stations made a note of the weather and incorporated it in a numerical international code message which I shall call a “synoptic”. This consisted of 5-figure groups and, for example, the synoptic known as “short report for aviation” had the symbolic form
IIICLCM wwVhNh DDFWN
Here III was the number of assigned to the observation station, CL and CM were they types of low and medium cloud, each classified on a scale of 0 to 9; ww was a 2-figure number describing the weather at the time of observation, from “00” which meant “cloudless”, to “99”, “heavy thunder-storm with hail”; and so on for the other meteorological elements. The synoptic was sent at once by the observer to a collecting centre. In a remarkably short time after the simultaneous observations for all stations in, say, Europe had been made, they were being broadcast by radio in a “collective” message to be used by forecasters in the area. These men translated each synoptic into pictorial symbols which they placed on a map of Europe at each point of observation. The weather charts so constructed were the basis of the weather forecasts. Since the principal times of observation were six hours apart, the whole operation from making the observations to the completion of the weather charts had ideally, and indeed in practice, to take much less time than six hours.
The numerical international meteorological code used in a synoptic was not, of course, secret. When war began a belligerent who wished to continue broadcasting the collectives to which his forecasters were accustomed, and at the same time prevent the enemy from reading his synoptics, had to encypher them. This, of course, meant replacing each figure of the synoptic by some other figure according to a rule known only to the belligerent and, possibly, to his friends and allies. A schoolboy version of a cypher for example is one in which the digits 0 to 9 are replaced by themselves in scrambled order, 0 becoming 2, 1 becoming 7, and so on up to 9. The principle of the cypher is therefore a simple substitution and the discovery of the principle I shall call “breaking the cypher”. But clearly the encypherer can change the substitution table so that 0 now becomes 5, 1 becomes 2, and so on. The simple substitution principle has not been altered, but I shall say that the cypher “key” has been changed.
Since a synoptic was of value for a limited time only, it was clear that very elaborate cyphers, requiring much time for encyphering and decyphering, would be self-defeating. Again it must be have seemed obvious to the Germans and their allies that cyphers which could not be broken by textbook cryptographic methods in less than, say, fifteen hours would be good enough for meteorological purposes. Thus relatively simple, quickly worked cyphers could be thought to be adequate.
At the outbreak of war the German meteorological (“Met.”) broadcasts went into cypher. Presumably under German influence, so did the Russian and, as the war developed, the Italian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Vichy French broadcasts followed suit. If the R.A.F. was to operate over Germany it was necessary to make the synoptics from German Met. stations available to our forecasters. I had registered in 1938 for meteorological work in the event of war and was informed in September 1939 that I would be called up. There followed an interval of uncertainty which I spent in London on an intensive self-organized course in meteorology. Finally I was sent on 25 November 1939 to BP, on a three months appointment in the Met. Office, to work on Met. Cyphers and I spent the rest of the war there. In the summer of 1945 I wrote a history of the work done by the BP Met. group but at the present time (1976) I am informed by GCHQ that only the fact that enemy communications were read may be mentioned publicly and that the processes used at BP may not yet be divulged. Hence the “cryptic” nature of the following account.
Throughout the war I myself and the BP Met. group formed part of the Air Section at BP whose head was Mr. J.E.S (“Josh”) Cooper. However I worked at first with Col. (later Brigadier) J.H. Tiltman. Tiltman and Cooper were professional cryptographers and it was a privilege to be instructed by them. In early February 1940 Tiltman broke the Russian Met. cyphers and I found that the Russian broadcasts contained synoptics from a dozen Met. stations in Germany. This convinced the Deputy Director of the Meteorological Office, Mr. Ernest Gold, that my appointment should be made permanent. He had proposed at the end of January 1940 that it should be terminated because the French were supplying decyphered synoptics from the main German Met. cypher. This proposal was vigorously opposed by Cooper and, in the event, the incident provides an example of the short-sightedness characteristic of the phoney war. In any case, a visit to the Dunstable Central Forecasting Office by Tiltman and myself showed that the French decodes were very incomplete and that we could do far better via the Russians.
Cooper and I visited Paris at the end of February 1940 and it was agreed with the French that the main German Met. cypher should be their responsibility while the BP Met. group would deal with any other Met. cyphers that might present themselves.
