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Guest blog by Peter Barker

Why this blog?

This story is about the achievements of a far from ordinary scientist who made a major contribution to the digital age but received little recognition.

My late father, Ronald Hugh Barker, died just three weeks short of his hundredth birthday. He kept telling me he didn’t want a party! This was typical of ‘Roy’ as he was a very modest, quiet, unassuming and kind man.

He became a member of the IEE in 1944 and was elected a Fellow in 1960. He remained a member until his death, a period over 70 years. During this time, he served for many years on committees and became Chairman of the Control and Automation Division in 1971.

The family is lucky to have been left a 170-page book of the ‘Barker Family History’ which Roy and his wife Wendy spent over thirty years researching prior to the internet. Putting the family matters aside there are a few paragraphs about his career but no detail. This is because he had signed the Official Secrets Act. Armed with limited information in this document, some old research papers and personal files found in cardboard boxes the writer set about finding out more. It soon became apparent another reason he didn’t talk about it was that most of his research was to do with mathematics and very technical.

I am very grateful to the IET Archives for their assistance with my research which has been invaluable. Also, without the many hours searching the internet much less would have been discovered. He was far too modest to say anything.

The results of this research, the papers, personal files and some memorabilia have been donated both electronically and in hard copy to the IET Archives, who to my surprise were keen to accept both.

Dr R H Barker, black and white portrait

Who was RH Barker?

Ronald Hugh Barker PhD, BSc, FIET, FIMechE, FInstP, CEng was born on 28 October 1915 in Dublin to English parents to become a physicist and research scientist.

Roy’s father Ernest was a stained-glass maker and artist and as such found it difficult to find work looking in either Ireland or England. The family moved around often staying in meagre accommodation with no mains services as the work he did get was poorly paid. Because of this Roy’s education was disrupted as he had to change village schools. In Ireland the dialects were difficult to understand resulting in some bullying. During ‘The Troubles’ in Ireland, Roy and his mother Lynda were sent to stay with her parents who ran a small shop in a village called Heath and Reach, Bedfordshire. Fortunately, Lynda was a school teacher and able to enhance Roy’s education. In those days married women in England were not permitted to work as school teachers. She helped with mathematics and English as well as teaching Roy to play classical music on her piano. His favourite sonatas were by Schubert, Beethoven and Gershwin.

It was not until a new secondary school opened nearby in Leighton Buzzard that his education settled down. Roy was thirteen and lucky enough to pass the entrance exam. However soon afterwards his father died, leaving him to be raised up by his mother and aunt. He was clever and excelled at mathematics and physics gaining the Allen prize for both subjects. Electronics was in its infancy, a subject that fascinated him. He built his own radios making most of the components himself. It was a time where you made do, never throwing away anything that might be useful. A time where you were expected to mend or make things as a matter of course often involving improvisation. It was with this background that his career was ‘mapped out’. In 1933 he gained the Higher School Certificate to matriculate.
In 1934 Roy started at the University of Hull. The cost was assisted only in part by a scholarship. Lynda and her sister made the generous and self-sacrificing decision to try to provide the financial support that was needed. This led to an external 1st Class Honours Degree in Physics awarded by the University of London. Later in life he was able to reciprocate the financial support.

How did he get involved?

Jobs for scientists were not difficult to find and Roy got his first job at Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) in Woolwich. He worked in their thermionic valve department designing dental X-ray tubes and equipment but when WWII started, he became dissatisfied. He wanted to help the war effort but because his job as a physicist was designated a reserved occupation, he took up a new post at Woolwich for the Ministry of Supply as a temporary Experimental Officer at the Signals Experimental Establishment (S.E.E.) on Woolwich Common. Following heavy bombing raids on Woolwich the S.E.E. staff were moved temporarily to Warnham Court near Horsham (requisitioned from the Lucas family) whilst a special research facility was set up. It was called Signals Research and Development Establishment (SRDE), located at Steamer Point on the coast near Christchurch. There was already an RAF airbase here with engineering facilities. After assisting with various projects, Roy was put in charge of a research programme on the use of frequency modulation for army communications, involving the design of AM/FM radio sets, the organisation of trials and supervision of contracts. There are several interesting reports on these.

Where did it lead?

The U.K. guided weapons program came into being in 1944. The first experimental system was named LOPGAP, an acronym of Liquid Oxygen Propelled Guided anti-aircraft Projectile, and Roy happening to be at the right place at the right time being given responsibility for its telemetry equipment. This project had top priority so it was easy to make rapid progress. Telemetry was in its infancy with a lot of problems to solve, however he was successful to achieve the first British telemetry guided missile.

