SOUE News Issue 7

Book Review: Mechanicks in the Universitie

Mechanicks in the Universitie
A History of Engineering Science at Oxford
Alastair Howatson, Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford, 2008
182 pages, softback

Review by Professor Roderick A Smith

I matriculated in 1967. In 2005, I was delighted to be elected the Senior Visiting Research Fellow of my old college for the academic year. On the first day, I joined the Fellows for lunch, entering the Senior Common Room for the first time. Feeling very new and out of place, I introduced myself to my neighbour. "And what do you do?" "I am an engineer." "So you won't have anything interesting to say." Welcome to Oxford! I regret I did not think fast enough to make the response, "It depends to whom I am speaking."

Alastair Howatson has got many interesting things to say to all of us in his history of engineering at Oxford, but he makes the point that engineering's birth and development has been far from easy and, in some quarters at least, as I found out for myself, the work and achievements of the engineers is less than fully appreciated. This book stems from the Centenary of Engineering Science at Oxford; its launch at the Centenary Garden party in June was pre-dated by a lecture on the same topic in the Centenary series. I attended that lecture (as you can by following the link given at the end of this review), confident that it would be special because of my memories of Howatson's superb lectures to the undergraduate classes of the late sixties. I don't think I missed any of his scheduled lectures, whilst my average attendance overall was probably in the order of 20% at most. Given that he was lecturing on electrical engineering, a subject which I was passionately ambivalent about, you can judge the high regard I accorded to him. And the years had not changed his attractive mixture of authority and self-deprecation, humour and quality information. The lecture was outstanding: and so, of course, is the book.

The events prior to the establishment of engineering at Oxford are treated in some detail. The roots are evidently deep, penetrating as far back as Richard of Wallingford (c.1292-1336) who built an astronomical clock and wrote on the theory of gears. In the 17th century, John Wallis studied the reciprocal frame, whilst even the least interested current undergraduate will be familiar, at least in a simplified form, with Hooke's eponymous law (1676), originally stated in a Latin anagram. The Victorian era in Oxford was largely concerned with modernising the University, a process to which Howatson devotes a complete chapter. Oxford's contributions to the great strides in engineering of this period were few: Froude, known for his non-dimensional fluid mechanics number, worked in many areas, including a study of the lateral forces generated on a curved railway track whilst working with Brunel on the Great Western Railway. Vernon-Harcourt became Professor of Civil Engineering at University College London and a leading figure in his profession.

My interlocutor in the conversation with which I introduced this piece was (you might have already guessed) a Classicist. It is ironic that the first engineering appointment in Oxford was that of a pass degree Classicist clergyman, the Revd Fredrick John Smith, as the Millard Lecturer in Experimental Mechanics and Engineering. The Millard Laboratory was established in 1886 in the Dolphin Yard of Trinity College, sandwiched in the tiny space between St. John's and Balliol, but accessed via a gate in St. Giles. In 1872 the Millard bequest of £8000 (approximately £4.5 million now) was the largest Trinity College had received since that of its founder. The bequest was to be used to benefit mathematical and general science, and through the enthusiasm of the schoolmaster President of Trinity, Revd John Percival, part of it was eventually used to fund an engineering laboratory. It is noted that despite the tiny size of the laboratory (140 m2), no space could be found to house it on University land because the science professors had marked out all available space for their own subjects! The notice advertising the opening of the laboratory promised theoretical instruction on "the principles on which the strength, arrangement and proportion of machines are determined" and practical instruction on "the use of hand and machine tools, working in wood and iron, &c." Some details are given of an amusing incident in 1897 during which Smith's mechanical chronograph was used to convict two men of "furious" driving on the Banbury Road (actually 12 mph). The progress of technology is interesting. I was flashed by a speed camera at the same location in 2006. Tracing me and the levying of the fine of the offence (34 mph at 5 am on a Sunday morning) was made automatic by the use of the computer.

But the centenary we are celebrating arises from the appointment of Charles Frewen Jenkin to the Chair of Engineering Science in 1908. I will not spoil the story by summarising the difficulties which had to be overcome in the University to arrive at this happy outcome. Suffice to say that by this time engineering was well established at many of the younger Universities in the UK. Even Cambridge beat Oxford to it by 33 years: a canvas in the time scales of the ancient universities. The first graduate of the Department emerged in 1910. The name will be very familiar to railway buffs: that of Charles Edward Fairburn, later Chief Electrical and Mechanical Engineer of the LMS Railway. From this point on, the general story, but not perhaps the detail, will be more familiar to many readers. I will not attempt to even outline the story of expansion, growth and diversification which has attended the last century, but I assure you in the steady hands of Howatson it makes fascinating reading. However, several of the themes enlarged upon in the book are worth noting.

The development of the various buildings which now comprise the Department started with the occupation of the Keble Road triangle starting at the north end in 1914 and expanding in 1927 and 1936. The statue atop the northern gable of the Jenkin building forms an attractive cover picture for this history. Designed by Jenkin's sister-in-law, the boy on tortoise sculpture is supposed to represent youthful engineering subduing the earth and was for many years regarded as the Departmental icon. The number of students graduating up to the end of the Second World War was approximately ten per year. This number climbed steadily in the post war years, eventually necessitating the new Thom building, opened in 1963. This is the building I knew as an undergraduate and was then stung by the criticism of its external appearance from colleagues in other Departments. Well, even today it is somewhat of a geometric perturbation to the skyline, but artistic opinion is in the eye of the beholder, and the paternoster lifts were exciting and different! The approximately 50 per year graduating at the time of the Thom building had risen to about 90 at the time of the Holder building (1976) and further to 130 for the engineering and technology building in 1988. The completion of the Information Engineering Building in 2004 just about filled in the triangle and coincided with an output of about 150 graduates each year.

Howatson claims, with considerable justification, that over the years the Department has enjoyed good leadership. Certainly the status of the Department has risen as it has grown. The growth of its research output is another theme developed in the book as is the diversification of the courses on offer. Many well known names of graduates are mentioned in the course of the story, often eliciting a pleasant surprise, "I didn't know he was from Oxford." Another surprise is the current number of professors in the Department. As recently as 1984, there were just three. Currently there are nearly 40, about the same number as the other ranks: one hopes the leadership can deal with so many chiefs. This fact could perhaps have merited greater explanation, indeed more statistical data could have, with advantage, been included in the Appendices. It is not as though Howatson is unfamiliar with these kinds of details: meat and drink to an author of HLT!

I have not sought to seek out and nit-pick errors and indeed am ill qualified so to do. However, the availability of The Times Archive on-line enabled me to read a reference given as a footnote on page 15 to an article of 24 April 1871, to find that a foolish comment quoted in the text and ascribed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not actually made by him.

It would be quite wrong to end with these petty quibbles. This history is the product of considerable work, which has unearthed much previously unpublished material. The result is an extremely well written, beautifully produced and engrossing story of the first 100 years of the Department of Engineering Science at Oxford University. The author deserves our warmest thanks and his book deserves to be read and enjoyed by the widest possible audience.

Dr Howatson's lecture in the Centenary series can be accessed through the link:

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