Obituaries: Professor Tom Patten

Tam Dalyell
Monday 12 April 1999 23:02

TIME AND chance determine our lives. Tom Patten happened to be a talented, highly practical can-do and up-and-coming senior lecturer in mechanical sciences at Edinburgh University when it transpired in the early 1960s that the first traces of gas (not oil) were being identified in the North Sea.

I was a member of a Commons Committee stage of an obscure bill on North Sea Gas installations in 1963 when I had a phone call from Patten, whom I did not know at that time. "I must see you. I will be out at your house this afternoon." That was his style. It was clear from our first meeting that he had identified the huge potential importance of what was happening in the North Sea - and indeed he was the first Scot not from an oil company who took the trouble to go to Houston, Texas, and other world centres of the oil industry.

Destiny had called. For the next three decades, Patten was to be one of the pivotal figures in the North Sea gas and oil industry. In addition to unquestioned engineering expertise, he had a blunt charm and shrewd judgement of people which allowed him to bestride both the academic and the business world. Unlike many academics who go into business, he maintained a serious interest in his subject of heat transfer science until the end of his life. Professor Ewan Brown, the merchant banker and executive director of Noble Grossart, says that Patten was not only welcome on boards for his technical knowledge but that his contribution was much broader than technical expertise and brought wisdom to boardrooms such as that of Pict Petroleum, to which he brought a most valuable non- executive continuity.

Tom Patten was born the youngest of the three children of William Patten, of Ford, Northumberland, who had risen from a Post Office telegraph boy through his own efforts to become the manager of the Prudential Insurance Company for the Scottish region. His mother was of the Hall family who had been farm labourers in Northumberland for generations. Thanks to an education at Leith Academy under rigorous old-fashioned Scottish dominies for which he was always grateful, he went to Edinburgh University.

The Public Orator in giving the encomium for Patten's honorary degree as Doctor of Science in 1962 said dryly that the record showed that he had missed only two lectures in all his student degree course - one on hydraulics and the other on the theory of machines on 28 July 1944. Patten told me later in life that he and his contemporaries had worked so assiduously because they realised that others of their peer group were at the front risking their lives and it behoved them to work extremely hard for their country.

On leaving university he was commissioned into REME and posted to Palestine. In 1963 when Patten came to one of the Labour Party's two-way trafficking ideas on science policy as an invited guest - I never imagined he was a Labour voter - I introduced him to Richard Crossman, then shadow Secretary of State for Education and Science. He said, "Mr Crossman, you and I have met before!" It transpired that as a young officer in Palestine he had been questioned by the Anglo-American Fact-Finding Mission set up by President Truman and Clement Attlee of which Crossman was a member.

That evening Patten explained how harrowing it had been for British servicemen in 1947, never knowing from what direction they would be attacked either by Arabs or by Irgund Zwei Leumi. It was the most uncomfortable period of his life. He was greatly relieved to be posted to the British Military Mission in Greece to help re-establish their infrastructure and the vain attempt to shore up the Greek king against socialists and Communists.

In 1948 he was brought back to Edinburgh University by Professor Ronald Arnold, the famous Regius Professor of Engineering whose students won more than 20 professorial chairs. Patten enjoyed a promotion rate not much slower than that he had achieved in the Army by becoming a captain, and became acting head of department before the age of 40. He was also given the responsibility, important in those days, of running the university's OTC (Officer Training Corps).

The Public Orator wryly remarked, "However quick he may have been at getting degrees and military promotion, he was rather slow at learning the age at which professors should give up playing football." (Patten was an able all-round athlete and, as I know to my cost, a class squash player.)

In 1950 he embarked on a supremely happy marriage with Jacqueline Wright, who came from the McLachlan family, shipfitters on the Cart river at Paisley who gave their name to the McLachlan davit, the machinery by which lifeboats are ejected from ships in distress.

In 1968 the opportunity arose - through the offices of Lord Balerno - for a professorship at Edinburgh's then new Heriot-Watt University, formerly Heriot-Watt College, the justifiably proud technical college of Edinburgh. Tom Johnston, later to be distinguished Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt and then Professor of Economics at the university, told me that the decision of the university chiefs was that Tom Patten should be entrusted with taking forward the interest of Heriot-Watt in relation to oil development and that he "carried the torch on behalf of Heriot-Watt University for interests in the developments of the North Sea". Heriot-Watt, along with University College London, emerged as the two universities in Britain to have made a serious speciality in North Sea studies.

Professor Jack Rorke recalls that Heriot-Watt was given its breakthrough when Brown Brothers gave the university the contract for working out means by which their Staflo low-platform semi-submersible could be held on location. They could not do the computer studies themselves. Heriot-Watt seized their chance and Patten became in 1972 the Director of the Institute of Off-Shore Engineering at Heriot-Watt.

As Vice-Principal, 1978-80, he became the Acting Principal on the unexpected death of George Burnett. He took on a poisoned chalice because it was the time when university funds were being cut. Patten won great praise for guiding Heriot-Watt through the financial traumas of the early 1980s at a time when the university was relocating to its new site to the west of Edinburgh at Riccarton.

Patten had a change of direction and became involved with a mosaic of companies involved in the North Sea - Pict Petroleum, Melville Street Investments, New Darien Oil Trust, Seaboard Lloyd, Sealand Industries, Edinburgh Petroleum Services - and, from 1987 to 1991, he chaired the Co-ordinating Committee on Marine Science and Technology; the predecessor of which he had been a member of in the 1960s, brought in by Dickson Mabon, then Minister of State at the Scottish Office responsible for the North Sea. From the 1950s, he gave much time too to the Military Education Committee of the Ministry of Defence, particularly on the security of oil-rigs.

Nothing gave him greater pleasure than that he should be the first professor domiciled in Scotland to become President of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering, from 1991 to 1992. Unfortunately his time in office coincided with the immensely complicated, seemingly endless and finally fruitless negotiations to unite the Mechanicals, the Electricals and the Civils, when it was hoped that they would effect a merger. I say domiciled in Scotland because Watt and Stephenson and other distinguished Scots based in England were among his distinguished predecessors.

A lifelong interest was relations with Eastern Europe and he was the standing chairman of a conference which regularly met at Vilnius in Lithuania on the problems of heat transfer science. Patten, with a chuckle (and he did chuckle), contrasted his close relations with Communist Europe with his position as a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers and Freeman of the City of London.

Tom Patten, marine scientist: born Ford, Northumberland 1 January 1926; Assistant Lecturer, Department of Engineering, Edinburgh University 1950- 52, Lecturer 1952-60, Senior Lecturer 1960-67; Professor and Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Heriot-Watt University 1967-82 (Emeritus), Director, Institute of Offshore Engineering 1972-79, Vice-Principal 1978- 80, Acting Principal 1980-81; FRSE 1967; CBE 1981; President, Society for Underwater Technology 1985-87; President, Engineering Committee on Oceanic Resources 1987-90; President, Institute of Mechanical Engineering 1991-92; married 1950 Jacqueline Wright (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 10 April 1999.

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