At the beginning of March 1940 two temporary forecasters were sent by the Met. Office to help me. One was Mr. Philip P. Howse who, after the war, made his career in GCHQ. Cooper added Squadron-Leader John Moore to the BP Met. group and in August 1940 the Met. Office sent me Dr. Gillis, who subsequently made a career in academic life in Israel.
The invasion of Norway by the Germans in the spring of 1940 produced demands from the Met. Office for synoptics from stations in Norway occupied by the Germans. This involved breaking a new German cypher, which Cooper, Moore and I duly carried out. On May 21, 1940, communications between Paris and Dunstable were cut, as the Germans swept through northern France. Fortunately copies of the current keys of the main German Met. cypher, produced by the French, had reached Dunstable. Moore and I went over there and turned out partially decyphered synoptics. From that time onwards the whole responsibility from breaking enemy Met. cyphers and reconstructing their keys when these changed, fell on the BP Met. group. It soon became evident that we could supply and adequate, at times an ample, flow of current decyphered synoptics provided that I was given a sufficient staff and provided that the interception of enemy Met. broadcasts was increased beyond what had sufficed in peace-time. The possibility arose because the Germans and their friends and allies were making, and continued to make throughout the war, a major cryptographic error the exploitation of which was the key to our success.
In addition to participating in the cypher breaking operations (for instance, for the Italian Met. cypher after June 1940), I was much concerned with obtaining staff. The BP Met. group was still under the control of the Met. Office who occasionally produced temporary forecasters for the group, though often also tried to take them away as soon as they had become productive cryptographers. One of the men was P.E. Archer who joined the group in July 1940 and started to work on the German Naval Met. cypher. By November 1940 I had a staff of seven and was pressing for six more, if a steady flow of decyphered synoptics was to be achieved. This number was attained by the end of March 1941 but by then experience had shown that changes of key in the various cyphers occured fairly often and each key had to be rapidly reconstructed. By May 1941 I estimated that a staff of thirty-five was required and this was accepted by the Met. Office. However their attempts to provide this personnel were unsuccessful and by the end of August 1941 it was agreed that the BP Met. group, as well as the interception facilities at the Dunstable Central Forecasting Office, should be taken over by Air Intelligence. These transfers were completed by the end of the year. The Met. Office retained control of a decyphering unit at Dunstable which worked from keys supplied by my group at BP. I was now able to recruit WAAF personnel and Cooper was able to lend me staff from among his permanent cryptographic personnel. At the height of its activity, in November 1943, the BP Met. group numbered sixty persons. By April 1943 I was being told by Cooper that my salary was to be equivalent to that of a Wing-Commander in the RAF, as I was the head of what amounted to an independent section at BP.
An essential element in a synoptic is, of course, the place at which the observation is made. I had found it possible to follow the advance of the German Air Force across northern France during the spring of 1940 by reading the encyphered synoptics sent from temporary airfields. Archer had worked out keys for the German Naval Met. cypher by February 1941. Sometime in May of that year he noticed that the German Naval Met. broadcasts contained “ship report” synoptics from locations in the Atlantic, presumably made by German submarines. This gave a direct guide to the positions of German submarines but the reports were also capable of other kinds of exploitation at BP. The “ship reports” proved to be one key factor in the reduction of our shipping losses in the Atlantic during 1942 and 1943. For example, a loss of 690,000 tons in November 1942 fell to 150,000 tons in January 1943. The M.B.E. (Medal of the British Empire) awarded to Archer in January 1946, and the O.B.E. to me, were no doubt as much due to this achievement as to the production of decyphered synoptics throughout the war for the use of the R.A.F. and the U.S. Air Force.
