Geoffrey Timms O.B.E., Ph.D.(Cantab.)

RSE Obituary

by W L Edge

Obituaries Index

Geoffrey Timms was born in February 1903 at Bradford and graduated with first class honours in mathematics at Leeds in 1925. His undergraduate achievements so impressed his professor - an Aberdeenshire Scot and a wrangler at Cambridge in 1906 - that he insisted that Timms must go to Cambridge. Timms' main mathematical interest was, like that of his professor, geometry and it was his good fortune to arrive in Cambridge when H F Baker's school of geometry was on full flood. Though a shy and retiring individual, he took advantage of this happy synchronization, attending Baker's lectures and, as his Saturday afternoon conferences were called, tea parties. Baker suggested that Timms should demonstrate how the various types of cubic surfaces, with their different configurations of lines and singular points, could all be obtained as projections of a single surface, devoid both of lines and of singular points, in space of nine dimensions. Timms produced a complete solution of this problem and thereby gained the Cambridge Ph.D. in 1928.

Timms, warmly recommended by Baker, was appointed an assistant in H W Turnbull's department at St Andrews in October 1929. There was no question then of permanent tenure for young staff, and it seems to have been six or more years before he was on other than year to year appointments. It so transpired that he never held any other academic post; he did not return from the Government Service which, like many other university teachers, he joined during the 1939-45 war. He resigned his post at St Andrews from September 1945; he had been elected F.R.S.E. in 1933.

Timms was a keen motor mechanic and motor-cyclist, but his main hobby was assembling radio and other technical equipment. Anyone calling on him at Dean's Court had to be ready to negotiate his path over a floor bestrewn with cables, and when he later married and owned a house, there had to be quite an elaborate workshop in the loft.

On entering employment in the Foreign Office, he was assigned to Bletchley Park, rather too late to have had a hand in the exciting development stages; as so much has been written recently about Enigma one should add that he had no share in that particular story. Later he went to Cheltenham where his role was that of a mathematician among the engineers and physicists; he was excellent in helping them to understand any relevant mathematics, and he also had sometimes to explain engineering and physical problems to mathematicians. He was involved principally in machine design, for which his hobbies would have well prepared him. In 1963 he was awarded the O.B.E.; now 60 he 'retired' but, as customary in the Civil Service, was kept on at a lower grade on an annual basis until 65. By then, he was fully part of the organization and liked and respected by a broad band of specialists.

After retirement, he went to Canada where his daughter and her family were living; later he accompanied them to New Zealand where he died on 2 December 1982. Some of his mathematical books are to come to St Andrews; others, with his periodicals, will be given to the University of Auckland.

Geoffrey Timms was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 March 1933, his proposers being Herbert Westren Turnbull, Edward Thomas Copson, Alexander Craig Aitken, Sir Edmund T Whittaker. This obituary, written by W L Edge, appears in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book 1984, page 213.