OBITUARIES ; Sir Alastair Pilkington

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The Independent Online
Sir Alastair Pilkington was chairman of his family firm Pilkington, the Merseyside glass manufacturers, from 1973 to 1980. Pilkington Brothers was founded at St Helens by Richard and William Pilkington in 1826; during Sir Alastair's career with the company, which he joined in 1947, he made an outstanding contribution to its growth and prosperity.

He was a remarkable man, whose life encompassed several careers; a scientist with management skills, a man of strong convictions passionately held and cogently argued.

He will be remembered primarily for his invention of the float process. Four years after joining Pilkington in 1947, he conceived the idea that molten glass could be formed into a continuous ribbon by pouring it into a bath of tin and ''floating'' it while it cooled. In this way, neither surface would be marked by the rollers of the plate glass process or the glass distorted by the vertical pull of the sheet glass process.

Like the jet engine - a simple concept - but difficult to perfect. That it was perfected was due in large part to Alastair Pilkington's determination. He worked long hours with his team of scientists and glassmakers over seven years before understanding and then applying the pioneering physics, chemistry and engineering required to achieve success.

He demanded and received the full support of the Pilkington board for the capital and development expenditure, which, if the company had not been privately owned, would not have been forthcoming.

Float is so good that since 1959 it has supplanted all other techniques for forming flat glass. Alastair Pilkington played a leading part in licensing his invention throughout the world. The process has been licensed to 42 manufacturers in 30 countries with more than 170 plants in operation, under construction or planned. As chairman, he was able to use the resulting royalties to develop and expand the company.

It may be that two other periods of his life were responsible for building in Alastair Pilkington a determination and intensity of purpose: Cambridge University and the Second World War. As a young undergraduate at Trinity he was a fine and extremely competent athlete, representing the university at squash, fives and tennis. He was the fives amateur champions of England and seldom lost a competitive game of squash.

He was called up in 1939, while at university, and served with the Royal Artillery. He was captured in Crete and spent three years as a prisoner of war. He spoke little of his experiences, but it is not hard to imagine that those three years contributed much to his great strength of character.

Sir Alastair retired as chairman of Pilkington at the age of 60, several years earlier than was customary in those days, saying that, although he had greatly enjoyed his time at Pilkington, he looked forward to enjoying a second career while he was still active. This he achieved. Apart from skiing, paragliding and sailing, he took on the chairmanship of Chloride and served as a director of the Bank of England and a non-executive director of BP, British Rail and the Wellcome Foundation.

He contributed to his first love, the advancement of science and education, through his membership of the Science Advisory Committee for Science and Technology and the Science Research Council. He was president of the British Association between 1983 and 1984 and vice-president of its Foundation of Science and Technology in 1986. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1969, knighted in 1970, and received doctorates and fellowships from 13 academic institutions, as well as numerous scientific awards.

Alastair Pilkington also played an important part in community life. He was closely involved in the creation of the first enterprise agency in the UK - the Community of St Helens Trust - from which grew Business in the Community, of which he was the founder chairman.

In 1990 he took on the task of raising money for his university by becoming chairman of the Cambridge Foundation. He was for 10 years Pro-Chancellor of Lancaster University and last year was elected Chancellor of Liverpool University.

Alastair Pilkington will be remembered personally for his unfailing kindness, his concern for others, his enquiring mind and the stimulation of his company. He achieved his objective of a second career, but it was his character to achieve what he set out to do.

Antony Pilkington

Lionel Alexander Bethune Pilkington, glass manufacturer: born 7 January 1920; director, Pilkington Brothers (later Pilkington plc) 1955-85, deputy chairman 1971-73, chairman 1973-80, president 1985-95; FRS 1969; Kt 1970; director, Bank of England 1974-84; director, BP 1976-95; Pro-Chancellor, Lancaster University 1980-90; chairman, Council for Business in the Community 1982-85; Chancellor, Liverpool University 1994-95; married 1945 Patricia Nicholls (ne Elliott, died 1977; one son, one daughter), 1978 Kathleen Haynes; died 5 May 1995.