An invitation from the U.S. Army cyptographic organization took me to Washington during the period 21 August to 9 October 1942. They had set up a unit to break Met. cyphers, excluding those of the Japanese theatre of war, and had some success with the Russian one. The head of the unit was Captain Edmund J. Wrigley of the U.S. Signal Corps though many of the juniors in the unit were civilians. Wrigley had set up an elaborate textbook cryptographic procedure for reconstructing each key of the Russian Met. cypher. It was slow and required that a team of people should work according to a pre-arranged plan as if each person were a cog in the machine. I described our method which relied heavily on the intelligence and resourcefulness of a single key-breaker. This appealed very much to the juniors who quickly learnt our method, but was strongly disapproved of by Wrigley. He also made a member of his unit study the possibility of breaking the German Naval Met. cypher and informed me at the end of the investigation that it could be done. I told him we had been doing it since February 1941 but I doubt if he believed me. My report to the head of the GCHQ on my return emphasized that the Americans wished to go their own way even if it meant repeating all our mistakes. It was not until December 1943 that a sensible plan was evolved, namely to second a U.S. officer to the BP Met. group where he could learn how we dealt with Met. cyphers in the European war theatre. After a few weeks of practice this officer returned to Foggia in Italy where an American unit was set up that successfully read German Met. cyphers.
The working out of keys for the main German and Italian Met. cyphers and the breaking of minor cyphers used by the Germans and their allies in south-east Europe kept the BP Met. group and myself fully occupied during 1942 and 1943. Air Marshall Harris would send immediate enquiries if ever the flow of German synoptics ceased because of a change of key or because his bombers had damaged a German radio transmitter sending out the collectives. Or the Russian Met. cypher had to be read again (October 1942) because Winston Churchill wished to have a daily appreciation of the weather along the Russian front. The BP Met. group had an adequate staff during this period, in contrast to the understaffing of 1940 and 1941, but the surrender of Italy in September 1943 made me realise that the road to victory might be paved with difficulties of re-adjustment. The Italian Met. broadcasts came to a sudden end and the sub-group working on them found themselves with equal suddenness completely idle. The young woman in charge reacted by sulking in silence for two days as if the surrender of the Italians had been intended solely as a personal affront to her. Similar problems occured throughout BP as the area controlled by the Germans shrank. Indeed it seemed to me that the intelligence supplied by the reading of enemy cyphers had had its maximum importance so long as we were merely staving off defeat. As victory approached its value appeared to decline.
However the Japanese theatre of war also provided Met. cyphers to be broken. During my visit to Washington in the summer of 1942 I had found that Japanese Met. cyphers were the preserve of of the cryptographic organization of the U.S. Navy. There were two main cyphers, one used for sending synoptics to Tokyo from the Pacific islands and elsewhere, the other for collectives issuing from Tokyo. The first cypher had been named JN 36, the second JN 37. In January 1943, Tiltman reported after a visit to Washington, that the U.S. Navy was ignoring JN 37 because they claimed to be getting all they wanted by reading JN 36. Our experience of Met. cyphers in the European theatre was that a continuous flow of decyphered synoptics could be provided only by reading as many different cyphers as possible and even then the service might occasionally be interrupted by a simultaneous change of key. It was therefore decided that Philip Howse and J. Gillis should start work on JN 37. Since the Japanese lacked friends and allies in their theatre of war, they were much less able to commit the major cryptographic error which had proved so useful to us in the European theatre. Howse and Gillis therefore had to employ standard cryptographic methods to break JN 37. By May 1943 they had progressed sufficiently for us to contemplate the distribution of decyphered synoptics to forecasters in the Japanese war area. Enough material on which to work could not be intercepted in Europe and therefore we concluded that the west coast of Canada would be the best location for a production unit. Negotiations continued during 1943 with finally a visit from Canadian Defence Minister Ralston in December 1943 when I pressed strongly for the setting up of a unit similar to the BP Met. group to deal with JN 37. In January 1944, the Canadian Government agreed to this plan and the first step was to be a visit to Canada by Howse and myself. We were to recruit 70 to 80 Canadians for a unit on the Canadian west coast and the BP Met. group was to add a nucleus of some 20 people who had experience in breaking JN 37. During January 1944 the attitude of the Americans, as reported by GCHQ’s mission in Washington, remained unclear. The U.S. Army and Navy were at first reported to be going to make a concerted attack on JN 37 but later we heard that they had agreed “in principle” to our doing it in Canada.
