by John Kapp

by his son John Gisbert Kapp, June 2005

Reginald Otto Kapp was born on 2nd Aug 1885 in Brentwood, Essex, the first son of Gisbert Kapp and Teresa, nee Krall. Both his parents had been born in Vienna in 1852 and 1864 respectively. Gisbert’s mother, Louisa nee Young (1829-1919) was widowed when Gisbert was 4. She took singing lessons, and became a famous international opera singer under the name of Louisa Cappiani (italianising Kapp-Young) Reginald had a high achieving grandmother and father, as described below.

Gisbert trained in Vienna as a mechanical engineer. He came to England in 1875 aged 23, and got a job with Gwynnes Pumps in Hammersmith under W H Allen, who later created the firm of that name He became foreign representative of Hornsby & Co in 1879, travelling widely all over Europe.

He visited the Paris exhibition in 1881, when he saw the possibilities of electrical engineering, and decided to make that his career. He became naturalised British and worked for Cromptons from 1882 to 1884, when he married Teresa and set up his own consulting practice to exploit his inventions. His second son Norman was born in 1887.

In 1894 he was appointed general secretary of the newly formed Verband Deutscher Electrotechniker in Berlin. He moved with his family to Charlottenburg, where he was allowed to continue in consulting practice. In 1905 he was appointed the first professor of electrical engineering in Birmingham university, which he held until he retired in 1919. He was on the council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers for many years, and was president in 1909.

He died in 1922 aged 70. He had 36 British patents to his name, published 9 books, and over 60 papers.

Reginald was educated in Berlin, matriculating there in 1905. He studied electrical engineering under his father at Birmingham university, graduating in 1909. He joined the traction department of Brown Boveri, Baden, Switzerland when it was still a small family firm, becoming a close friend of the brothers Brown, and being a frequent visitor to the Villa Langmatt, where they lived. (In 1947, he was invited by the widow Brown to stay there with his family. I well remember our visit, although I was only 11. She lived alone, except for servants, in the enormous house, which was full of original Cezannes)

In 1913 he got a job with the consulting engineering firm Kennedy and Donkin. He told me that at his interview, Sir Alexander Kennedy, told him ‘We’ll give you a job, m’boy, but remember, the days of consulting engineers are over’

In 1915 he was called up and fought in the first world war. He was trained as a sniper in the infantry, and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. He made many close friends, some of whom I met. In 1919 he rejoined Kennedy and Donkin, working on the design and construction of the electricity grid and the electrification of the Southern Railway. He married Dorothy Wilkins, a psychiatrist, (my mother) in 1932. The firm hit hard times, and he was made redundant in 1935, (the year I was born) when he was 50. The family had a few worried months until he got the job of professor of electrical engineering at University College London. My sister Elinor Margaret was born in 1937.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, his electrical engineering department was evacuated to Swansea, Wales. My mother replaced a doctor in Aberdare who had been called up. My sister and I were put in a boarding school at Pumpsaint. After a few years, the family were reunited at a rented house in Swansea. Our home in Croydon had been bombed, but was repaired, and we returned there in 1944.

‘The Presentation of Technical Information’ Having had war and work experience, Reginald brought a practical flavour to his teaching. He was especially keen to make his students good expositors of technical information, having struggled with this himself, while writing ‘Science versus Materialism’. His objective was ‘Teach a man to think clearly, and he is likely to express himself clearly; teach him to think about the person addressed and he will have learned the first lesson in the art of conveying information effectively from mind to mind.’

He tried hard to find lecturers to teach the subject, but being unsuccessful, taught it himself, calling the subject ‘The Presentation of Technical Information’ (PTI for short). These proved so popular that he repeated them as public lectures in his college, and at the Institution of Electrical Engineers, of which he was on the Council.

So many people expressed interest in the subject that he formed the ‘PTI Group’, which held regular meetings. He turned his lecture notes into a book of the same name, which was published by Constable in 1948. In the preface he writes ‘There is a big demand for help and guidance in the art of exposition. The subject is a large one, and has many aspects, some elementary, some advanced. There is a field of study here, I feel sure, worthy of a scholar’s attention, and one in which many ought to help. The present volume based on the above mentioned lectures, is my contribution.’

The book quickly sold out, was reprinted many times and became a best seller He continued to support the PTI group all his life, and it continued to flourish after his death. In 1972 it merged with 2 younger associations and changed its name to the ‘Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators’ (ISTC) Website: istc.org.uk

In 1998, the ISTC republished his book, saying in the forward ‘Republication of this book seemed a fitting way to celebrate the ISTC’s 50th year of existence. The book is a historical document….. in that virtually every guide for technical writers written since 1948 has echoed its advice.’

At the jubilee dinner held to celebrate the anniversary of the founding, and the re-publication of the book, I was the guest of honour. It was attended by representatives of institutes of many other countries which had modeled themselves on the ISTC. The president of the International Council for Scientific and Technical Communication (INTECOM) professor Thomas L Warren, of Oklahoma State University, said that Reginald Kapp had started a new worldwide profession.

Retirement In 1950, when he was 65, he had to retire from the university, but he still had much to give, so went back to Kennedy and Donkin, working full time as a consultant until the day before he died. He became chairman of a committee set up by British Railways to study inductive interference, and worked on many problems with technical and institutional issues. He sat on committees of the British Standards Institution, the International Standards Organisation, and was a representative on the International Electrotechnical Commission. He chaired many committees, and attended conferences all over the world.

He was appointed to the governing body of the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, the Northampton College of Advanced Technology and what became the City University, which he helped to steer through the constitutional birth pangs of university status. At his funeral, I was told by the vice chancellor how innovative, fresh and clear his contributions had always been.

His wife (my mother) had been a practicing psychiatrist, but fell ill with Parkinson disease in the early 50s. They had to have a succession of live in housekeepers. She became more and more debilitated, getting cancer from which she died on 16.2.66. Although he had enjoyed remarkable good health, and not had a single day off work, four days after losing her he suffered several heart attacks and died of a broken heart, aged 80.

At and after his funeral I was inundated by tributes to his warm friendliness and helpfulness to all. He was a devoted husband to my mother for 34 years, and a loving father to me and my sister. Today his descendants number 2 children, 5 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.

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