Sidney Alford, who has died aged 86, was an idiosyncratic gentleman scientist in the long tradition of lone British inventors, who gained a worldwide reputation as the “Gandalf” of explosives technology.
In 1972, terrorist bombings in England and Northern Ireland turned Alford’s attention to the study of effective means of defeating improvised explosive devices or IEDs.
First, he improved on a method of firing a powerful slug of water, used to disable IEDs; later, he developed a similar system to disable limpet mines stuck to ships’ hulls. He experimented at the kitchen table until his wife evicted him to the garden. Neighbours’ complaints about the bangs brought a visit by the security services, who were so impressed that Alford was given access to a military range.
Eventually he patented several new devices, including the “Bootbanger”, which fires water at high speed to destroy IEDs, and – his proudest invention – the “Vulcan disrupter”, a small, highly versatile Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) device using a choice of range of fittings.
Vulcan has since been used worldwide, more than any other EOD device, against munitions ranging from hand grenades to cruise missiles, and is recognised to have an almost 100 per cent success rate. It now forms part of the naval Counter Limpet Mine System.
Alford, and the company he founded, probably did more than any other to neutralise IEDs, minefields left from wars, and dangerous military ordnance.
Sidney Christopher Alford was born at Ilford, Essex, on January 11 1935. As a schoolboy, after wartime blitzes he used to search for bomb fragments and anti-aircraft shells to satisfy his craze for making homemade fireworks, and he experimented with chemicals bought from Dann’s Cash Chemists at Claybury Broadway, five minutes’ walk from his home.
After National Service in the Army, when he qualified as a sharpshooter, Alford started his professional life as a chemist, beginning but not completing studies at various universities, until in 1966, after five years at the Usines Chimiques des Laboratoires Français outside Paris, and without a first degree, he was awarded a doctorate “mention très honorable”.
Next, he undertook research in Japan, before returning to Britain to join a small company conducting clinical trials of food for astronauts.
Alford’s reputation was enhanced in 1981 when, after studying the layout of the museum ship HMS Belfast, he advised on blowing an entry into her sunken sister ship Edinburgh, which lay at the bottom of the Arctic Sea, to facilitate the recovery of five tons of gold. The explosion had to be carefully scaled so as not to disperse the gold or set off Edinburgh’s remaining ammunition.
Subsequent demolitions included Spandau prison (blown up in 1987 – after the death of its last prisoner, Rudolf Hess – to prevent it from becoming a neo-Nazi shrine) and redundant North Sea oil platforms. While others used large-scale explosions with inevitable collateral damage to countermine ordnance, Alford used tiny amounts of high-speed water or molten metal to achieve similar effects.
At one stage he even examined the possibility of shattering kidney stones by tiny explosive charges passed through a cannula in the abdominal wall.
In 1985 Alford founded Alford Technologies, which now provides counter-terrorism products, services and training worldwide to governments and to humanitarian organisations.
In 1995, for the Channel Four documentary Kaboom!, a history of man’s fascination with explosions, he adopted the persona of Roger Bacon, a medieval friar testing black powder in a cellar. His boyish enthusiasm made him a television natural and he appeared on programmes about counter-terrorism during the troubles in Northern Ireland, the science behind the Dambusters’ raid, and the Gunpowder Plot – which Alford demonstrated with dramatic visual and sound effects.
He was also a gifted linguist, holding his doctoral viva in French and endearing himself to his examiners by using an umbrella as a pointer. In 1971 he hosted the Japanese Emperor Hirohito on a state visit to Britain, when he toured the biochemistry department of the Nuffield Institute.
In 2004 Alford’s company won a Queen’s Award for the Vulcan disrupter, and in 2009 another award for outstanding innovation in the development of explosive charges for the neutralisation of IEDs.
In 2015 he was appointed OBE for services to explosive ordnance disposal and last year was awarded the US Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award, though the pandemic made it impossible for him to travel to receive it.
In 1970 he married Itsuko Suzuki, who became a co-director of his company; board meetings were held in the family kitchen, followed by delicious Japanese food prepared by Itsuko, who survives him with their two sons.
Sidney Alford, born January 11 1935, died January 27 2021
Reprinted courtesy The Daily Telegraph