Physicist founder of Oxford Instruments, a trailblazing university tech start-up that enabled the first MRI whole body scanner
When young physicist Martin Wood had what was then a revolutionary idea of creating a business out of his research in magnets at Oxford University, the head of physics, Nicholas Kurti, manhandled him. “He grabbed the epaulet of my jacket, pulled me up close to him and said in his deep, strong, guttural Hungarian accent, ‘Vot can I do to help you?’ ” Wood recalled.
In return for the use of facilities at the Clarendon Laboratory to support the first high-tech company spun out of the university, Wood agreed to continue his research at Oxford’s electromagnets facility for ten years after founding Oxford Instruments in his garden shed in 1959.
Wood would build the venture into a world-leading supplier of superconducting wire for commercial purposes, as well as products based on powerful magnets that operate at very low temperatures. These included the first commercial MRI whole body scanner, an innovation that has helped to save millions of lives.
While at Oxford, Wood had been leading a nocturnal existence; the magnets could only be used at night because so much energy was required to run them. They operated from an enormous motor generator that used to power Manchester’s trams and would have caused an electricity outage at the local power station had he tried to use them during the day.
When the first superconducting magnet was developed in the United States in 1961, enabling a powerful electromagnet to be run from a car battery, Wood saw the potential for the technology in multiple applications. He set about improving the design of the American prototypes, which were expensive to run because of the need to use large amounts of liquid helium to cool them.
A year later Wood made the first superconducting magnet outside the US based on running a current through a coil of niobium zirconium alloy wire that produced a magnetic field.
“As the temperature dropped, the resistance of the magnet fell in the normal way, until at a magic moment the voltage needle suddenly dropped to zero while the ammeter remained steady, and I felt the same feeling of incredulity as Kamerlingh Onnes must have experienced all those years ago. The magnet produced a magnetic field of 4.1 Tesla in the 1.8cm bore of the magnet. We were in the superconducting magnet business!”
Wood reported his findings in the New Scientist and was inundated with inquiries from physicists around the world, keen to work in high magnetic fields but without the significant power installations the old copper magnet systems needed.
He soon had three commissions. One was at the UK Atomic Energy Research Laboratory at Harwell, which wanted a magnet for neutron spectroscopy in a space allocated in a beam line from a reactor. The second came from an ex-Clarendon physicist at the Royal Radar Research Establishment at Malvern, who needed a magnet for secret naval research projects. The third was from the Nuclear Fusion Research Group of the Atomic Energy Authority, which asked for 39 helically wound copper coils for modulating the magnetic field in the first “mirror machine” to be constructed there.
For a time, the garden shed became a manufacturing hub, with a second-hand lathe and a special winding machine he had invented for making the copper pancake coils. His wife became an expert in moulding fibre-glass casings. “We lived in a delightful part of Oxford where industrial activity would never be allowed,” Wood recalled. “Fortunately, we had a big garden and I planted trees around the workshop and our illegal activities were never discovered.” It was a family affair. His brother-in-law, a solicitor, provided legal counsel. Another brother-in-law, an accountant, advised on finances while his wife learnt bookkeeping. The company had been started with £200 borrowed from his mother-in-law.
With demand growing in the early 1960s he moved the company to a former stables in Oxford. His magnets were used in the nuclear reactors for power stations being built throughout the sixties and seventies and would provide components for microscopes, spectroscopes, helium refrigerators and measuring instruments that could investigate materials at very low temperatures.
In 1970, a year after he had left his post at Oxford for good, Wood’s enterprise was turning over £350,000 (nearly £5 million today) and employing 100 people. Profits were invested in the acquisition of Newport Instruments in 1974. Wood harnessed its expertise in nuclear magnetic resonance technology to design superconducting magnets that would enable the first whole-body MRI scanners in 1980 for Hammersmith Hospital in London and the Imaging Laboratory at the University of California.
