The back story to my DPhil thesis

I can make a genuine claim to have created and submitted the first ever word-processed Doctoral Thesis - and undoubtedly the first at Oxford, in 1967.

I joined AERE Harwell as a bursaried PhD student (internal to the Department of Nuclear Physics at Oxford) in the August 1965 to work on polarized proton bean analysis of spin spin correlations in nuclear scattering (Brogden et al, 1966). For the first year I worked on finding ways of making the pilot polarized proton target built by T.W.P. Brogden actually work…eventually it became clear that the heat generated in the target chamber by the proton beam was not being conducted away fast enough, and a phenomenon called Kapitza resistance was stopping the liquid helium from being able to keep the target at 1.3K (then a very low temperature). After I had redesigned the cavity in which the target sat, the overall system then proceeded to operate stably… and that was about all that I managed in my first year - apart from an intensive course on Quantum Mechanics, the production of a small thesis based on this novel research work and an examination ending up with what Oxford then called an ‘Advanced Subject in Nuclear Physics’. It certainly was, and bore little resemblance to the Honours degree course I had previously completed… it would undoubtedly have a grander (Masters) title these days judging by the content today.

My supervisor Dr O N (Neil) Jarvis (later Deputy Director of the JET Torus) promptly disappeared to Lawrence Livermore Labs (LRL), a US National Laboratory, in Berkeley, California at the end of my first year, and a stand in replacement swiftly withdrew and left me to run the little group for the next two years. Needless to say any sniff of synchrocyclotron experimental time was snapped up at once whenever it was available, and some interesting side research was done on an ad hoc team I put together on spin wave diffusion through lattices and radiation damage mechanisms in the long suffering piece of doped crystal that was the target of the polarized proton beam (Butterworth et al, 1967).

Just a month before my thesis was due in on Saturday 30 September 1967, and I was to start my new job at the UK Road Research Laboratory (now TRL) on the Monday after that, I was offered three weeks of accelerator time… so of course I took it to look at the 98 Mev range, that I had designed a new form of cryostat seal to reduce scattering dispersion (Wigan, Martin and Wood, 1968), and here was the chance to use it. Immediately the experiment began.... and I put any thought of writing the thesis aside. Would not any committed researcher?

On 28 September, after nearly three weeks of sharing 24 hour days running the accelerator, I staggered home to Oxford on my Honda CB72 motorcycle having collected the analysis of the fresh data and its systematic error variational analyses run on the AERE Aldermaston IBM 7030 Stretch.

I kept binary deck of 432 binary punched cards containing my compiled analysis program for over 40 years... I now only have one of the Fortran programs on IBM punched cards..

A minor story attaches to this binary card stack: four days before thesis submission deadline, I dropped the stack. None of these binary cards were printed on, and were so could only be ‘read’ by decoding the punches on each column of each of the cards. After many anxious hours, while mining my experiment and the accelerator, I managed to reassemble the card pack. It ran correctly first time. These things happen under pressure, and neither this sort of problem of those of frangible paper tape have formed part of the experience of now two generations of PhD students.

Early on Friday the 29th September it finally dawned on me that I had effectively a single day to write the thesis and submit it…. Fortunately I had drawn many figures and made prints of key photographs of the equipment at intervals… so it was writing, printing multiple copies and binding that was all (!) that was required…

This was in the days of onion skin photocopies (one had to use original typing and carbon copies), no word processing at all… none could possibly type it up, get it back me, have it checked, retyped and four copies made in that time, so what to do?

Clearly invent something in a hurry.

So I first secured an arrangement for an out of hours binding of the four copies I would need by 11:30am Saturday, as long as they arrived for binding by 8am that day at the printers’ home: Useful having a fellow Committee member of the Oxford [town, not University] Ixion motorcycle club who was a professional printer...

