I WAS BORN ON January 8, 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo. However, I estimate that about two hundred thousand other babies were also born that day. I don’t know whether any of them were later interested in astronomy. I was born in Oxford, even though my parents were living in London. This was because Oxford was a good place to be born during World War II: The Germans had an agreement that they would not bomb Oxford and Cambridge, in return for the British not bombing Heidelberg and Göttingen. It is a pity that this civilized sort of arrangement couldn’t have been extended to more cities.
My father came from Yorkshire. His grandfather, my great-grandfather, had been a wealthy farmer. He had bought too many farms and had gone bankrupt in the agricultural depression at the beginning of this century. This left my father’s parents badly off, but they managed to send him to Oxford, where he studied medicine. He then went into research in tropical medicine. He went out to East Africa in 1937. When the war began, he made an overland journey across Africa to get a ship back to England, where he volunteered for military service. He was told, however, that he was more valuable in medical research.
My mother was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the second child of seven of a family doctor. The family moved south to Devon where she was twelve. Like my father’s family, hers was not well off. Nevertheless, they managed to send my mother to Oxford. After Oxford, she had various jobs, including that of inspector of taxes, which she did not like. She gave that up to become a secretary. That was how she met my father in the early years of the war.
We lived in Highgate, north London. My sister Mary was born eighteen months after me. I’m told I did not welcome her arrival. All through our childhood there was a certain tension between us, fed by the narrow difference in our ages. In our adult life, however, this tension has disappeared, as we have gone different ways. She became a doctor, which pleased my father. My younger sister, Philippa, was born when I was nearly five and was able to understand what was happening. I can remember looking forward to her arrival so that there would be three of us to play games. She was a very intense and perceptive child. I always respected her judgment and opinions. My brother Edward came much later, when I was fourteen, so he hardly entered my childhood at all. He was very different from the other three children, being completely nonacademic and nonintellectual. It was probably good for us. He was a rather difficult child, but one couldn’t help liking him.
My earliest memory is of standing in the nursery of Byron House in Highgate and crying my head off. All around me, children were playing with what seemed like wonderful toys. I wanted to join in, but I was only two and a half, and this was the first time I had been left with people I didn’t know. I think my parents were rather surprised at my reaction, because I was their first child and they had been following child development textbooks that said that children ought to start making social relationships at two. But they took me away after that awful morning and didn’t send me back to Byron House for another year and a half.
At that time, during and just after the war, Highgate was an area in which a number of scientific and academic people lived. In another country they would have been called intellectuals, but the English have never admitted to having any intellectuals. All these parents sent their children to Byron House school, which was a very progressive school for those times. I remember complaining to my parents that they weren’t teaching me anything. They didn’t believe in what was then the accepted way of drilling things into you. Instead, you were supposed to learn to read without realizing you were being taught. In the end, I did learn to read, but not until the fairly late age of eight. My sister Philippa was taught to read by more conventional methods and could read by the age of four. But then, she was definitely brighter than me.
We lived in a tall, narrow Victorian house, which my parents had bought very cheaply during the war, when everyone thought London was going to be bombed flat. In fact, a V-2 rocket landed a few houses away from ours. I was away with my mother and sister at the time, but my father was in the house. Fortunately, he was not hurt, and the house was not badly damaged. But for years there was a large bomb site down the road, on which I used to play with my friend Howard, who lived three doors the other way. Howard was a revelation to me because his parents weren’t intellectuals like the parents of all the other children I knew. He went to the council school, not Byron House, and he knew about football and boxing, sports that my parents wouldn’t have dreamed of following.
Another early memory was getting my first train set. Toys were not manufactured during the war, at least not for the home market. But I had a passionate interest in model trains. My father tried making me a wooden train, but that didn’t satisfy me, as I wanted something that worked. So my father got a secondhand clockwork train, repaired it with a soldering iron, and gave it to me for Christmas when I was nearly three. The train didn’t work very well. But my father went to America just after the war, and when he came back on the Queen Mary
, he brought my mother some nylons, which were not obtainable in Britain at that time. He brought my sister Mary a doll that closed its eyes when you laid it down. And he brought me an American train, complete with a cowcatcher and a figure-eight track. I can still remember my excitement as I opened the box.