Howse and I left for Ottowa on 9 February by the “Queen Elizabeth” to New York. This was the voyage in which she was damaged by a giant wave somewhere off Greenland. The whole voyage had been so rough that Howse and I hardly noticed the difference when the ship hit the wave, though we were surprised to see a film of water outside our cabin door shortly after it happened. On arrival in Washington we entered into a period of confused negotiation with the Canadians and with the U.S. Navy cryptographic organization. By the latter part of March Sir Edward Travis (head of GCHQ) and John Tiltman had also come to Washington and we finally discovered that General Marshall and Admiral King had decided “a long time ago” that the U.S. Navy was to break JN 37 and they would go ahead whatever we and the Canadians did. I felt that we had to retire as gracefully as possible from the competition and this was also Sir Edward Travis’ conclusion. However it was agreed that Howse should stay in Washington and work with the U.S. Navy cryptographers using the method which he and Gillis had devised for breaking JN 37. Howse remained in Washington until the early part of 1946. I also understood that decyphered Japanese synoptics were to be distributed to the British and Australian Air Forces in India and the Far East, a matter which gave me considerable trouble until the end of the war.
On my return to BP in April 1944 I found that Gillis and seven members of the BP Met. group who had formed the nucleus of the sub-group working on JN 37, refused to work on any aspect of Japanese Met. Gillis left the BP Met. group to work elsewhere in BP. After D-day (6 June 1944) the amount of work needed to maintain the flow of decyphered synoptics declined steadily as the Germans came to re-use more and more of their old keys. In March 1945 the U.S. Met. unit at Foggia discovered a way of recognising which old key was being used at any given moment. I started working on my history of the BP Met. unit, and of the methods of cypher breaking we had employed, in April 1945. It was completed by the time I left BP on 31 August 1945 to return to King’s College and I believe that the document still exists at GCHQ.
Reflecting on these war years after a lapse of over thirty years I am puzzled to account for the urge that drove me on in this cryptographic activity for which I had not been trained, did not intend to pursue after the war and which left me at the end of the six years in a state of physical and mental exhaustion from which I did not recover until the long, fine summer of 1947. Perhaps Josh Cooper put his finger on the driving force in a letter he wrote to me in December 1946. Some of the younger members of the, now scattered, BP Met. group had organized a reunion dinner in London and Cooper and I had been invited to attend. After it he wrote to me as follows:- “The section (BP Met. group) was what you made it and always had a “special” kind of spirit all its own, and it is clear now that this spirit has survived the peace. I know of no other section that has even projected such a reunion, let along held one. I think that the answer in a way is that you were not so much applying your science to the war effort as continuing to serve science by repairing an outrage done to the super-national fellowship. This did of course serve the war effort as you realised but I still think there was something fundamentally different between your “purpose” and the “purpose” of the rest of us”.
Another paradox was that my somewhat unhappy experiences in Washington in 1942 and 1944 left no post-war sense of animosity against the United States. Indeed nearly all the Americans I had met on these two visits I had liked as individuals and my interest in their country and their way of life had been vividly aroused.
XIII. - Full list of scientific publications, alone or in collaboration, to date.
...[1929-1977, 126 papers]
Notes: 1- George Weber’s now non-existent grave is mentioned in some detail in the Nikos Kararas book on the village of Boudjah -segment-
2- The cemetery survey done in Boudjah (2001), confirms the accuracy of all above dates of those buried whose names are referred to in the above account. These include the Wolters family, father, Rev. John, his wife Elizabeth, their eldest daughter Eugenia, as well as 2 daughters not mentioned above. George (again anglicized version of the name used) and Eugenie Weber graves are amongst those that were destroyed by the municipality in the early 1990s. There are 3 Webber graves still visible, presumably representing an unconnected family. The listing can be viewed in pdf format, by clicking here:
3- The obituary of George C. McVittie, published in the Independent newspaper, can be read here: and more here:
4- The baptismal entries of George McVittie and his siblings can be viewed here, confirming the family residence as Boudjah.
5- In May 2008 on American e-bay a photo album belonging to George’s father, Francis (Frank) Skinner McVittie sold for $1,259! This album consists of archaeological snap-shots of Ephesus with notes and descriptions inside the front cover of the album - further details:
6- Transcript of an interview with Dr. George C. McVittie by David DeVorkin at the Royal Astronomical Society, London, March 21, 1978.
7- In January 2010 contact was made with a descendant of this family, Naomi Crowley, who is the grand-daughter of Dora McVittie (sister to George above) and has kindly provided the with the text of Dora’s memories of Turkey, written by her in her later years, viewable here: