Robert Boyd (1922 – 2004) Saltcoats-born pioneer of British space science and was knighted in 1983.
On 19th of October 1922 the physicist, engineer and one of the pioneers of British space science, Sir Robert Boyd was born in Saltcoats.
He was born Robert Lewis Fullarton Boyd at 5 Melbourne Terrace, the elder of twin boys to William John Boyd, a biochemist and Dorothy Sibthorpe.
When he was 2 years old the family moved to South Croydon where his father became Head of Science at the Croydon Polytechnic. Robert and his twin brother William attended the town’s Whitgift School where Robert developed an interest in science and technology – so much so that he ended up setting up his own workshop at home.
In 1941 Robert and his brother attended Imperial College London where they both studied Electrical Engineering, graduating in 1943. He then joined the Admiralty Mine Design Department, close to Portsmouth naval base, and this is where he encountered the physicist Sir Harrie Massey and the molecular biologist Francis Crick (famous for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize along with James Watson for discovering the double helix structure of DNA.) It was here that his growing interest in physical science was nurtured by his colleagues and where he also gained experience in conducting field trials of instruments using aircraft and ships.
After the war, Boyd was asked by Massey to join him at University College London to undertake research in ionized gas physics – research for which Boyd was awarded a PhD in 1949. His work continued in this field and in 1953 Massey apparently walked into his laboratory and asked “Boyd, how would you like some rockets for research?” They now had access to many kinds of rockets but had outgrown the space at UCL. With the help of Mullard Ltd (a British manufacturer of electronic components), a country house was purchased in the village of Holmbury St Mary in Surrey and, by 1966 the Mullard Space Science Laboratory was born with Boyd being its first Director.
During Boyd’s leadership he initiated a programme of Earth studies from space with was to become a leading activity in the study of the Earth’s climate evolution. Instruments from MSSL were launched on orbiting spacecraft at an average rate of one each year.
His strong reputation played an important role in developing relations with NASA and in the founding of the European Space Agency. He succeeded Harrie Massey as the chair of the British National Committee for Space Research in 1976. He has many accolades and was awarded an honorary DSc by Herriot Watt University in 1979 and appointed a CBE in 1972. He retired in 1983 as a professor of physics at the University of London – the same year he was knighted and became Sir Robert Boyd.
He was also a committed Christian and saw no conflict between faith and science, he believed they complemented each other. His writings, lectures and broadcasts in the 1950s and 60s helped with the growth of the Research Scientists’ Christian Fellowship.
He married his first wife Mary in 1949 and had they three children, Hazel, Robert and Stephen. Mary died in 1996 and Robert remarried 2 years later to Betty, Lady Boyd. He died in February 2004 aged 81 years old as one of the founding fathers of British space science.