Obituary: Lord Kings Norton
Monday 05 January 1998
Harold Roxbee Cox was a leading figure in the aviation industry throughout its development and made substantial contributions to airship design and to the safety of airplane structures.
As a boy, his imagination was lit up by the early flying displays to which he went with his father where he watched awestruck as his heroes performed acrobatics. His early idols included Claude Grahame-White and B.C. Hucks, the self-taught pilot who was the first Englishman to loop the loop.
Bitten by the flying bug, he left Kings Norton Grammar School at the age of 16 and went to work for Austin at Longbridge, where post-war diversification had produced a switch from warplanes to pleasure craft with names like Whippet and Kestrel. In the drawing office there he learnt on the job and designed, under the supervision of the chief engineer, the tail section of the single-seater Whippet.
The slump brought manufacture of airplanes at Longbridge to an end and the young Roxbee went to work with the apprentices. He found time, though, to obtain an external London University BSc with first class honours, so following in the footsteps of H.G. Wells and Barnes Wallis. This was followed by a PhD at Imperial College.
By 1924 airships were in vogue, with the Government seeing them as a means of linking the scattered Empire, and Cox joined the R101 team at Cardington, designing the shape of the airship. During this time he was awarded the R38 Memorial Prize for a paper entitled "External Forces on an Airship Structure". He pressed hard to be allowed to be a passenger on the proving flight to India but was turned down, so avoiding the spectacular crash at Beauvais.
Roxbee Cox was an airship man by conviction and returned "somewhat reluctantly" to Farnborough to work on aeroplanes. He studied the problems of flutter in structures and produced a number of papers which contributed greatly to what was then a growing safety problem.
From 1932 to 1938 he was an external lecturer in aircraft structures at Imperial College. Meantime, he continued his work at Farnborough and in 1938 became Head of the Air Defence Department, where he and his team developed the kite balloon barrage which was responsible for bringing down many V1 missiles. In 1940, at the age of 38, he was made responsible for the development of gliders - and for Frank Whittle, and within months the jet engine had displaced gliders in his portfolio.
As Director of Special Projects he had the difficult, and sometimes acrimonious, task of dealing with Whittle's Power Jets and other manufacturers including Rolls-Royce, Metropolitan-Vickers, de Havilland, Armstrong-Siddeley, Lucas and Ricardo - a formidable task. He formed a lasting friendship with Whittle and in 1944 urged his case for a substantial award from the Royal Commisssion for Awards to Inventors.
Cox oversaw the transfer of gas turbine technology to the United States in 1941 enabling America to enter the jet age via British developments. After the war he was awarded the Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm for his work on sharing information during the war years.
In 1944 he gave enthusiastic support to Sir Roy Fedden in the creation of an educational institution to provide high-grade engineering, scientific and technical training in aeronautics and so was born the Cranfield College of Aeronautics, with Cox on the board of governors from the outset.
In the same year he became chairman of Power Jets and, later, Director of the National Gas Turbine Establishment at Pyestock combining the work of Power Jets and of the jet propulsion unit of the Royal Aircraft Establishment. In 1947-49 he was President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and, in a sharp change of direction, became Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
He was knighted in 1953, but decided a year later that he would return to industry, becoming a director of Wilmot-Breeden, Brush Electrical and Metal Box, where he later became chairman. He also served on the boards of Dowty-Rotol, Ricardo, British Printing Corporation and Hoechst UK.
In 1965 he was created a life peer, taking the title Lord Kings Norton. His public service included chairmanship of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, presidency of the Royal Institution, chairmanship of the Air Registration Board and chairmanship of the Council for National Academic Awards.
But Cranfield remained a special place for him and he became its first and only Chancellor when it received its Royal Charter in 1969. He summed up his attitude thus: "Cranfield has the right philosophy. The more influence it has, the better we shall be."
His ever-present sense of adventure was well expressed in his Handley Page Memorial Lecture at Cranfield in 1969. He concluded:
When I look back on the great things I was privileged to take party in - the building of the R101, the creation of the jet engine - the scenes are illuminated with an heroic glow. I have always felt the romance of achievement and I think my contemporaries in aviation feel the same.
He wore his distinctions lightly and retained his interest in young people and new ideas. His sense of humour never deserted him and lightened many a difficult moment. His second wife, Joan, who survives him, provided immense support in his later years.
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