Derek Price, King of the Autodidacts

[Derek de Solla Price] was born in 1922 to Philip Price, a tailor, and Fanny de Solla, a singer. The couple didn’t have many material possessions, but they had enough money to indulge their young son in his love of Meccano, which was all the rage at the time. With enough ingenuity, the red and green painted girders, pulleys and cogs could be built into pretty much anything a boy could imagine—a bridge, a crane, a car, a spaceship—and Price wasn’t short of either ingenuity or imagination. The toy instilled in him a passion for mechanics and for how things work, which stayed with him for life….

Despite his talent, Price didn’t have the money or the background to go to university, so he followed a less conventional route to pursuing the subjects that he loved. He got a job as a lab assistant at the newly opened South West Essex Technical College, which enabled him to study part-time for a degree at the University of London. The physics equipment there was one glorious step up from Meccano. Square and black with clunky dials and flickering green screens, the oscilloscopes, voltmeters and spectrometers were as heavy as stones, and packed full to bursting with valves and wiring. With such instruments you could make sense of things; you could measure the whole world! Price spend hours taking these devices apart, tinkering with them and putting them back together, until his fingers and his heart were intimately familiar with their workings.

He got his degree in physics and maths in 1942 and the college—seriously short-staffed because of the war—instantly promoted him to lecturer. He worked in one classroom often for eight hours straight, learning the curriculum as he taught it. He also carried out research for the military on the optics of molten metals, and the University of London awarded him a PhD for it in 1946. Once the war ended, however, there was no job for him in London… He accepted a teaching position at the young Raffles College in Singapore….

Singapore was wonderful and exotic and it inspired in Price a new love for oriental culture and its history. It also introduced him to the history of science. Raffles College acquired a full set of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—the journal of Britain’s foremost scientific body, with such worthy members over the centuries as Humphry Davy, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. The college library was still being built, so Price seized his chance and took the beautiful calf-bound volumes home with him—into ‘protective custody’, he joked. Accustomed by now to teaching himself everything, he used them as bedtime reading, starting with the first volume from 1665 and working his way through.

—Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover its Secrets

Price’s reading of the Royal Society papers aroused an interest in the history of science, particularly the history of scientific instruments, especially clockwork and astronomical instruments. When he found out about the Antikythera Mechanism there was only one thing to do: go to Athens!

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11 comments on “Derek Price, King of the Autodidacts

  1. wil says:

    I've never heard of Meccano. Interesting. And ~300 years of journal reading…impressive!

  2. Sylvia says:

    I remember seeing ads for Meccano when I was a kid. It didn't catch my attention, though. I wanted the Shopsmith Mark V. Not surprisingly I didn't get it!

  3. Kate S. says:

    What an interesting story! I remember Meccano too but it wasn't my thing either.

  4. I think the point about Meccano is how a child's toy can inspire great thought and, thus, great discoveries.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Yes, absolutely.
    “de Solla” —Any relation?

  6. Sylvia says:

    Yes, absolutely.
    “de Solla” —Any relation?

  7. Stefanie says:

    That sounds like a good and interesting book you are reading. I have a vague memory of Meccano. We were a Tinker Toy and Lincoln Log house though and if we wanted mechanical we'd help our dad fix the family and neighborhood cars 🙂

  8. Sylvia says:

    I loved Lincoln Logs. My grandmother had them. We were more of a Lego house. My dad worked on cars too but not with much success. 😉

  9. Derek's father, Phil, was my father's uncle.

  10. Meccano is still around. This is not quite the Mark V Spitfire model, but it's close.
    http://www.modelzone.co.uk/meccano_spitfire_set-details.htm

  11. Sylvia says:

    Ah! So he's family. 🙂 Looks like Meccano is more about things that move than civil engineering these days.

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