Jeffrey Collins, 1930-2015

An electrical engineer who pioneered major developments in signal processing has died

October 22, 2015
Obituary: Jeffrey Collins, 1930-2015
Source: University of Edinburgh

Jeffrey Collins was born in Luton on 22 April 1930 and educated at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford.

After a BSc in physics, an MSc in mathematics and a DSc from the University of London, he began his career as a junior technician at Guy’s Hospital Medical School before gaining further experience at GEC in Wembley and Ferranti in Edinburgh.

Shifting into higher education, Professor Collins worked as a lecturer at the University of Glasgow (1957-66), teaching and researching microwave devices, and then joined the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory at Stanford University as a research engineer.

He moved back to Scotland in 1970 to take up the position of professor of industrial electronics at the University of Edinburgh, although he spent one day a week working on similar projects as technical director of Microwave and Electronic Systems.

A specialist in the emerging field of surface acoustic wave devices, Professor Collins managed to attract substantial financial support to the university. In an era before digital signal processing, such devices offered the best means for implementing complex receiver designs. One that was delivered to the UK Skynet military communication system synchronised 100 times faster than the existing design.

Since much of his research was based on identifying or acquiring signals being passed around the airwaves, one of Professor Collins’ papers almost fell foul of censorship restrictions during the Falklands War in 1982. It was eventually cleared by a Ministry of Defence expert with the comment: “I only wish the Russians wrote such clear technical expositions.”

As chair of Edinburgh’s Wolfson Microelectronics Institute and professor of electrical engineering from 1977 to 1984, Professor Collins laid the foundations for Wolfson Microelectronics to become a highly successful spin-off company with 400 staff. He left a longer-lasting legacy in the form of the 140-person research institute in signal and image processing, run jointly by Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, which remains the largest in the UK.

A great lover of American life who hoped to visit all 50 states and get a miniature flag from each, Professor Collins took up a new challenge in 1987 as the founding director of the Automation and Robotics Research Institute at the University of Texas at Arlington. In 1991, however, he came back to Edinburgh to act as consultant to the council on business development.

An ardent sports fan, Professor Collins often travelled over the Scotland-England border to Berwick-upon-Tweed to watch the FA cup final in a pub or club – and in one case through the window of the Currys electrical store. He died on 23 September and is survived by his wife, two sons and three grandchildren.

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