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From The Times

March 9, 2009

Charles Sandbank: electronics engineer

Charles Sandbank

Charles Sandbank

Charles Sandbank had a telling influence on the way we listen and watch radio, television and cinema. He was a world leader in the research and development of electronics, telecommunications and digital broadcasting.

Charles Peter Sandbank was born in Vienna in 1939. His family moved to England where he attended Bromley Grammar School in Kent. After graduating in physics at London University and specialising in electronic engineering for a postgraduate diploma at Imperial College, he began work as a production engineer. Soon his career began to turn to the future of electronic engineering; first, in 1955-60, as a development engineer with the Brimar Valve Company.

In 1960 he moved to the STC company’s transistor division where he developed some of the first semiconductor integrated circuits to be produced in Europe. Four years later he became head of the Electron Devices Laboratory at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories and, in 1968, became manager of the STL Communications Systems Division. He was responsible for the team that pioneered the use of optical fibres for communications and, in 1976, built the world’s first wideband digital optical fibre communication system.

Sandbank’s reputation for high-level original thinking helped to land him the post of Head of Research and Development with BBC Engineering in 1978. Colleagues recall how he proved a breath of fresh air. “Call me Charlie,” he insisted when referred to as “sir”. He exploited Nicam stereo sound for television, which became the world’s first digital broadcasting system, and realised the potential of high-definition television. He became the first chair of the European Broadcasting Union’s high definition TV committee that looked into the possibilities of achieving worldwide standards.

By 1984 Sandbank had become BBC deputy director of engineering. His gregarious personality and enthusiasm for projects was vital for persuading politicians and organisations to invest in new technologies, and he developed the digital audio broadcast system, DAB.

After leaving the BBC in 1993 Sandbank became a consultant for what was then the Department of Trade and Industry, advising on radio frequency bands and their standardisation. He also became, in 2001, a founding co-chairman of the European Digital Cinema Forum, lobbying government-backed bodies, including the UK Film Council, to invest in electronic digital projectors for cinemas.

Between 1982 and 1989 he was the Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in the Principles of Information Systems Design at the University of Bradford. In 2004 Bradford awarded him an honorary doctorate of engineering.

Sandbank’s engaging personality made him a much sought-after public speaker, and his web of contacts was such that his golden anniversary celebrations in 2005 required four parties.

He is survived by his wife, Audrey, two daughters and a son.

Charles Sandbank, electronics engineer, was born on August 14, 1931. He died after a brain haemorrhage on December 15, 2008, aged 77