In 1945 just after the war ended, the race for missile technology began in earnest. Telemetry, instrumentation and control devices are essential to guide them accurately. Roy was asked to produce a report on the guidance system of the German A4 rocket. This is the technical name for the V2, the world’s first long-range ballistic missile, greatly feared in London. In 1944 there were over 3000 built by forced labour at Peenemünde. This exercise provided useful information on the German design of the missile.

The Americans wanted to get ahead of the race. Immediately after the war ended it was agreed that international collaboration was necessary as the best way forward, sharing the research. The first International Telemetering Symposium was held in 1946 at Princeton University, New Jersey which Roy attended. It was top secret, code-named Bumblebee. At the Symposium 37 papers were presented and discussed covering topics of fundamental importance to guided missiles and pilotless aircraft projects, particularly those concerned with flight at supersonic speeds. Roy read two papers which are available in Bumblebee report No 42. This a historic document and an important record of early rocket design, now held in the IET Archives.

What did I find?

Between 1947 and 1957 Roy prepared a number of papers and patents. He researched methods of pulse code modulation, transmission of high accuracy fire control data, servo-systems operating from sampled data, application of information theory to digital transmissions of non-linear magnetic devices used in early digital computing operations and application of transistors to digital computing operations. They all have a digital theme.

Looking through these research papers I found a patent dated 23/8/1948 that possibly describes the invention of the first digital optical encoder. The optical encoder is a transducer commonly used for measuring rotational motion by sensing light shone through a coded disk to track movement. Encoders translate rotary or linear motion into a digital signal. That signal is sent to a controller, which monitors motion parameters such as speed, rate, direction, distance, or position. Millions of optical encoders have been manufactured and are used in countless industries including robotics. His device was further developed by Hilger and Watts, a well-known survey instrument maker as they had the right expertise to make the optical components. It was successfully demonstrated at a conference in 1951. All this being earlier than the claims you can find on the internet.

He also worked on digital speech encryption. In 1950 SRDE report 1043 included the formulation of the Z-transform procedure and computation of the first tables of these transforms ever to be published. This work provided the foundation for the theoretical analysis of linear sampled-data systems and references to his papers are to be found in most of the earlier text books including Russian. (see IEE monograph no. 43, July 1952). This won him the prestigious IET Heaviside Premium for the best mathematical paper.

This was an important step forward in digitization, as the Z-transform function handles discrete-time signals, far better suited to sampling data in digital streams, whereas the Laplace transform best suits continuous-time signals. It is all part of the big picture of digital transmission.

In the early 1950’s digital communication was at the forefront of research but it stalled. Problems were encountered with noise contaminating the received signals and scientists were looking to overcome this. Roy found the first practical way to overcome this. The invention was received with great interest particularly in the United States. It is his most notable invention now called Barker code. It is used widely in telecommunications as an error correcting code. I asked my father to explain it and he said. “If you transmit a stream of binary digits ie positive and negative pulses, the receiver needs to know where the data stream of bits start. If one bit goes astray the rest becomes meaningless”. The code is commonly used as a synchronization pattern of digits added into the signal by the sender which is unambiguously recognised by the receiver. Due to its property of having a sharp auto correlation function it uses relatively low power producing high energy at the coincident position.

There are many applications such as DSSS (Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum) transmission technology that use it for wireless communications to improve the received signal quality and improve security. This method involves spreading the signal over a larger bandwidth required for simple transmission.

Other examples of applications include; – radar, mobile phone technology, telemetry, near earth space communications, digital speech, ultrasound imaging and testing, GPS, Wi-Fi, radio frequency identification, barcodes, tracking, stock control and vehicle guidance. There are many more applications. Many variants of Barker code have been researched that are far more complex e.g., compound, nested and polyphase. Google finds many thousands of hits for Barker code.

Whilst at SRDE, Roy registered with London University as an external PhD. student and in 1954 submitted a thesis on the subject of ‘The Servo Problem Involved in the Transmission of Angular Data by Pulse Code Modulation’. The original thesis, is included in the donation which may well be the only copy.

In 1954 Roy was invited to give a lecture tour in Australia and to participate in a computer conference there. The paper he read is titled ‘Data Processing and Automatic Computer Machines’. In it, Roy refers to sampled data and Z transforms. The tour included a trip to Woomera where missile tests had begun and were being evaluated.

Photo taken by R H Barker at Woomera, Australia 1954

Later in 1958 during the development of Blue Streak, Roy prepared a report ‘Blue Streak Telemetry for Re-Entry Head Initial Assessment Technical Memorandum No Res 215’. It is a revue of various telemetry systems being researched by other government organisations. A digital copy is included in the digital donation.

His Administrative Career

In 1955 the Ministry of Supply (MOS) sent Roy on a six months residential course held at the Joint Services Staff College at Latimer, Bucks as part of his training for higher management.

