Dr Alistair David Milne

Doctor of Engineering

13 July 2007 - Orator: Professor Bull

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor: David Milne

We are frequently reminded that we live in a digital world. We often hear phrases such as ‘the new digital experience’ and are regularly encouraged by marketing executives to ‘enjoy digital quality’.  What many people do not realise is that the digital revolution is underpinned by analogue technology. For example, most
digital communication systems are in fact largely analogue.  Also, as humans, we generate and interpret signals that are continuous in nature: sound and light being two obvious examples. In terms of human interaction with digital technology we live very much in an analogue world.

Wolfson Microelectronics plc is recognised as being a world leader in designing the technology which facilitates the meeting between the analogue and digital worlds. While the name Wolfson may not be familiar to everyone here, iconic brands such as ipod, xbox and playstation will be. Core components in each of these products are made by Wolfson.

The founder of Wolfson Microelectronics is Dr David Milne, our honorary graduand this morning.

Alistair David Milne was born in Edinburgh in 1942.  Those were the days when, if you asked for an apple and an orange for Christmas, you actually received fruit!    David did not however meet his father until 2 years later as he was busy planning the Allied landings in North Africa during the war.  The family moved to Newcastle after the war where David’s father was a lecturer at the University.  Unfortunately his father died when David was 12 and he was subsequently educated as a boarder at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh.

David was always interested in practical things at school and particularly enjoyed physics.   This interest led him to enroll on a degree programme in Applied Physics at Heriot-Watt University.

After graduating in 1965, David was keen to undertake a higher degree in physics.  He chose a new taught MSc course in The Physics of Materials here at the University of Bristol; firstly (he tells me) because the city had a similar feel to Edinburgh and secondly because the people he met during the interviews were clearly excited about their research.  Bristol had an excellent rugby team at the time and I suspect that this also played some part in his decision.   Between studies, David shared the rugby field with many exceptional players including Richard Sharp, the iconic England centre of the time.

David tells me that he has many fond memories of Bristol and still is in contact with a number of his peers, meeting them only recently for a 40th anniversary reunion. He was lectured by many of the pioneers of solid state physics. Sir Charles Frank led the team of John Nye, Andrew Lang, Ken Ashby, Andrew Keller, John Ward and John Ziman, all world leaders in their field. Such was his intellectual power that the class used to dread Charles entering the common room and engaging them in demanding intellectual topics.

The course was not however dominated by trepidation. David recalls, for example, creating the most wonderful photographic images of defects in natural crystals under the expert guidance of Professor Andrew Lang who supervised his dissertation project and from whom he (and I quote) ‘learnt a great deal about doing things properly’.

After his MSc, David embarked on a PhD at Bristol with Professor Mike Hart and this very much set the pattern for his future activities. David’s research was in X-Ray optics.  The theory of X-Ray scattering in crystals had been proposed by von Laue and Ewald in the 1930s but the quality of crystals had not been good enough to verify their theories.  In the course of his PhD David verified many of the effects that had been predicted so long before, while further developing the associated theories. He also had the honour of working with and presenting his work to Professor Ewald himself at the Sorbonne.

Around that time, Mike Hart and his collaborator Ulrich Bonse invented the X-Ray interferometer and after submitting his PhD, David joined Mike as a research fellow, using the interferometer to make measurements of the Avagadro number.  This is one of the fundamental physical constants and (as everyone knows) represents the number of atoms in 12g of the Carbon-12 isotope (6.022045x1023).  This work was done in competition with a group at the National Science Foundation in Washington. I haven’t quite got to the bottom of who did what first, but David is adamant that Bristol obtained the more accurate result.

David married Rosemary while in Bristol and they have three children, all now adults with their own careers in academia, pharmaceutical  marketing and electronic music management. He has 5 grandchildren with a sixth due in August.

David’s interests progressively moved away from fundamental constants into applications of science and, in 1970, he took up a post at the newly created Wolfson Industrial Liaison Unit at Edinburgh University.   Shortly afterwards he was promoted to Director and changed its direction from crystal perfection studies to semiconductor device design.  Renamed the Wolfson Microelectronics Institute, it became one of the most successful “projects” initiated by the Wolfson Foundation.  The Institute was involved in a range of technologies relevant to the embryonic semiconductor industry and also developed the first Computer Aided Design software used by British Universities.   For his services to industry and education, David was awarded an OBE in 1984.

In 1984, David moved the Institute into an independent company, Wolfson Microelectronics Ltd. The Company designed integrated circuits for clients in emerging applications such as mobile phones, medical instrumentation, industrial monitoring, and toys.  He quickly realised however that this business model did not allow the Company to achieve its full potential, so in 1995 Wolfson began creating its own products. Building on the Company’s expertise in analogue design, David had the vision to focus on a range of mixed signal products, aimed at the growing digital consumer electronics market.

As is the case with many small private companies, the road to success was not always smooth. Wolfson was frequently on the verge of going out of business and one of David’s most common activities was raising money.  The Company, however, obtained corporate investment from Texas Instruments and successfully floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2003 - the first technology listing after the Internet bubble crash.

Wolfson now specialises in the audio, imaging and power management products that are used leading in brands such as: the Apple iPod and iphone, Microsoft’s Xbox, the Sony PSP, Samsung mobile phones, Canon digital cameras, Tom Tom GPS systems, Samsung flat screen TVs, Arcam  hifi systems and many others.  The company experienced phenomenal growth and rapidly became a global brand. In 2006 it achieved over $200m of revenue with a market value of US$1bn.

At my last count, since 2000, David has been honoured with some 33 awards.  These include: Entrepreneur of the year in 2003 and 2006, Scottish CEO of the year in 2006 and TechMark Personality of the Year in 2006.  He also received the Third Millennium Medal for Outstanding Achievements and Contributions from the US Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.  Wolfson Microelectronics was nominated as the best new company to join the London market in 2004 and won the Best Technology Award for a British plc in 2005.  It has also received two Queen’s awards for innovation and export.

As with many successful individuals, the people close to David have been very important to him.  Throughout the last nine years, David has enjoyed the support and help of his partner Liz Sharpe.  Liz, herself a successful business woman, is with us here today.   David also has a very full personal life. He took up climbing in the 1990’s and, as you might expect, not in a minor way.  He has surmounted a number of the 4000m peaks in the Alps and Denali in Alaska and has also been involved in the development of the International Climbing Centre at Ratho near Edinburgh.  In his spare time, he also now enjoys golf and sailing, both taken up recently.

David hopes to have more time to devote to these activities, as he stood down as CEO of Wolfson in March 2007 at the age of 65.  He insists however that this does not mean retirement as he still retains an Executive Directorship. He also continues to enjoy his work with the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Science Festival.

Mr Pro Vice Chancellor, David Milne represents a rare combination of business and technological skills, innovative ability and vision.  Through advanced analogue design, he has played a major role in enabling the digital revolution.  Mr Pro Vice Chancellor  I present to you Dr Alistair David Milne as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa.



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