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David Jones

David Jones Obituary by kind permission of The Times

Cantankerous and bloody-minded scientist known as Daedalus whose fictional inventions delighted readers of New Scientist and Nature, David Jones appeared regularly on television to present scientific demonstrations.
History will remember the self-styled “creative anarchist” David Jones chiefly as an inventor and scientist, but it is as a writer that he should perhaps be even better known. He wrote a weekly magazine column for 38 years, from 1964 until 2002, which is achievement enough. Initially it was in New Scientist, later it was in Nature.
However, it was the content of the column that may perhaps never be equalled. Each week, using the pen name of Daedalus, he wrote about an ingenious invention that was on the edge of plausibility, but was entertainingly fictional. It was not so much science fiction as technology fiction. As he put it: “Daedalus is ideally just beyond the edge of possibility, but only just. I can’t overtly break the laws of physics, and my arguments are always carefully buttressed by scientific facts . . . nonetheless, one should have the feeling that the argument has gone off the rails somewhere.”
The column began serendipitously. On a London Underground platform he bumped into a former fellow student from Imperial College, Edward Wheeler, who was working at New Scientist. Wheeler asked him to write some humorous pieces. They were not published, but were “put in a drawer”. Months later, the editor, Nigel Calder, found them and asked Jones to contribute a regular humorous column on invention. The rest is history.
In his first book-length compilation of the columns, The Inventions of Daedalus, he included such marvels as green sheep’s wool, the plug-in sausage, electrodes that cause dust to settle on the ceiling, laser cloud dispersal, sloping water, galvanised plants, collective-responsibility vehicles in which all the passengers contribute to driving the bus and steam-powered water boots for walking to safety on the ocean after shipwreck. He wanted to use the ‘’junk DNA’’ between genes to store information. He planned to isolate and develop an antidote to “dithergas”, the “elixir of incompetence and hopelessness from civil service departments, chambers of commerce of fading seaside resorts, Liberal Party forward-planning committees and the like”. As for galvanised plants, he reported: “The Dreadco electric grass-restrictor, a sheet of perforated zinc suspended an inch or so above the ground, will give the ultimate in lawn perfection. Every blade of grass will reach exactly the same length.”
Dreadco — or the Daedalus Research, Evaluation and Development Company — was his corporate empire employing hundreds of researchers. It was mythical. To Jones’s amusement, “I had lots of letters from solemn German companies wanting to know about licensing arrangements with Dreadco.” His book was popular in Germany and for eight years in the 1980s he presented scientific demonstrations on a German television science show called Kopf um Kopf. As far as possible he avoided scientific apparatus, using bottles, plastic bags, jelly, cans and bicycle pumps.
Despite his best efforts, some of Daedalus’s inventions proved practical — about 20 per cent of them would be seriously suggested or patented. The self-healing bearing was invented a few years after he suggested the mechanism. So was the electric sausage. In some cases he anticipated discoveries. Sir Harry Kroto got the Nobel prize for the first hollow molecule, C60.
Jones was also good at debunking bad ideas. He disproved the theory that arsenic in Napoleon’s hair proved he had been deliberately poisoned, revealing that the arsenic came from mouldy dust in the wallpaper instead. After trying to set fire to his neighbour’s car with an array of mirrors on a sunny day, he concluded that Archimedes could not have destroyed a Roman fleet this way.
Perhaps his most rewarding achievement was in the field of perpetual- motion machines. Starting in 1980, he began building devices that appeared to have no source of power, but kept moving. The best of these, a bicycle wheel turning inside a glass case with various (partly red-herring) gadgets attached to it, was displayed at his funeral. It has been turning for 36 years without explanation. Jones gave the distinguished British chemist Sir Martyn Poliakoff, FRS, to whom it has been bequeathed, a sealed envelope revealing its secret. As Jones explained: “Demand for my services snowballed and in the next few years perpetual-motion machines were exhibited in Newcastle, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco and Helsinki.” In the last case, wrote Jones, “the astonished reaction of a visiting Russian scientific delegation may have contributed to the collapse of communism.”
David Edward Hugh Jones was born in Southwark, south London, in 1938, the eldest of two boys of Philip and Dorothea Jones. His father was an advertising copywriter, his mother a housewife. His brother, Peter, is a former lecturer in classics at Newcastle University who co-founded the charity Classics for All, formerly known as Friends of the Classics. Peter has written an Ancient and Modern column, which started in The Sunday Telegraph but now appears in The Spectator, for 26 years.
He turned his home into a cornucopia of scientific ephemera
Jones was born with an extra vertebra in his back, which gave him a slightly stooped posture, and as a child he had asthma. He attended Crofton Primary School in Orpington, Kent, and then Eltham College. From a young age he displayed the inquiring mind that would drive his writing in later years. As a boy he took over the greenhouse at the end of the garden and turned it into a laboratory where he began experimenting with a chemistry set given to him by his parents. In the house he kept the Meccano set on which he learnt the rudiments of construction. By his early teens Jones was keeping detailed notebooks of his experiments and theories including, at the age of 14, notes on electrolysis and how it might be exploited. In later years he became a voracious record-keeper of papers and slides and turned his home in Newcastle into a cornucopia of scientific ephemera.
After graduating in chemistry and then completing a doctorate in organic chemistry at Imperial College London in 1962, Jones worked for a year for a company specialising in laboratory instrument design. He then became a post-doctoral fellow at Imperial where he worked on infrared spectroscopy and began his column in New Scientist. By 1967 he had taken up a post as an assistant lecturer at the University of Strathclyde. He lasted just one year in Scotland before moving to Runcorn, where for five years he worked as a research scientist at ICI, specialising in industrial chemicals. However, his time at ICI, like that at Strathclyde, was not particularly happy. Jones was too single-minded, even bloody-minded, to be suited to working in a team.
After ICI he became a demonstrator and a guest lecturer at Newcastle University, where he remained until retirement. As his fame grew he regularly appeared on television. He loved doing experiments for the cameras, performing what he called “technical slapstick”.
In 1972 he married Jane Burgess, but the union lasted only a year. He had a long relationship with the artist Naomi Hunt, who predeceased him, but they never lived together. Jones was something of a social outsider. He found building relationships with women especially difficult, which troubled him. With scientists, by contrast, he was the life and soul of the party.
Cantankerous and irritable, he distrusted those he did not understand, among them doctors whom he habitually referred to as “alleged doctors”. He was openly paranoid about bureaucracy and government and never got on with computers. A stroke in 2000, from which he made a remarkable recovery, mellowed him.
Never having had children of his own, he enjoyed his relationships with his brother’s children. His inventiveness made him a favourite uncle. His niece, Phoebe, recalls descending the stairs on a “fire escape” made by Jones out of two rolling pins and a bin-liner. Her brother Tom recalls an even more bizarre game he played when he was six. It captures Jones’s eccentric mischievousness to a tee.
“I would stroll nonchalantly past the car and round a corner,” Tom said, “when David would pick me up, or drag me struggling down the street, before opening the boot and throwing me inside as I howled my protests. This was a fantastic wheeze until on one occasion our Oscar-winning performance led to a couple of tourists seriously threatening to call the police.”
David Jones, inventor, scientist and writer, was born on April 20, 1938. He died on July 19, 2017, of complications of prostate cancer, aged 79