SOUE News Issue 2

A Few Disconnected Jottings

Alan Knight

I retired from the Department at the end of September 2002 and, prior to my departure, I began to recall some of the incidents and changes which have occurred during my thirty-five years battling against ignorance in the fields of engineering drawing, workshop practice and mechanical engineering, which my readers will appreciate are at the pinnacle of engineering.

My National Service was completed in the Education Branch of the Royal Air Force. I had applied to join the Technical Branch, but because I would not sign on for a further year beyond the statutory two which I was compelled to serve, I was put into the Education Branch. Two weeks of teaching practice at Uxbridge using the RAF ceremonial drill squad equipped me with the skills required to pass on my knowledge to others.

After National Service I worked for the Ministry of Aviation, based at various contractors' plants. This enabled me to see many firms who were manufacturing items for military aviation, and gave me an insight into what firms I certainly would not wish to work for.

The nomadic life did not suit me so I left and went to work in South Wales for British Nylon Spinners, who during my three years there were taken over by Imperial Chemical Industries. Working in South Wales was very pleasant, with its very willing workforce and good value housing, but I.C.I. had other ideas. Although one might be recruited to work at plant in a pleasant part of the UK, they had a policy of moving one up to one of their large complexes in the North-East "for experience".

This was the time to start buying the Daily Telegraph on Thursdays, where the job of Design Engineer in the Department of Engineering Science was advertised. I commenced work in Oxford in August 1967, and spent many pleasant years there.

The Thom Building (formerly known as the Main Building) and 19, Parks Road (now known as the Jenkin Building) were then our only locations. The separate facets of engineering, civil, structural, electrical, electronic and mechanical all had their own areas. There were no computers (in the modern sense), no electronic instruments with digital readout (with the exception of a couple of decatron counters), and the oscilloscopes were about as large as an elephant and radiated just about as much heat. The students' drawing offices were located on the sixth floor, where slide rules and some mechanical hand-wound calculators supplemented long hand calculations.

Much of the equipment was obtained from Government surplus auctions, and we even had a water tunnel which was obtained as part of the reparations from World War II. The workshop machine tools also came from Government sources, and even to this day one of the milling machines has still got its wartime identification marks, which can be seen from the Banbury Road.

Incidentally, until I came to Oxford, I had never come across a workshop which had clear glass windows; it just shows how our technicians can concentrate on their work without being diverted to observe the wild life in the Banbury Road.

From the beginning I was heavily involved both in the formal engineering drawing exercises, which originally took up two terms with several sessions per week, and also in the very vague first-year design projects. These were very open, and although we did supply a list of possible design tasks, students were encouraged to suggest their own ideas.

Throughout their time in the Department students had their own drawing desk and storage drawer in which they could leave the equipment they needed for project work in the second and third years.

Now the whole of the sixth floor of the Thom Building has been filled with computers, the D.O. is in the E&T Building, and the first year drawing has been cut down to about twenty hours, with a further four hours spent on a computer-aided-drawing exercise.

In addition to my contact with undergraduates I also gave design guidance to research students who, in the early days, usually had a much better grasp of how things were made than the current D.Phil students, who seem to be able to convince themselves that a computer simulation must be just as good as a piece of hardware. The D.Phil students in those days also seemed to be more colourful in their activities; one such student, who was an excellent mechanical engineer, negotiated the purchase of a large number of diseased elm trees from the University Parks. A large trailer was constructed in the car park (which now lies under the E&T Building) and the trees were transported to Wales on this enormous trailer towed behind a very small Bedford van. The same fellow purchased the J.C.B. which had been used for years in the Frenchay Road car scrap yard, and then attempted to drive it down to Wales. He succeeded after rebuilding the hydraulics at the roadside during the three-day journey.

One undergraduate was also memorable as a founder member of the Dangerous Sports Club. His exploits included bungee-jumping from the Clifton Suspension Bridge (after notifying the Daily Mail), and having a dinner-party on Rockall in full evening dress (worn under the wet suit).

It was obvious to me that our students would be able to design items and assemblies much more satisfactorily if they knew a little about workshop practice. To this end I organised the rental of a workshop in Park End Street which was used by the Oxford College of Further Education. Our own technicians acted as instructors, but after a few terms it was made plain to me that the C.F.E. expected their own staff to carry out the instruction. So we were allocated a room in the double basement of the Main Building which was mainly occupied by the 1919 steam drum which serves as a very large air receiver for the compressed-air supply. This gave us complete control of the workshop practice course, but the room seemed also to serve as a magnet for heat escaping from the main boiler-room next door. We now have an excellent Staff/Student Workshop in the Jenkin Building, with all the usual equipment found in manufacturing workshops. The windows are fitted with frosted glass and all first-year students attend a short formal course, and later manufacture a simulated car suspension system which they have designed.

There cannot be many undergraduates who left the Department more than about twenty years ago who do not remember the Paternoster lift. This remarkable device is sorely missed by all who knew it, although it did challenge newcomers to find out what happened if they remained in the car at the top or bottom of its travel. It was serviced by a self-employed lift "engineer" who could set it up with little more than an oil can, a large adjustable spanner and a packet of Woodbines, which provided shims for packing microswitches, motor mounts etc. The University then decided to have one firm of lift engineers attending to all their lifts. Our special lift engineer went, and so did the reliability of the Paternoster. The new glitzy firm put fancy notices on all our lifts and, surprisingly, found some large cracks in the steelwork of the Paternoster. I was convinced that these "cracks" had been in the structure since it was new, but anyway the Paternoster was replaced, and we got a new conventional lift with mirrors on the wall!

Going back in time a little, the Department purchased the Oxford Power Station in 1969, and staff were based there from 1972. A large low-speed wind tunnel for planning and building work was built between the turbine hall and the boiler room. It has been a great commercial success, and has carried out a variety of simple and complex investigations, from confirming the wind speed required to blow over temporary traffic-lights, to stability work on high-speed trains in hilly terrain.

There are also some high-speed wind tunnels which are supplied with compressed air by water-cooled compressors. Before these compressors were commissioned, we had to put a notice in the London Gazette formally announcing our intention to abstract water from the River Thames. This notice duly appeared, and a research student living on Osney Island produced it in a nearby public house. One local hothead then started a petition because he believed that we were going to drain the Thames. The research student had not explained to the locals that gallons per hour were a rather smaller unit than cubic metres per second!

One sometimes gets involved in debates as to whether the training which our students received about a quarter of a century ago was better than that which is delivered today. In the mid-1960s we did not have posts in information technology, opto-electronics, chemical engineering, production engineering etc etc. One of the dons acted as administrator, and he even went to the government surplus auctions mentioned earlier. We did not have any female lecturers and the course lasted for only three years. The boundaries of each type of engineering were much clearer than they are today.

I will not take sides in this debate, but will only mention that the training is very similar, but the range of technologies is much wider.

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