Sir John Horlock: Engineer who led campaign to prevent closure of the Open University

Apart from two metallurgists during the past 20 years, he was the first engineer to become Treasurer since 1843

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The Independent Online

John Horlock was one of the heavyweights of science and engineering in the second half of the 20th century. He was the second and consolidating Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford, Professor of Engineering at the Universities of Liverpool and Cambridge and Treasurer and Vice-President of the Royal Society.

He came from a family who ran an undertaking firm, Blake and Horlock, in Edmonton. His mother, Olive, was the third child of Christian Kissner, born in Kassel, Germany, who emigrated to England in the 1880s.

He passed the dreaded 11-plus and attended Latymer School, with its excellent academic rigour. One of his earliest memories was of Mr Geary, the headmaster of his primary school, Raglan School, informing his class that one boy, called Dickie, had not passed, and would go to Edmonton Higher Grade School instead. Horlock recalled how Dickie burst into tears. The incident had a profound effect on him; not only did the decision seem grossly unfair, but it seemed inexcusably cruel to tell him the result in front of all his friends.

This experience was a clue as to why a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge  and a Professor of Engineering should take pride in becoming Vice-Chancellor of the OU, an institution which kept open the avenue for success.

Horlock nurtured his sporting abilities at Latymer – and had one game with Tottenham Hotspur Juniors. He had hoped to be called back for a more formal trial, but he told me wryly that he had a poor game against a lad called Tommy Harmer, a tricky young footballer who went on to thrill the crowds at White Hart Lane and play for England. It was at Latymer that he was first impressed by Sheila Stutely, a girl two years younger, who in 1953 was to become his wife.

He went to St John’s to read for the mechanical sciences Tripos. His supervision partner was Neville Kirby, who had worked on gas turbines – and Horlock, too, became interested in these new power plants. Having won the Rex Moir Prize, he obtained a summer scholarship at MIT. During a recess, he was shown around Princeton University by a professor of aeronautics; in the common room of the Institute of Advanced Studies was the quiet figure of Albert Einstein, a member of the institute. The thrill of meeting and talking to Einstein was to remain an inspiration to Horlock.

In 1949, on a wage of £6 19s 6d per week, he took up a graduate apprenticeship with Rolls Royce at Derby and was given the job of redesigning an Avon compressor that was giving problems with unsteady flow and surge. After he successfully redesigned it he returned to St John’s and took on the sophisticated mathematical analysis of the flow through a single disc (simulating a row of blades) that William Hawthorne had written, made several approximations and developed it for many discs. Horlock was able to apply actuator disc theory to a turbine machine of many rows so that a designer could use it in practice.

On account of this work he took up the Harrison chair of mechanical engineering at Liverpool University where, with Professor Harry Preston, he built up a first class mechanical engineering department. He was invited by Pergamon Press to edit a series of books in their Commonwealth Library on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics for engineers, and was invited to London to meet Robert Maxwell, the proprietor of Pergamon. This was the beginning of a relationship which bore fruit later when he went to the Open University.

In 1967 Horlock returned to Cambridge to run the teaching office in the engineering department. With nearly 1,000 students and a teaching staff of about 100, it was probably the biggest department of any kind in the country; it was an experience which stood him in good stead at the OU.

Horlock played a major role in the early 1970s in Science Research Council activities, chairing their Mechanical Engineering Committee. He had observed how physicists managed to get money from the Council for buildings to house their expensive equipment. So he put it to Hawthorne that they should seek SRC funds for a turbo machinery research laboratory in Cambridge. This was the beginning of the Whittle Laboratory, opened by Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the turbo jet engine, in 1973. Horlock became director, and a new extension of was named after him in 1973.

Horlock became Vice-Chancellor of Salford in 1974; while in the post, he published a book on actuator disc theory. Part of the reason he was tempted to move to the Open University was that he had become convinced of the need for the continuing education of engineers after their first degrees, and in the later stages of their careers. In his autobiography he wrote: “In the fight for the Open University in the mid-Eighties, I remember telling some Tory MPs that the number of Open University students in their constituencies was numerically greater than their majorities. This awakened great interest in our plight! We developed a strong group of supporters... One of the strongest was Tam Dalyell, who became a good friend.”

At first hand I know how close the Open University came to being snuffed out. Keith Joseph would have killed it off; what saved the day was a combination of factors, the most important of which were the massive number of letters from people who had benefited from the OU. Another was the support of the highly intelligent William Waldegrave, Minister for Higher Education, and the third was that Margaret Thatcher remembered that as Education Secretary she had prevented Tony Barber from carrying out Iain MacLeod’s intent to destroy what he regarded as a Harold Wilson gimmick.

In 1990 Horlock retired after 16 years as Vice-Chancellor. He particularly valued the tributes from the Open University Students Association, who referred to him as “The students’ Vice-Chancellor”, one of the most valued compliments he ever received. He was delighted in 1976 when he was elected to the Royal Society “for services to science, education and engineering”. Another honour was his election to the Treasurership of the Royal Society in 1992; apart from two metallurgists during the past 20 years, he was the first engineer to become Treasurer since 1843.

John Harold Horlock, engineer and university administrator: born Edmonton, Middlesex 19 April 1928; Kt 1996; married 1953 Sheila Stutely (two daughters, one son); died 22 May 2015.