Hero Worship: Professor Stephen Salter

Simon Gage, director of the Edinburgh Science Festival, tells us about the man who inspired him to become a scientist – Dr Stephen Salter, Emeritus Professor of Engineering Design, pioneer of renewable energy technology, and inventor of Salter's Duck

Feature by Simon Gage | 12 Mar 2013
  • Stephen Salter

What first got me hooked on Stephen Salter was seeing him on Tomorrow's World (this was 35 years ago!) I was living at the other end of the country, down in Devon. He was demonstrating one of his first inventions, which was the Salter's Duck – a wave power machine. He had invented this amazing machine, which he was testing on a loch in Scotland, that absorbed the energy of waves. At that time, no-one really talked about renewable energy. There was a tiny bit of interest in it – solar panels and things like that – but this was something different; something which I was really interested in. I saw him and I thought: “My goodness, this is someone who's doing something really quite imaginative, in exactly the field which, I feel, I want to be working in.”

Soon after that, I started finding out more and more about renewable energy technology, and as a teenager I was building solar panels and small wind turbines, things like that, before going to university to study physics – because I wanted to work in renewable energy. But at that time, people like Salter were very rare – there was hardly anyone working in renewable energy at all; after graduation I found it very difficult to work in the field, because there were so few opportunities. Salter was the first person I saw who I thought, “You're doing exactly what I want to do. You're the sort of person I want to be.” That sent me down a particular path, studying physics, and then for a short time working on renewable energy technologies. Now, of course, I programme the Edinburgh Science Festival, and a lot of what we do relates to the subject matter of renewable energy technologies.

The amazing thing about Stephen, and people like him, is that irrespective of their career, they keep on having big and outrageous ideas. Heinz Wolff is another one. Heinz is now 85, he's been on our board and he's a friend to the Science Festival, and he just keeps going, keeps challenging the status quo, pushing the idea of what we consider acceptable and normal and asking, “What happens if we do things differently?” I like that in people. Salter has done all kinds of things – he invented a machine for defusing land mines, a machine for collecting water vapour in desert areas. He's thought about so many different subjects in radical ways.

There's nothing that looks like Salter's Duck any more, which is a shame. But Stephen Salter has nurtured many of the people who are running a large part of the wave power industry in the UK. For instance Richard Yemm, who's down at Pelamis working on the ‘sea snake’ wave power device, studied under Salter, as did a lot of the people who are now working at Pelamis. He spawned an industry.

Salter's a very different kind of figure to the likes of Brian Cox, who have a high public profile. I don't know him personally, but I doubt he'd have wanted to do the job of a television presenter. Someone like Cox is a great presenter of science, but people like Salter are more traditionally ‘thinkers’ – originators of new ideas. Not to say that Brian Cox won't come up with an original idea – but his role is to inspire us about the work of thousands of scientists. Salter is an originator.

In the future, in theory, wave power is going to be massive. Our office is in Leith, and about 250 metres from the office is the biggest blue shed you can ever imagine. In there the Pelamis wave machines are made. They're about 40 or 50 metres long, they're enormous. Being in there is rather like being in the rocketships at Cape Canaveral; standing next to the Saturn 5 rocket. When I go in there, I think: “This is where a new industry and new technology is being born.” It’s where history is being made.

The Edinburgh Science Festival runs from 23 Mar to 7 Apr. For details of events, lectures and workshops, visit their website: http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk