G. B. R. Feilden

Champion of high standards in British engineering design

At the beginning of the Report of the Feilden Committee on Engineering Design, delivered to the government of Harold Macmillan in 1963, comes the following passage: The engineering profession has a lower social and economic status in Britain than in other highly industrialised countries. Technology attracts a lower proportion of the ablest school leavers than science and, of those who take engineering degrees and enter engineering industry, most are attracted by research and management appointments; very few take up design as a career.

Geoffrey Bertram Robert Feilden, engineer: born London 20 February 1917; engineer, Power Jets 1940-46; engineer, Rushton and Hornsby 1946-49, Chief Engineer, Turbine Department 1949-54, Engineering Director 1954-59; managing director, Hawker Siddeley Brush Turbines 1959-61; FRS 1959; group technical director, Davy-Ashmore 1961-1968; Chairman, Committee on Engineering Design 1963; CBE 1966; Deputy Director General, British Standards Institution 1968-70, Director General 1970-81; married first 1946 Elizabeth Gorton (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1961), second Diana Angier (née Lloyd); died Painswick, Gloucestershire 1 May 2004.

At the beginning of the Report of the Feilden Committee on Engineering Design, delivered to the government of Harold Macmillan in 1963, comes the following passage:

The engineering profession has a lower social and economic status in Britain than in other highly industrialised countries. Technology attracts a lower proportion of the ablest school leavers than science and, of those who take engineering degrees and enter engineering industry, most are attracted by research and management appointments; very few take up design as a career.

If there has since been a significant change for the better, it can in part be ascribed to the chairman of the committee, G.B.R. Feilden, who was then group technical director of the engineering company Davy-Ashmore and a member of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

In 1962 and 1963 Feilden and his colleagues, S.H. Grylls, chief engineer at Rolls-Royce, Professor Owen Saunders, head of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College, London and Dr M.C. de Malherbe, also at Imperial, took a massive amount of evidence from such distinguished people as Alec Issigonis, chief designer of the Mini, the engineer Sir John Baker and Sir Christopher Hinton of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Feilden wrote the report himself, beautifully and succinctly. The committee recommended that action be taken to impress upon the managements of engineering businesses the vital importance of the design function and the need to encourage more talented engineers to make their careers in design.

Feilden urged that all available means be used, especially television, to draw attention to the importance of engineering in the national economy. He passionately strove to increase the status of designers within the engineering profession

He put forward ways of encouraging experiments in methods of teaching design at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and to reorganise the training of engineers to include more emphasis on modern production methods, works organisation, costs and the influence of design. He recommended strategies to bring about a closer integration of the practical and academic elements of engineering education.

Feilden proposed to establish institutes at universities and colleges for advanced studies in particular fields of design, and to establish a higher degree in Engineering Design. He was ahead of his time in encouraging the use of computers to increase the productivity of designers. He also put forward proposals to use government purchasing procedures to insist upon the highest standards of engineering design in the equipment produced for the armed forces, civil establishments and the public sector industry.

Above all, Feilden wanted to ensure that British standards always encouraged good design practice. He was to champion this particular cause in his capacity as Deputy Director General (1968-70) and Director General (1970-81) of the British Standards Institution. In all the years in which I knew him as an officer of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, he lost no opportunity to preach the importance of design.

Geoffrey Bertram Robert Feilden was the son of Major Robert Humphrey Feilden, who had suffered from gassing on the Western Front in 1917 and who had emigrated for health reasons to British Columbia. Feilden would recall how he played around with the workings of a single wire telephone system in the Okanagan Valley and carried out simple experiments on discarded Leclanché cells. He was a child, in his own words, of inordinate curiosity.

In 1925 he came back to Britain and won a major scholarship to Bedford School and an exhibition to King's College, Cambridge, where he took first class honours in the Mechanical Sciences tripos. By luck (which I was to share 15 years later), he was given the opportunity to read part two of the Economics tripos and was supervised by Joan Robinson, author of the seminal work The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933), Richard Kahn, who worked out the multiplier effect for Keynes's General Theory, and indeed, occasionally by Maynard Keynes himself.

Graduating in July 1939 he joined Unilever and from there was sent to Power Jets, working in particular on the Gloster E28/39 prototype which had been designed as a fighter engine. The young Feilden, engineering economist, was made manager of the test programme, and at the insistence of Sir Frank Whittle, took a leading part in the installation of the W1X engine for taxi-ing trials. The Gloucester Whittle E28/39 flew for the first time at RAF Cranwell on 15 May 1941, ushering in the age of jet propulsion.

When peace arrived, Feilden joined the Lincoln firm of Ruston and Hornsby, and as technical director was responsible for turbine development which provided maintenance-free service in a way that was simply not possible with diesel engines.

In 1959 he became managing director of Hawker Siddeley Brush Turbines - and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society the same year - moving to Davy-Ashmore in 1961. He joined the British Standards Institution in 1968, becoming Director General two years later. He was a familiar contributor at both the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and at the meetings of the Foundation for Science and Technology.

A memorial service for Bob Feilden will take place at St Paul's, Wilton Place, in London on 28 September.

Tam Dalyell



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