This was the start of a Roy’s administration career. This may sound boring but his involvement wasn’t as all his management positions were in research facilities. Because of this there is little known about it and no research records. He was now on a better pay scale and able to buy his first house near Croydon. It had good access to London which gave him the opportunity to donate more time to the IET and to circulate in the higher echelons of the scientific community.

The first move, from 1955-1958 was a period working at the Ministry of Supply Headquarters in New Oxford Street, quite close to Savoy House. He was now the Assistant Director and responsible for the technical administration of research and development of air born radar, navigation aids, maritime devices and air communications.

Roy states in the Family History that he found the headquarters work tedious. It was the first time he had to commute by train into London and was no longer directly involved with research. He was glad when, in October 1957, he was able to return to SRDE, Christchurch but now as Superintendent in charge of about 90 scientists. He once said they did some research producing the first British working maser but this statement has still to be researched. A laser uses light in the visible spectrum whereas a maser uses light in the microwave as in domestic microwaves.

There was little scope for career advancement and having spent time interviewing on Civil Service promotion boards, he thought it time to get experience on the other side of the table.

He joined the Central Electricity Research Laboratories (CERL) Leatherhead in July 1959 as Director. The environment was very friendly and the staff helpful to a newcomer who had no previous experience of the problems of the electricity supply industry. His main responsibilities were the day to day running of the laboratories and the recruitment of the scientists and engineers needed to increase the strength from 250 to 600 or so during a period of rapid expansion. His background expertise on telemetry, servo control, telerotation, digital optical encoding, and ferroresonance were invaluable to guiding the research for remotely controlling turbines, boilers and generators etc.

Central Electricity Research Laboratories

During this period Roy could take a more active participation in the affairs of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). He had been a corporate member since 1945 and now (1959-62) became involved with the work of various committees of the Power Division and of the Control & Automation Division. He was chairman of the latter for the session 1971-2. He became a member of the Council as well as serving on the Membership Committee. In earlier years Roy had also been elected to the Fellowship of the Institute of Physics and of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He served for a time on the Automatic Control committee of the latter.

It is said that the grass in the other field is always greener.

His next post was at a company called RB Pullin Group at Brentford, Middlesex. The company was committed to development of sonar equipment for the Royal Navy under the detailed supervision of the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment. Roy was enticed by the company with the promise of becoming the Managing director of Research having his own new laboratories. Another inducement to join the company was a brand-new company car of his own choice. This was the only new car he ever had in his sixty years of driving. After a year it became apparent the move was a mistake. The company did not have the necessary resources to meet their promises. Furthermore, it was taken over by the Rank Organisation following which he had no control on the board. When his three-year contract expired and an opportunity arose, he left. Whilst at Pullin Group, Roy was on the Membership Committee of Scientific Instrument Research Association, now SIPA Institute. He remained on this Council until his retirement. In 1963, whilst at R B Pullin he helped organise the First International Telemetering Conference to be held in London, hosted by the IEE on 23-27 September. The Conference included a one-day excursion for the delegates to CERL Laboratories held in the new laboratories he had recently left.

Roy’s final move in 1965 was as Chief Scientific Officer at the Royal Armament Research Establishment, Fort Halstead, Sevenoaks. The work this establishment was undertaking was top secret. His position was one of authority over the research, delegation and staff control. His experience in the Electricity Supply industry, private industry and the Civil Service went down well at the interview. Roy had line management responsibility in charge of very nearly half the scientific branches of the Establishment, the total staff of which was in the region of 2500. He retired aged 64 in May 1979, four years later than envisaged, but that’s another story to be found in the archive. He continued serving on committees into retirement.


Having being born into a disadvantaged family he was able to use his intelligence to gradually enhance his lifestyle but whilst doing so he remained a very prudent and family orientated man. Brilliant, unassuming, never talking a great deal about his great achievements. Over his career Roy made a significant contribution to mathematics and electronics, in particularly digital technology.

If, for example you use a wireless router, mobile phone, tracking device, require an ultra sound image plus many more, you are indebted to a man whose contributions to electronic engineering and our way of life are among the most important.


Ronald Hugh Barker – links to Wikipedia
Barker code – links to Wikipedia

The majority of Roy’s papers have been deposited with the IET Archives, reference NAEST 301. This includes over 40 papers and 6 patents which are available to consult by researchers by contacting the IET Archives.

Some original early research papers and patents from 1938-1958 are kept by the Malvern Radar Technology and History Society  MRATHS – Please type Barker into the search box.  The IET Archives also have digital copies.

SRDE – catalogue description at The National Archives

All images kindly provided by Peter Barker.

Further reading

To help anyone who may wish to study the papers in more detail all the research papers and most of the donation has been digitised. For convenience the IET Archives hold a spreadsheet detailing the technical papers identifying where the hard copies are held with links and catalogue numbers etc.

There is also a description of the whole donation – ‘RH Barker History and Donation’ which describes his work and life in more detail.