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Too hot to handle

by J. B. S. Haldane Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2003 at 7:59 PM

ICI's own paints laboratory held an internal audit and what they found puts this claim in an entirely different light. For the audit showed that the most scientifically qualified of its research chemists had contributed to the least number of patents, and the fewer scientific qualifications the staff possessed, the greater the number of patents they had contributed to. In the most striking case of all, the person who had contributed to most ICI's patents had no scientific qualifications at all.

Too hot to handle

In April 1993, the defence magazine Jane's International Defence Review announced the discovery by a British amateur inventor, Maurice Ward, of a thin plastic coating able to withstand temperatures of 2,700 degrees Centigrade

The reason why it was a defence magazine who first published news of This revolutionary invention is that the coating is so resistant to heat that it can make tanks, ships and aircraft impervious to the effects of nuclear weapons at quite close range -- and hence is of great interest to the military mind.

A little later that year the whole nation had an opportunity to see for themselves the effectiveness of Maurice Ward's new paint on BBC Television when it was featured on "Tomorrow's World". Presenter Michael Rodd showed viewers an ordinary chicken's egg that had been painted with the new coating. The paint was so thin it was not visible. Rodd then dramatically donned welder's visor and gauntlets, lit up an oxyacetylene torch, and played the flame directly onto the egg for several minutes.

When he removed the flame, and cracked the egg on the table top, viewers were able to see that the coating was so heat resistant that the egg was still raw and had not even begun to cook.

This invention, a simple paint that can render anything impervious to very high temperatures, has been the holy grail of chemical research for more than fifty years. Teams of scientists in the world's greatest industrial and defence laboratories have poured billions of pounds and hundreds of man-years into the search for such a substance -- a quest which made Ward's discovery even more extraordinary.

Ward's invention is remarkable enough, but the story of how he came to make it, and the resistance he encountered in getting anyone to believe him, is even more remarkable.

Maurice Ward comes from Blackburn and has no professional scientific background. The closest he has come to the chemical industry was when, as a young man, he drove a fork lift truck in the warehouse of ICI. For the past two decades, he has earned a living as a ladies hairdresser.

Part of his income was derived from selling his customers hair preparations such as shampoo, conditioner and hairspray. To maximise his income he rented a small workshop, bought standard chemicals and mixed and bottled his own brand hair products.

In the best traditions of Ealing Comedy, it was when playing around mixing up chemicals in his 'skunk works' that Ward stumbled on the formula that had eluded the finest minds in chemical research.

Realising at once the value of his invention, Ward wrote to Britain's major chemical companies, offering to demonstrate his material to them. Every one sent him the standard brush-off letter they send to cranks and crackpots. After the "Tomorrow's World" demonstration, Ward stopped getting the brush-off and starting getting offers instead.

One consequence of his contacts with chemical companies was that the head of research of ICI's paint laboratory left the firm and went into partnership with Ward to exploit the discovery commercially.

One other interesting consequence is that the large corporations who had rejected his initial approaches in such a knee-jerk fashion, conducted internal inquests to find out what had gone wrong, both with their own research and with their dealings with the outside world.

On the face of it, it was perfectly understandable that Ward's claims should be ignored since he was merely an amateur, with no scientific training and no track record in research.

ICI's own paints laboratory held an internal audit and what they found puts this claim in an entirely different light. For the audit showed that the most scientifically qualified of its research chemists had contributed to the least number of patents, and the fewer scientific qualifications the staff possessed, the greater the number of patents they had contributed to. In the most striking case of all, the person who had contributed to most ICI's patents had no scientific qualifications at all.

It seems that Maurice Ward's greatest strength as a researcher was that he had not been taught how to think.

In the light of examples such as this, the phrase 'Alternative Science' seems less a contradiction in terms and more a harbinger of something that professional science is likely to see more and more of in future.
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