Clockwork trains were all very well, but what I really wanted were electric trains. I used to spend hours watching a model railway club layout in Crouch End, near Highgate. I dreamed about electric trains. Finally, when both my parents were away somewhere, I took the opportunity to draw out of the Post Office bank all the very modest amount of money that people had given me on special occasions like my christening. I used the money to buy an electric train set, but frustratingly enough, it didn’t work very well. Nowadays, we know about consumer rights. I should have taken the set back and demanded that the shop or manufacturer replace it, but in those days the attitude was that it was a privilege to buy something, and it was just your bad luck if it turned out to be faulty. So I paid for the electric motor of the engine to be serviced, but it never worked very well.
Later on, in my teens, I built model airplanes and boats. I was never very good with my hands, but I did this with my school friend John McClenahan, who was much better and whose father had a workshop in their house. My aim was always to build working models that I could control. I didn’t care what they looked like. I think it was the same drive that led me to invent a series of very complicated games with another school friend, Roger Ferneyhough. There was a manufacturing game, complete with factories in which units of different colors were made, roads and railways on which they were carried, and a stock market. There was a war game, played on a board of four thousand squares, and even a feudal game, in which each player was a whole dynasty, with a family tree. I think these games, as well as the trains, boats, and airplanes, came from an urge to know how things worked and to control them. Since I began my Ph.D., this need has been met by my research into cosmology. If you understand how the universe operates, you control it in a way.
In 1950 my father’s place of work moved from Hampstead, near Highgate, to the newly constructed National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, on the northern edge of London. Rather than travel out from Highgate, it seemed more sensible to move out of London and travel in to town. My parents therefore bought a house in the cathedral city of St. Albans, about ten miles north of Mill Hill and twenty miles north of London. It was a large Victorian house of some elegance and character. My parents were not very well off when they bought it, and they had to have quite a lot of work done on it before we could move in. Thereafter my father, like the Yorkshireman he was, refused to pay for any further repairs. Instead, he did his best to keep it going and keep it painted, but it was a big house and he was not very skilled in such matters. The house was solidly built, however, so it withstood this neglect. My parents sold it in 1985, when my father was very ill (he died in 1986). I saw it recently. It didn’t seem that any more work had been done on it, but it still looked much the same.
The house had been designed for a family with servants, and in the pantry there was an indicator board that showed which room the bell had been rung from. Of course we didn’t have servants, but my first bedroom was a little L-shaped room that must have been a maid’s room. I asked for it at the suggestion of my cousin Sarah, who was slightly older than me and whom I greatly admired. She said that we could have great fun there. One of the attractions of the room was that one could climb from the window out onto the roof of the bicycle shed and thence to the ground.
Sarah was the daughter of my mother’s eldest sister, Janet, who had trained as a doctor and was married to a psychoanalyst. They lived in a rather similar house in Harpenden, a village five miles further north. They were one of the reasons we moved to St. Albans. It was a great bonus to me to be near Sarah, and I frequently went on the bus to Harpenden. St. Albans itself stood next to the remains of the ancient Roman city of Verulamium, which had been the most important Roman settlement in Britain after London. In the Middle Ages it had had the richest monastery in Britain. It was built around the shrine of Saint Alban, a Roman centurion who is said to be the first person in Britain to be executed for the Christian faith. All that remained of the abbey was a very large and rather ugly abbey church and the old abbey gateway building, which was now part of St. Albans school, where I later went.
St. Albans was a somewhat stodgy and conservative place compared with Highgate or Harpenden. My parents made hardly any friends there. In part this was their own fault, as they were naturally rather solitary, particularly my father. But it also reflected a different kind of population; certainly, none of the parents of my school friends in St. Albans could be described as intellectuals.Note
*This essay and the one that follows are based on a talk I gave to the International Motor Neurone Disease Society in Zurich in September 1987 and has been combined with material written in August 1991.
Copyright © 1994 by Stephen Hawking. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.