Bruce Blackwell

an obituary by Hwfa Jones

Every word here is what I've heard or been told by other FIDs, so apart from my own reports I cannot vouch entirely for the accuracy of the stories. Bruce clearly did far more than I can ever recollect or adequately report. The strange thing is that although we spent more than a year together - I hardly knew him.

I met Bruce for the first time on base at Halley. He had sailed south to work for the Falkland Islands Company but paid his own fare - to be free of any contract with them if he felt like a change, such as the move to Antarctica.

I sat down with him one quiet evening in the bar where he was sitting in a corner with a large glass and a bottle of Glenfiddich. Everyone else had gone to bed. I remember that at the time I wasn't too keen on the spirit that he clearly loved.

I talked to him about his life before becoming a FID. He had left the F.I.C. after a bit and worked as a "handyman" on one of the farms - a harsh life of "fixing" relieved only by the Saturday night visit to Port Stanley where he learned to drink with one of the farmers sons. This amounted to sitting in the Upland Goose or one of the other few pubs in the town, drinking whiskey until he was ill, and had to be supported home by his companion along the road to where they had left the light that they would use to find their way across the mountain.

Bruce told me that he knew he'd become a "whiskey drinker" on the night many months later when the farmers son was sick first and the supporting role was reversed.

He had the quiet and gentle voice of a Scottish islander, that made me lean forward whenever he spoke. It reflected his manner for most of the time, but I did hear him shout loudly across the bar on one or two occasions when he disputed some claim or other about his activities.

Bruce could fix anything. He was employed as generator mechanic in Antarctica to maintain the two Rolls Royce diesels that kept us alive under the ice and kept the scientific instruments working. They simply didn't falter all the time he was in charge. When a changeover was taking place there was barely a flicker to tell us that one machine had been stopped and the spare generator looped in while repairs and servicing took place on the main. He showed me how it was done once and I found the whole process quite "hairy", but my experience of anything mechanical had been limited to the bike I rode to university.

The changeovers were always a problem for the meteorological and geophysical equipment which needed a constant voltage. They had to be re-calibrated or reset every time the power was interrupted, and the timers were dependent on the number of output cycles. Later he built a small electronic device which bolted onto the machines and kept the voltages constant. All the clocks in the instruments also kept accurate time - I think they were amazed in London when they heard what he'd done and asked him to write a paper on it - but I guess that it seemed too obvious to Bruce who probably explained the device in a few words.

Some months after the ship had left us on the ice for another year, the Balloon Radar went on fire, and one side of the unit was destroyed - we had no spares and were about to give up, then Bruce in his quiet way took the units apart and after a short period of `electronic archaeology ' he started winding new transformers and repairing "klystrons" from first principles, and of course, when re-assembled, it worked.

We hardly noticed the changes on Base that Bruce made because there was little to notice when things went well and there were no problems or panics as in the previous year when the fire alarms went off and we all dashed out of the bunkrooms to find the night met. man throwing dry powder extinguishers, like grenades, into the generator room to quench what turned out to be a minor fracture in a steam hose.

I left Halley in 1972 on the Bransfield, and heard shortly after that another minor miracle had been achieved by Bruce. Deep in the heavily crevassed area of the Hinge zone, where the shelf ice was tearing away from the continent there had been a crevasse accident where one of the International Harvester bulldozers had gone into a huge chasm head first, leaving only the top few feet of the towed fuel sledge showing above the lip - The driver had jumped out like a jack-in-a-box through the escape hatch and was unharmed although the engine had been left on which helped the vehicle to dig in to the side of the crevasse, and was suspended above a drop of about 100 feet or so - when I looked it was difficult to tell, as it just went black below the vehicle.

This vehicle and sledge had been written off because of the difficulty of finding any solid point to anchor a winch. This was three years before Bruce saw it. Without any great fuss he decided to rescue the I.H. before it made a final plunge into the depths of the crevasse. He assembled a series of pulleys and winches which he attached, like a spidery webb, to wherever a stake could be driven into the heavily fractured ice, then worked his way round pulling the ropes in sequence to bring the I.H. easily to the surface. - He put in a new battery and drove it back to Base.

During the next 15 years or so I had reports of ex FIDS meeting Bruce all over the world - Usually in the corner of a bar on a Saturday night with a bottle of Glenfiddich. I heard that he spent time at home, in the islands just waiting for the call that some ship or other was broken down somewhere in the world, beyond the hope of its engineers. He'd hop onto the island plane, then fly to the mainland, then on to the vessel and get it working - they're still working to-day. I can picture Bruce walking on board the ship; being watched sceptically by the defeated ships engineers. I can imagine him descending through the maze of pipes and wires to the engine, locating the fault and fixing it with a skill that would impress the most hard bitten engineer, on the most battered of rust-buckets on the ocean, and I know that he would involve the men, so the achievement was theirs as well. I know that they'd warm to him with one of the hard drinking parties to celebrate his success that men on ships have to celebrate far lesser events.

Mike Warden told me that Bruce went on to fix power stations around the world and so impressed the Sultan of Oman that he asked him to design and build a new plant - by himself . The Sultan didn't want a team of consultants - just Bruce. I expect the station could run for 100 years.

A few years ago Bruce was diagnosed as having cancer. He tackled this in his usual methodical manner by researching and studying everything about his disease, but for the first time there was no answer that he could find. How often it seems that there is just more than co-incidence in the joke of life. Here was a device that couldn't be fixed, a mechanism about to seize, his first ironic defeat. Bruce had been successful in mending anything that had come his way, except himself. All he could do was tell the doctors which drugs he would require as thing got worse.

Bruce bought and restored an old Land Rover. He drove round Britain seeing his friends, then signed into a hospice for the end, with instructions that only his brother should see him.

I don't even know when he died. but I don't think any of us who knew him however briefly will forget how he lived.

[Bruce died in December 1987; he was in his mid forties...Ed.]

8 December 2001

See also: A super-accurate 50 Hz regulator

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