Obituary: John Harris

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The Independent Online
IN 1946, following the end of the Second World War, John Harris entered the civil engineering profession in local government. He was one of a band of young engineers who became excited by the opportunities offered by a new technology called pre-stressed concrete, which had been invented in France and which was very little understood in the English-speaking world. It had the great advantage of using concrete and steel much more efficiently than previously, and therefore was of immense importance during the lean years of material shortages during reconstructions after the war.

In 1952 he co-authored the first book in English to describe the principles of pre-stressing in simple terms (Prestressed Concrete, with P.B. Morice), dispelling many of its mysteries; it ran to 100,000 copies and had a seminal influence on developments in construction, even being translated into Russian. He later joined I.C. Smith in writing a second book, Basic Design and Construction in Prestressed Concrete (1963), describing how this technology could be applied in practical situations, for Harris was essentially an engineer, with sound judgement and a concern for realistic and practical solutions to problems.

In 1951 he was invited to initiate pre-stressing processes in Australia and spent the next six years working there before returning to Britain to join his brother Alan (later Sir Alan) Harris and James Sutherland in setting up the consulting practice of Harris and Sutherland in London.

His skills were very much entrepreneurial and, in addition to designing many bridges and industrial plants in the UK, he made an important contribution overseas to the success of British consultants in world markets during the latter half of this century. He was instrumental in the establishment of the firm's offices in Australia, Hong Kong and Iran. Amongst the many projects for which he was responsible were the redevelopment of King's College in the Strand, the Alford Point Bridge in Australia and civil engineering works for Pilkington's float glass factory at St Helens, for the Cameron Ironworks and for Texas Instruments.

Harris took an international view of engineering and was much involved in the development of co-operation between European professionals; he devoted a good deal of his time to promoting his profession in Europe as a delegate to CIDIC (the European Federation of Consulting Engineers) which laid the ground for the establishment of the European Federation of Consulting Associations. A committed francophile with a good command of the language, he was a member and at one time president of the "French Civils" taking part in their many "voyages d'etude" to study special engineering works in France.

Born in London in 1922, Harris attended Owen's School in Islington before reading Engineering at King's College London during the war, when it was evacuated to Bristol. He was awarded the Jelf medal for his special contribution to academic and social life.

In 1943 he joined the Royal Navy as an engineer and was soon serving on Arctic convoys. He was later transferred to the battleship HMS King George V and saw service in the Pacific. There he became the first British naval officer to go ashore on Japan's surrender. Lightly armed, and taking with him a single seaman stoker, he organised the release of British PoWs, commandeering trains to reach the camps and transport the PoWs back to the coast. For this exploit he received a Commendation from the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet.

John Harris was a warm, caring and considerate man with a ready wit and an inexhaustible fund of stories, often told against himself.

John Desmond Harris, civil engineer: born London 6 September 1922; married 1944 Pauline de Guerin (two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Sevenoaks, Kent 14 January 1998.