University of Texas
Roy John Bickerton
(July 3, 1926–November 6, 2009)



Roy J. Bickerton

(Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Richard Bickerton, youngest son of Roy Bickerton, for his kind help with this tribute to his father.)

Roy J. Bickerton joined the Fusion Research Center in 1966, remaining for a year. He was on leave from the Atomic Energy Authority at Culham, England. He brought with him his wife, Gladys, and four sons, David, Jeremy, Peter, and Richard. They came on the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth. Bickerton was a former director of the world’s largest fusion magnetic experiment, the Joint European Torus at Culham Laboratory. It was at Culham that he made several major contributions to fusion research.

Roy was born on July 3, 1926, in Queen Charlotte Hospital, Marylebone, London, to Percy (1902-1985) and Ivy May Bellamy (1901-1988)Bickerton. Percy and Ivy were married September 1, 1923 at St. Cuthbert, Kensington, England. Percy was an automatic tool setter. As a schoolboy during the Blitz in London, he was a runner for air raid warden posts. After leaving school, he joined the RAF and qualified as a pilot just as the war ended, and as a result did not see combat. The RAF gave him a grant to read physics at Exeter College, Oxford. He matricuated on October 20, 1944. His son Richard reported, "Apparently he also satisfied the Examiners in the Special Examination for Royal Air Cadets:  Mathematics and Science in Hilary term 1945. He may have had an early interest in aeronautical engineering.  So seems he was there in 1944 and 1945 on some special RAF course." Richard further writes, "I have his Royal Air Force Log books and the planes he flew were: Tiger Moth, Chipmunk and Harvard.  He seemed to have started flying training at Carlisle in 1947, and appears to have left in 1948.  I think he did do some more RAF flying whilst at Oxford University and possibly after as a reservist. First public exam back at Oxford was Trinity term 1949. So seems to me he spent a period at Oxford in 1944/45 and then went back later on, presumably, to complete his degree and gain his doctorate."

Roy married Gladys M. Videlo in 1950 in Oxford. He received his D Phil at Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford, in 1955, working on the influence of a magnetic field on a positive column. His supervisor was Professor A. von Engel.

Afterward, Bickerton began work on fusion research at the United Kingdom Authority Laboratory at Harwell, before joining Culham Laboratory in 1962. In 1968, he was appointed Head of Experimental Division A and a member of the Culham Laboratory Management Committee. In 1980, when Culham was chosen as the site for the JET project, Roy became its Scientific Director. Roy along with J. W. Connor and J. B. Taylor were the first to point out the importance of the bootstrap current in the steady state operation of tokamaks. In 1985, he was appointed Deputy Director and he retired in November 1988. He received Fusion Power Associates Distinguished Career Award in 1992.

In July 1987, Professor W. E. Drummond invited Roy to return to Texas as visiting Professor in the Department of Physics and a Senior Research Fellow in the Fusion Research Center. At Texas, he taught classes in plasma physics and used his encyclopedic knowledge of fusion to advise faculty, staff and students.

During his second stint at the Univeristy of Texas, he bought a light aircraft, and flew it back to the United Kingdom, much to the concern of his family!  As it involved long transits over cold water in a single engine aircraft, routing via Greenland and Iceland.  Back in the UK he had it transferred to the UK aircraft register and sold it at some point.  He did continue doing quite a bit of glider and microlight flying.  

Roy, with many of his colleagues, held a number of fusion related patents. He was a regular visitor to Culhan seminars in his retirement. After returning home to Cumnor, Bickerton served as a Liberal Democrat councillor on the Vale of White Horse District Council in the 1990s.

Gladys died in May of 2009 while Roy died on November 6, 2009 at in a hospital in Oxford, England. He was survived by four sons and six grandchildren.

His college, A. E. Robson comments about Roy, " I remember him at Oxford and I think that he was three or four years ahead of me although he was six years older, the difference being that he had been in the RAF where he was a Spitfire pilot.  Spitfire pilots were especially proud of their eyesight and Roy resisted wearing eyeglasses until long after he really needed them.  As with me, Hans von Engel was his.undergraduate tutor and his thesis supervisor.  He went to Harwell immediately after getting his D.Phil  (1955) and, following his thesis work on the effect of a magnetic field on the positive column, he proposed putting an axial magnetic field on the toroidal  z-pinches that were the principal focus of the UK fusion program.   This reduced, but did not eliminate the MHD instabilities.  It had previously been hoped that the pinch would be stabilized by eddy currents in the conducting torus - how naive we were!   The big machine was ZETA (see Wikipedia ZETA fusion reactor). It had been designed without Bz and you can see from the picture the coils were wound on the torus itself, obviously an afterthought.  This launched Roy on his lifelong career in toroidal pinches.  It was interesting that when the initial neutrons from ZETA were announced with great fanfare, Roy held back from the celebrations (which were premature) demonstrating his characteristic caution (and integrity).  The ZETA story is too long to describe here, but it's worth reading about."



Below is an excerpt from the book

Fusion: The Search for Endless Energy

By Robin Herman
Cambridge University Press, 1990.

It conveys the respect the fusion community had for Bickerton. The high tempertures measured in the Princeton Large Torus (PLT) was in question.

Below is a figure prepared by Bickerton for the 1998 Royal Society Discussion Meeting.  Bickerton RJ. 1999. History of the approach to ignition. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 357, 397–413. (10.1098/rsta.1999.0334)