A history graduate of Manchester University, John Harris had long shared with his schoolfriend Theo Barker an interest in the industrial development of his home town St Helen's, in south-west Lancashire. First degree studies were interrupted by active war service with the Royal Corps of Signals and the Indian army after which Harris returned to Manchester to complete his degree in 1948.
Shortly afterwards he collaborated with Barker to complete their study A Merseyside Town in the Industrial Revolution: St Helen's 1750-1900. Published in 1954, it was reprinted twice, latterly in 1993. The book drew upon Harris's doctoral work on the copper industry, an interest which found later expression in The Copper King (1964), a study of the entrepreneur Thomas Williams of Llanidan.
Many of the themes which were subsequently to inform his broader studies or technological and industrial history were developed at Liverpool University from 1953. It was there that he displayed his capacity for hard work, combining painstaking research with a raft of administrative duties and an unfailing concern for the welfare of his students. He was instrumental in launching the journal Business History which is currently ranked a leader in its field.
In 1970 Harris moved from a Readership in Liverpool to Birmingham as successor to W.H.B. Court in the Chair of Economic and Social History. His inaugural lecture on industrial technology in France and England reflected a developing interest in the transfer of labour, skills and ideas between the two countries during the formative period of industrialisation. Subsequent articles on these and accompanying themes were collected in Essays in Industry and Technology in the 18th Century: England and France (1992).
The complex economic and political factors underlying the industrial progress of the two countries was the theme of his latest book, Industrial Espionage and the Transfer of Technology: Britain and France in the 18th century (1997, due to come out in a few months' time), a product of almost 30 years study which he read in final draft before suffering a heart attack.
It was typical of Harris's devotion to academic life that he spent so much of his time encouraging the development of economic and social history in the widest sense. He was an active member of the Economic History Society, serving for many years as a Council Member and Chairman of its Publications Committee. In addition to undertaking a considerable range of managerial responsibilities in Birmingham (including a period as Dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Social Science) he worked ceaselessly from 1990 to establish and sustain on behalf of Birmingham University the Ironbridge Institute in Shropshire as a pioneering centre for postgraduate studies in industrial archaeology and heritage management.
From 1981 to 1984 he was chairman of the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage, a reflection of his standing in the field and his active participation in scholarly activity in France and North America in particular. His intensive work on French industial archives was recognised in 1990 when he was appointed Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
John Harris was a kind man who detested pomposity and disloyalty. He openly displayed the characteristics of his Lancashire upbringing: diligence, integrity, but above all respect for those around him. With a raised eyebrow and a sly smile, he could distance himself from the worst manifestations of academic sensitivity, but when called upon to be tough and uncompromising in defence of matters of principle, not least when they affected students and staff, he was formidable and utterly dependable.
A devoted family man, he was especially proud of the achievements of his two sons. He was rarely seen at conferences at home or abroad save in the presence of his wife Thelma whose untimely death from a brain tumour in February 1994 proved a devastating blow. As Emeritus Professor he continued none the less to be active in Birmingham and overseas dispensing that blend of cheerfulness, common sense and devotion to scholarship that was so much part of the man.
John Raymond Harris, economic historian: born St Helen's, Lancashire 14 May 1923; Professor of Economic History, Birmingham University 1970- 90 (Emeritus); married 1953 Thelma Knockton (died 1994; two sons); died Birmingham 5 March 1997.