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William George Penney

(1909—1991) mathematical physicist and public servant


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British mathematician and leading figure in the development of British nuclear weapons. He was knighted in 1952, made a life peer in 1967, and appointed to the OM in 1969. Born in Sheerness, Penney was educated at Imperial College, London, Wisconsin University, and Cambridge, where he obtained a PhD in 1935. He taught mathematics at Imperial College until, at the outbreak of World War II, he was engaged in work that eventually led to the development of the atomic bomb. He worked for some time at Los Alamos in the USA and was one of the official British observers at Nagasaki in 1945, when the second atomic bomb was dropped.

After the war Penney remained in government service with the Ministry of Supply (1946–52). During this period he was concerned with the development of the first British atomic bomb, which was tested on 3 October 1952 in the Monte Bello Islands. With the success of this venture behind him, Penney was appointed director of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston, with the instruction to develop Britain's hydrogen bomb. The result was successfully tested on Christmas Island in 1957. Shortly afterwards Penney left Aldermaston to concentrate on his duties as a board member of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), serving as deputy chairman (1961–64) and then chairman (1964–67). In 1967 Penney returned to Imperial College as rector, a position he held until his retirement in 1973.

From Who's Who in the Twentieth Century in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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