Now to create the text... fortunately my then wife (Jane nee Geiringer) was a Research Assistant to Denis Munby, the Rees Jefferys Reader in Transport at Nuffield College Oxford, which had one of the very first English Electric KDF9 Computers, and so for that 24 hours Jane and I took over the KDF9 computer input preparation room at Nuffield, and used the Singer Freiden Flexowriter to type the thesis page by page onto paper tape. We then printed the text out using the paper tape reader, edited it, added reference numbers by hand, cut and pasted the edits into the paper tape and printed it again - several times. This went without a pause for 24 hours, until finally four complete sets of the final thesis text were printed out, photographs attached, and delivered in haste to the binder up Folly Bridge Road right on the agreed time of 8am on the Saturday.

As a fellow member of the Oxford (town) Ixion Motorcycle Club he had agreed to do it at once – even on a Saturday - and have it ready for 11.30am so that the two copies required by the University could be posted into the box outside the Sheldonian by the required 12 noon. We just made it and two warm bound copies dropped into the box, and (only as an afterthought) a further copy was mailed to my supervisor (O.N.Jarvis) who had just barely returned from two years at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California (no one had told me the supervisor was supposed to look at and advise on the thesis...); and, the most important of all, a copy was sent to my father, Edmund Ramsay Wigan (Wigan et al, 2003), who had been (literally) cheated of his Phd in acoustics in the 1920s at Woolwich Tech (now Greenwich University). He was delighted. The very reasonable quality of the Flexowriter print head can be seen in this scanned thesis.

The Nuclear Physics Transit van that we were borrowing to move from Oxford to Crowthorne promptly broke a half shaft on the Sunday ... but somehow we sorted this all out and I started work at the TRRL on the Monday morning.

When many decades later I was asked to submit this to the Guinness Book of Records as the first word processed thesis, although supported by Dr Jarvis and others, it was turned down as unverifiable- and of course no longer an item of any great interest to this now enormously successful popular publication.

As a historical contextual comment, members of the US Congress began to use Flexowriters for correspondence at about the same time, specifically to make all letters appear to have been customised for the recipients. This was clearly a near-contemporary mail-merge application (and probably the first), but the authorship of a substantial document using full editing and multiple runs, edits, and corrections to create a single tape that would allow a complete printout of the whole document (as in full word processing) as the prime task, had not been done previously. Extensive research has not yet turned up any earlier application of full word processing.

This enabled me to create (and sell) freshly-printed new copies to FermiLab and CNRS Grenoble a year or so later, without any real effort: just as we do today when we print out archived word processing documents from some form of backup storage media - but of course after 44 years this would no longer be paper tape! The original tapes lasted nearly 20 years but then crumbled into uselessness.

A minor note: it was nearly 30 years later that I was advised that the speed of the process from submission to conferral ceremony was unusually rapid at 5 weeks overall. . so I have included the supporting documents. This was huge surprise to me, as I had frozen in the Viva Voce examination with what were later two FRS physicists, both intimately aware of my project. At the start John Thresher waved a huge pile of onionskin copies about four inches think, saying as he did so, there are some corrections to be made... and my mind shut down. After what seemed like many painful hours (it was only one) I managed to answer a simple question.

‘What is the difference between a proton and a neutron?’ asked Michael Grace...

‘Isobaric spin”; I stuttered.

And was swept out of the room with a brusque ‘Thank you for attending’...

I said to my waiting wife, ‘well that’s over, Im sure I have no degree - but I do have several international refereed publications in top journals - so back to Crowthorne and on to Road Research’

Later that day I got a phone call from Neil Jarvis:

“What did you do to John Thresher and Michael Grace?”


“because they asked me if you had written the thesis ...’

“what did you tell them?”

“of course you did, and that I was right in the middle of carving it up for the next paper for Nuclear Physics (Jarvis et al 1968; Wigan et al, 1968)’

Note the consequential dates of the Permission to Supplicate (i.e. get the degree conferred) following the title page for the thesis (which was done painfully in stencil and ink). The edits requested were very minor and easily done.

