Alf Adams, FRS

A famous son of Hadleigh

Alf Adams, FRS

Alf Adams is a fellow of the Royal Society and has been named as one of the ten Britons who have shaped our world. His strained semi-conductor laser is now rightly recognised as one of the great inventions of modern life. Our CD and DVD players, and even the internet itself, would not work without it.

Alf Adams was born to a non-academic family in Hadleigh, Essex, in 1939, the son of a cobbler. His grandmother had died from tuberculosis when his father was born. Sadly his father was born with the disease and never attended school, being excused on medical grounds. He went on to work as a cobbler, a semi-professional fly weight boxer and manager of his own gym. Adams’ mother left school at the age of 12.

Adams was evacuated from Hadleigh during The Blitz in World War II. He remembers his interest in science beginning at the age of five or six when he was fascinated by the oil film left floating on the puddles in those days, and he wanted to know how it floated while being amazed at the many different colours he could see. After taking his 11 plus exam he attended the local technical school where he chose technical drawing and metalwork. While there he represented Southeast Essex at both football and cricket. He attended University of Leicester to study physics, in part because he didn’t have the foreign language qualifications demanded by most other universities. He also completed his PhD at Leicester with Professor Walter Eric Spear on Orthorhombic crystal systems, before doing postdoctoral research in Physics at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, where he met and married his wife Helga.

Adams is very clear on the role luck played in his research success. He followed an opportune pathway, going to Germany and Japan when others were heading for the US. And just as science was entering an era when information was being generated by lasers and transmitted down optical fibres, Adams was perfectly poised to specialise. And so the strained semi-conductor laser was born.

A lack of patent has meant that Adams has not profited from his invention – but that hasn’t affected his enthusiasm. Now retired, he spends time on his boat, but that doesn’t mean he has exited the arena. He laughs about the fact that his best ideas have come to him when he is relaxed (the strained semi-conductor laser on a beach in Bournemouth).

In 1995 he was awarded the Duddell Medal and Prize and in 1996 was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. His nomination for the Royal Society reads:

Distinguished for his pioneering work on the application of high pressure techniques to the study of semiconducting materials, Professor Adams has done much to advance the use of strain as an important variable in understanding the basic physics of devices. His contributions include the first demonstration of the T-L-X ordering of the conduction band minima in GaAs, the first direct observations of scattering by the central cell potential of impurities, the proposal and experimental confirmation of inter-valence band absorption as an important loss mechanism in semiconductor lasers and the prediction that the threshold current in a quantum-well laser can be greatly reduced if the wells are grown in a state of compressive stress. These latter ideas are currently being pursued vigorously around the world where they are resulting in lasers having greatly enhanced performance.

Since retirement from the University of Surrey he holds the position of emeritus professor.

In 2014 he was awarded the Rank Prize in Optoelectronics for his pioneering work on strained-layer laser structures.

Alf Adams’ elderly parents moved to Templewood Road where Alf was a regular visitor.

{Ed: added these links in 2018 to a BBC programme and two videos.

BBC  The Life Scientific series: (29 minutes) 

Receiving an honorary degree from Leicester University  in 2015  (14 minutes) 

From The University of Surrey 2012   (61 minutes)
The Light Fantastic: The Inaugural Alf Adams Lecture
Warning:  some flash photography, at least two humorous comments and a discussion of Fermi energy levels in semiconductor crystals. }

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  • I remember Alfie Adams. We moved to New Road in 1940 during the Blitz. Myself born in 1937 was a similar age to Alfie. He lived in Templewood Road which was unmade during our childhood. We played together along with other local boys. I also remember his Mum and Dad. His Dad had a shed in the back garden where he did his cobbling. Visits to his house always rewarding with drinks. We could play in Westwoods all day without fear in those days.How life changes.

    By Harry Potter (14/02/2021)
  • I do not know Alf but I certainly remember his father, I can picture him now riding his bike. I well remember the gymnasium and the entrance in the High Street. One of his clients was one of the best heavyweight boxers of the day, Larry Gains, I think he did most of his training at this gym, Larry ended up playing the piano in the Minerva pub at the Kersal Southend and he was also very good at it. I think the gym ended up as a R C Church but I am not sure of that.

    By David Guy (02/07/2015)

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