Reports of how the scanners could render more detailed pictures inside the body led to a surge in demand. To meet it, Wood founded the subsidiary Oxford Magnet Technology and formed a joint venture with the German conglomerate Siemens. A factory was built in Eynsham, Oxfordshire, which today produces more than a quarter of all MRI magnets. After 15 years Siemens bought OI out of the MRI business; OI used the proceeds to semi-automate production in its core business.
Oxford Instruments grew to 1,100 employees and expanded its product range to include ambulatory monitoring systems for recording heart rate, brain activity or foetal activity. Wood would patrol his growing empire in sandals. He was also a big believer that employees be given a shareholding to help them buy into the company’s vision. A flotation on the London Stock Exchange in 1983 valued the company at £126 million (£368 million today), after which Wood stepped away from the day-to-day running of the company. Oxford Instruments won the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise five times. Wood was knighted in 1986.
Martin Francis Wood was born in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, in 1927 to Arthur Wood, a civil servant who worked at the Board of Education, and Katharine (née Cumberlege). He attended Gresham’s School in Holt, Norfolk. Before he could take up his place to read engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was given the choice of army, navy or air force for his National Service. He rejected them all to go down the mines as a Bevin Boy and dug at the coalface at mines in South Wales and the Midlands. All the while his brain fired with ideas of how to improve the dark and forbidding underground environment. He enjoyed the work, despite being given the most unpleasant coalface after having the temerity to complain about the working conditions of his fellow miners.
After completing his degree the Coal Board sponsored a further two years of study at the Royal School of Mines, now part of Imperial College London. He joined the Coal Board in 1954 with many ideas to make mining safer and more efficient but found the organisation unreceptive to change. A year later he joined Oxford University as a senior research officer for the cryo-magnetic group at the Clarendon Laboratory that had been set up by Kurti, Francis Simon and Georg Mendelssohn, who had all come to Britain as Jewish refugees from the Nazis. One objective of the group was to pursue research projects on materials at these ultra-low temperatures.
By then Wood had married Audrey Stanfield, whom he had met at Cambridge where she was studying natural sciences and English. She had been widowed and had two small children. Wood’s stepson, Robin, had polio and Wood, a natural problem solver, helped to design hinged callipers that would allow the boy to ride a tricycle. His wife survives him along with their son, Jonny, and his stepchildren, Robin and Sarah. Their daughter, Patsy, died in 2007.
As one of the first to make the bridge from science academia to industry Wood started a crusade to help young people do the same. In 1985 he and his wife founded and endowed the Oxford Trust to provide grants for A-level science and technology projects that formed a link with companies to produce a viable product. He then converted a builder’s yard in Oxford into units for start-ups, an innovative model at the time, and developed a network of tech start-ups known as Oxford Innovation.
As a child Wood had volunteered to manage local woodland rather than enlist in his school’s cadet corps. He founded the Northmoor Trust (later renamed the Earth Trust) in 1967 to provide education in wildlife and countryside management. Today the Earth Trust owns 1,200 acres on the banks of the Thames near the village of Little Wittenham as a wildlife habitat open to the public. He formed the Sylva Foundation, too, to support sustainable forest management.
He also left his mark on where his journey began, endowing £2 million for the building of the Sir Martin Wood Lecture Theatre at the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford.
Wood was immensely proud of his invention of an affordable superconducting magnet and believed that it could have a bigger part to play in combating climate change. “Given the quite extraordinary property of loss-free conduction of electricity, it is surprising that superconductivity has not made a greater impact in a wider range of technologies and industries,” he said in 2011. “Nevertheless the increasing cost of energy serves as a strong incentive for the introduction of superconductivity in a range of developments.”
Sir Martin Wood, CBE, FRS, was born on April 19, 1927. He died of pneumonia on November 23, 2021, aged 94.
The obituary above was originally printed in The Times (UK) on December 16th, 2021.
Justin Williams, Times Newspapers LTD
Read Sir Martin Wood's obituary from University of Oxford.