Founder and Professor Emeritus Des Smith Obituary | Edinburgh Instruments

Founder and Professor Emeritus Des Smith Obituary

Founder of Edinburgh Instruments and Professor Emeritus of Heriot-Watt University Desmond ‘Des’ Smith (OBE FRS, FRSE, F.Inst.P), sadly died in August aged 92.

Professor Smith came to Scotland in 1970 from Reading in the south of England to establish the Department of Physics at Heriot-Watt University. The University developed the first Research Park in Europe in 1971, launching Edinburgh Instruments as the first company on the park. Together with his team, he built our company to a multi-million-pound venture commercialising the prodigious amount of ground-breaking, optoelectronic research at the science park and University.

Roger Fenske, CEO of Edinburgh Instruments, said: “Des set up Edinburgh Instruments in 1971 and, together with his team, established us as an integral part of Scotland’s scientific landscape. His drive and ambition have helped the company survive and thrive for more than 50 years. I only knew Des for a little over twenty years, a small portion of his long life. What was most apparent in that time was the value he saw in fundamental research and its potential to improve the world.

Professor Smith created the tuneable spin-flip Raman laser which gives the highest resolution molecular gas spectra, and (with J T Houghton) the invention of the carbon dioxide Selective Chopper Radiometer, which flew on the Nimbus 4 satellite in 1970. He contributed to advances in optical coatings, magneto-optics of semiconductors, satellite meteorology, infrared spectroscopy and fluorescence technology and their applications.

Heriot-Watt University’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard Williams OBE said: “Professor Des Smith was one of the most inspiring people I had the privilege to know. His dedication to pushing the boundaries of research, invention, and innovation lasted a lifetime, demonstrating a passion for knowledge that knew no bounds. His influence on the fields of optics, photonics, and medical technology will resonate for generations to come, leaving an indelible mark on the scientific community and the world at large. He will be missed greatly by colleagues, friends, and those whose lives he touched with his brilliance and ingenuity. “As we bid farewell to this extraordinary individual, we remember and celebrate his pioneering spirit, unwavering determination, and unwavering commitment to advancing human knowledge. Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues.”

In 2011, the Duke of Edinburgh presented him with a prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh Royal Medal in recognition of his eminent work in physics, particularly in optoelectronics, spectroscopy and laser technology and its applications in industry. Queen Elizabeth II instituted the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Royal Medals to recognise outstanding achievements in all intellectual fields.

Professor Smith was a champion for nurturing incredible talent – and our staff retention is a testament to the ethos he created here at Edinburgh Instruments, a hotbed of research, innovation and intelligent individuals pushing the boundaries of physics and photonics.

His long-term colleague Stephen Marshall Production Manager at Edinburgh Instruments said: “Having known Des for 37 years, I have always admired his drive and determination to succeed in business through developing new products – to me he epitomised the meaning of entrepreneur. He had an innate desire to succeed which also carried over into his personal life when there were many a day, he would find me in the Edinburgh Instruments factory and we would discuss his golf swing…he was always looking to perfect this in the same vein as he was looking to develop a new product.”

Professor Smith’s passion for physics and photonics was clear to all who knew him. Our business is flourishing and has sustained growth for over half a century and this is, in part, credited to Professor Smiths’ desire and efforts. We will sincerely miss his regular visits to our campus – his last one being as recent as last month.

Our thoughts are with his family at this time.