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Bristol's wizard of wireless

11 May 2018

Interviewed by South West Business, Professor Joe McGeehan was the first man to solve technical challenges that allowed data to be transferred through radio and later mobile phones. Without it, we wouldn’t have smart phones, let alone the internet of things.

Professor Joe McGeehan was once listed as sixth in a list of technology agenda setters. Not bad. Especially when you see the one, two, three was Linux inventor Linus Torvalds, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s design guru Jonathan Ive. Now 70, Joe is the godfather of mobile communications.

Without his work, the world would be very different. He was the first man to solve technical challenges that allowed data to be transferred through radio and later mobile phones. Without it, we wouldn’t have smart phones, let alone the internet of things.

His standing was so high that when global giant Toshiba wanted to hire him, they agreed to build a new research centre in Bristol because Joe didn’t want to leave his adopted home. Yet the path to Joe’s incredible achievements was set by events that happened much earlier in his life. One principle has underpinned Joe’s thinking and decisions in the past 50 years.

'I wanted to do research which was meaningful and would create wealth and jobs,' he said. It’s a belief that was shaped by his roots in his native Liverpool. 'The one thing I saw up there at that time was a lot of unemployment,' he said. 'The old industries were leaving and what I saw was that you needed to do something for yourself.'

Joe’s work maybe based in science but he believes in people too. He has personal experience of why you shouldn’t write someone off. He failed his 11 plus exams meaning he could not go to grammar school. 'I turned over two pages at once by mistake,' he said.

'In Liverpool everyone took a maths exam each year and I came top for the whole of Bootle but it didn’t matter, they couldn’t change my school.' He almost left school at 15, as was the norm at his comprehensive, but a forward thinking head teacher decided to keep a few children on to continue their studies.

Joe made it to university and it seemed to his peers that a life in academia beckoned. But he wanted to work in industry where he thought his work could have a greater impact. 'My professor told me he just didn’t understand my motivation,' said Joe. 'But anybody with a basic level of ability can do research but to write papers that will pay off in terms of products and jobs in three, five or seven years, that’s the hard task.'

Joe went joined semiconductor company Plessey where he worked on high-speed silicon and broke “a few world records” in millimetre waves, using very, very high frequencies that are only now being considered for use in communications. Even there he found he was a bit ahead of his time back in the 1970s because he was too good at his work. 'I was working on military burglar alarms,' said Joe. 

'My boss had a nine-year contract and I solved it in six months. He said ‘fantastic work... but get back to academia, you’re too free thinking’.' Around that time a new university was being set up, then called Bath University of Technology. Joe arrived only to discover the man he was due to work for had died over the summer. 'I was on my own with nothing to do,' he said. 'There was no research going on as it was all new.'

Being idle was never Joe’s way. He read about a spectrum crisis as bandwidth for FM and AM was being reduced for users such as ambulances and taxis. This sparked an early interest in mobile communications. It wasn’t a recognised field of research at the time so he had to be a creative to secure grants but did, securing the princely sum of £9,650 to find a way to get rid of the terrible interference in mobile radio.

'The quality of mobile radio was appalling,' said Joe. 'Speech sounded like Donald Duck because when you send the signal it travels on a number of paths and when they combine at the receiver you get interference. It also meant you couldn’t do data. 'I bought a book by William C Jakes of Bell Telephone Laboratories who said it was impossible to get rid of what was called ‘fast fading’ which was the cause of this interference.'

Impossible was just the sort of challenge that appealed to Joe. At the time, signals operated on either phase or amplitude, FM and AM. Joe knew that to make it work he needed to bring the two together somehow. 'I succeeded,' he said. 'It opened up a whole pile of other problems though, such as that it wasn’t possible to amplify these signals. So I then set about solving that problem. It took me a few years but I did it.'

Joe thought his pioneering work was going unnoticed but people were paying attention. Among them was the Post Office Telecommunications, which later spun out as British Telecom or BT. 'I had a knock on the door from the Post Office saying, basically they wanted me to work on first generation cellular,' says Joe. His solution was, he says, very effective but politics got in the way and the analogue system was introduced instead.

Next to show interest was Securicor, which asked Joe to design new radio system for their vans. 'After a bit of persuasion I agreed to do it,' said Joe. 'They asked me to find someone to make the system once I had designed it too. There was a Finnish company I had dealt with called Mobira Oy. I got in touch with them and said "would you be interested if I designed a mobile radio that would do speech and data?" They agreed to make it.'

The product was so successful people started using them in executive cars such as Jags and Rolls-Royces. Mobira Oy was a military contractor at the time but had a parent company which at the time specialised in paper and rubber products and televisions, called Nokia. The firm went on to be rather successful in mobile. Joe continued to be a pioneer. Working with the Post Office he transmitted for the first time multi-level data in a mobile environment (16-QAM or quadrature amplitude modulation for the technically minded).

'That’s the basis of all modern communication systems,' he said. Joe was instrumental in the adoption of a system called wideband CDMA for 3G mobile networks and the development of smart antennas which are now found in every mobile base station and the wireless routers in your home.

He moved to Bristol University in 1985 and eventually caught the eye of peers at Cambridge. 'I was approached to go to Cambridge and become the professor there,' he said. 'I worked out Toshiba was behind it as they did research there. They wanted me to be the first professor of wireless communications. I thought about it and said no. I told Toshiba, if you really want me you’ll have to come to Bristol.'

And they did, opening the Toshiba Telecommunications Research Laboratory in the city but only after Joe had them also promise to fund a professorship and more research at the university too. Joe became managing director of the Toshiba lab and executive dean of engineering at the University on the same day on August 1 1998. His vision of industry and academia working together had come to fruition and he continued to push it.

His department adopted more collaborative ways of working, winning funding for bigger and better joint facilities. He was instrumental in the push to build a composites centre working with new lightweight materials. That is now the National Composites Centre based at the Bristol and Bath Science Park. And his passion for collaboration continued when he became a sector adviser for the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership when it formed in 2011.

'I said "what we’ve got to do are smart specialisations". You draw a circle for each of your strengths and see where they overlap. We sit down and say what are our true areas of strength on an international level. Where they overlap, such as digital and creative, high tech and aerospace, you might get something unique and that gives you massive potential for growth and jobs.'

This approach formed the basis of the LEP’s strategic plan which in turn has helped it secure millions of pounds in Government funding. Joe has largely retired now but remains an emeritus professor at Bristol University and a high tech sector adviser to the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership. He remains a champion of what can be achieved by the Bristol region, reflected in his recent role as chair of inward investment agency Invest Bristol + Bath. As for the future, where will the next big leaps come?

'There’s some very interesting work around healthcare and grafting sensors onto tissue,' said Joe. And with his visionary track record, best to watch this space.

Further information

This interview originally appeared on the South West Business website as part of the Edge Awards 2016 where Professor Joe McGeehan was given a special award as Creative and Technological Ambassador, which recognised his outstanding contribution to innovation.

You can find out more about his achievements thanks to EPSRC funding on their webpages.