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BTH Co. Ltd

After graduating in 1937, Milner rejected the conventional step of joining academia. Always the applied physicist, he went into industrial research with the Lamps and Vacuum Physics section of the British Thomson-Houston Co Ltd (BTH) in Rugby where he eventually became Director of Physics Section of their large Research Laboratory.

When Kit arrived at BTH he met another member of the Physics team, the Hungarian refugee and innovative engineer Dennis Gabor (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1971). Since official policy on aliens prevented Gabor from joining in war-related work, he was free to develop his masterworks in a pokey hut alongside the main lab. Milner and he developed a successful professional relationship and a close friendship. While they both filed equal numbers of patents during their work, Milner said that Gabor’s were always ‘master patents’ — the mark of true genius. Gabor in his turn said that Milner was the ideal observer for his grand ideas because he was ‘unbamboozleable’ - so difficult to convince. Significantly, Milner was the first person ever to observe the demonstration of a hologram, Gabor’s most famous invention. Gabor enjoyed sharing the perspective of another theoretical physicist when Kit’s father, S. R. Milner, retired from Sheffield University in 1940 and came to join his son’s family in Rugby. The friendship between the two families was life-long and S R Milner’s scientific memorabilia are lodged with those of his great friend at Imperial College London.

The onset of war changed the direction of BTH work overnight and Milner was asked to focus on supporting a line of research being developed at University of Birmingham by his former Cavendish colleague, the Australian-born Mark Oliphant (later Sir Mark). This was the klystron project (the other, on magnetrons, went to the General Electric Company’s lab). Then in 1943 Oliphant (and other colleagues) quietly vanished: somewhere a top-secret project was going on.