Since this Thesis was created in 1967, from then onwards I used many different early minicomputers and ‘mainframes’ (including Elliott 803 (this link comments on the attached paper tape reliability- which I can emphatically agree with- see above on word processing as well), IBM 7090, IBM 360, English Electric 4/70, Fujitsu M160, CDC 3400, CDC 6600, CDC Cyber 171, CDC Cyber 932, Honeywell DDP516, Prime, DEC, Data General, and many other mainframe and micro systems. I have done word processing on all of them.... although this was certainly not seen as a use for computers until the end of the 1970s... and then only a fit task for ‘microcomputers’) via punched cards, paper tapes and floppy discs for word processing whenever it was needed, notably at the Australian Road Research Board where this allowed me to reach a very high level of productivity in the early 1980‘s as a direct result. Fortunately the arrival of CP/M based microcomputers with Wordstar etc and by 1985 my own MacPlus, LaserWriter and Microsoft  Word 1.0 program allowed me to produce a complete book, published a couple of years later by ARRB (Wigan, 1987) on just this and a single floppy disc... The first complete book created at the ARRB in such a way... complemented by a pictorial database of all the diagrams on floppy disc (Wigan, 1988).

When, in 2010, as part of my systematic updating of my publication portfolio into a complete machine readable form (Acrobat plus Endnote library cross linked, with full DoI, access URLs, and commentaries embedded), i discovered that Oxford no longer had a copy of my thesis in the Bodliean Library: they do now

I then scanned my own copy to Acrobat using my  Fujitsu SnapScan 300, and supplied the first such scanned version to Oxford where it is now online again as of September 2010 in the Oxford University Archive . This record is accessible and downloadable from the Oxford University Archive  HERE. However, the discovery by a number of people that this was probably the first word processed thesis (and maybe even document) led to a request to create the story and the scanned thesis into a printed format. This project attracted the attention of the Melbourne University Bookshop publishing arm (Custom Books) who encouraged me to create a printed version with a succinct history of its provenance included. This was done at the end of 2011, and has now been published and is cited under Publications (with links to the cover and the document body)


BROGDEN, T.W.P. 1966. A polarized proton target for proton scattering experiments. Nuclear Physics Division AERE Report AERE R 5328

BROGDEN, T. W. P., JARVIS, O. N., ORCHARD-WEBB, J. & WIGAN, M. R. 1968. Measurements of Cnn in 140 MeV P-P scattering using a polarised proton target. Proceedings: 2nd International Symposium on Polarisation Phenomena of Nucleons (Karlsruhe 1966). Basle, Switzerland: Huber.

BUTTERWORTH, J., ORCHARD-WEBB, J., RILEY, J. & WIGAN, M. R. 1967. Polarisation and relaxation of protons in irradiated lanthanum magnesium nitrate. Proceedings of the Physical Society, 91, 605-611.

JARVIS, O. N., BROGDEN, T. W. P., SCANLON, J., ROSE, B., ORCHARD-WEBB, J. & WIGAN, M. R. 1968. Measurement of the correlation parameter Cnn in P-P scattering. Nuclear Physics, A108, 63-80.

WIGAN, M. R. (2011). Proton Scattering Studies at 98-140 MeV: The first known word-processed thesis (1967). Melbourne: Oxford Systematics, Melbourne.

Wigan, M. R. (1987). Australian personal travel characteristics (Vol. Special Report SR 38). Vermont, Victoria: Australian Road Research Board.

Wigan, M. R. (1988). Data and pictorial resources for "Australian personal travel characteristics" (Technical Manual No. ATM 24). Vermont,  

        Victoria: Australian Road Research Board.

WIGAN, M. R., MARTIN, P. M. & WOOD, E. 1968. Thin film windows for liquid hydrogen containment. Nuclear Instruments and Methods, 59, 61-63.

WIGAN, M. R., BELL, R., MARTIN, P., JARVIS, O. N. & SCANLON, J. 1968. Measurements of the differential cross-section and polarisation in P-P scattering at about 98 MeV. Nuclear Physics, A114, 377-391.

WIGAN, M. R., REVILL, J., A.R & HAYTON, A. M. 2003. Memories of Dad: a celebration of the life and works of Edmund Ramsay Wigan 1902-1970, St Albans Herts UK, Wren Publications.    

Updated on 27 June 2015