Obituary: Sir Owen Saunders

N. P. W. Moore
Thursday 14 October 1993 23:02

Owen Alfred Saunders, mathematician and engineer: born Streatham, 24 September 1904; Scientific Officer, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1926-32; Lecturer in Applied Mathematical Physics, Imperial College, London 1932, Clothworkers' Reader in Applied Mathematical Physics 1937, Head of Department 1946-65, Pro-Rector 1964-67; Dean, City and Guilds College 1955-64; Vice- Chancellor, London University 1967- 69; married 1935 Marion McKechney (died 1981; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased), 1981 Mrs Daphne Holmes; died Reigate, Surrey 10 October 1993.

NOT EVERY MAN returning to his office from public service in a long war can have to ask himself, 'Now which chair?' This was the case however when Owen Saunders returned in 1946 to the City and Guilds College, which made up the engineering department of Imperial College, London. Invitations from one old and one ancient university decorated his desk. It is indeed fortunate for Imperial College that London prevailed, and Saunders's earlier service as lecturer, and Clothworkers Reader, continued into the postwar years. His staying in London was an important advantage in the development of the college and of London University.

At Imperial College Saunders served as Professor and Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, Dean of the City and Guilds College, Pro-Rector and, following the death of Sir Patrick Linstead in 1966, Acting Rector of Imperial College. At London University he served in many capacities. He was Chairman of the Academic Council and was appointed Vice-Chancellor for a period of two years following his retirement from Imperial College in 1967. Thereafter as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Royal Holloway College he presided over the merging of that college with Bedford College to form the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College.

Throughout his long career, Saunders demonstrated a rare combination of skills in research in engineering science and in administration, especially in the expansion of Imperial College and in the reorganisation of London University which led to increased devolution of responsibility to the constituent colleges of London University in the Seventies. In his research interests he was concerned always to apply mathematical and physical principles to the understanding and solution of practical engineering problems. In this respect his contribution to a wide variety of developments during the Second World War was not only of immediate practical importance to the war effort but also strongly influenced his research in the postwar period.

Past students were attracted back, scholars from far and wide came to work in overcrowded laboratories only to find their quiet corners at Imperial threatened by expansion and rebuilding plans as a new college rose out of the dust. Nevertheless, there was a very special feeling about the department, and indeed the college. Old and new staff mingled, new research sprang up, new courses were planned and all the while the department, and indeed the college, were moving centre-stage in the development of teaching and research. Throughout, there was close co-operation with industry and government laboratories.

In all this Saunders moved quietly, almost mysteriously and it should not have surprised his staff when he invited them to a display of conjuring in one of the old lecture theatres. It was the cat rather than the rabbit let out of the bag when we discovered that the Professor was a member of the Magic Circle. Someone whispered, 'So that is how he does it,' and we knew what he meant.

Owen Saunders was educated at Emanuel School, Wandsworth, where he was in the classical sixth, and at Birkbeck College, London University, where he read Mathematics. He proceded to Cambridge as a Senior Scholar at Trinity College in 1923. At Trinity his tutor was Frank Dykes, 50 years a Fellow of Trinity and the pioneer of the Engineering Department at Cambridge. I had the pleasure of reuniting Saunders with his old tutor's Bentley only a few months ago. In return it was revealed that Dykes' rooms in Trinity were on two floors and you waited downstairs to be called up to a tutorial. No draughty corridors in those days. In the laboratories Saunders encountered the legendary mechanical engineer GI Taylor, but declined to work on single crystals. Heat transfer and related problems of fluid flow had captured Saunders' imagination and dominated all his subsequent work.

From Cambridge, Saunders moved to the Fuel Research Station at Greenwich where he met Dr Margaret Fishenden, who had worked with Ernest Rutherford. Together they set about a broadly based research programme in heat transfer. Saunders had negotiated a very free contract, by Civil Service standards, in that he was free to move between establishments and colleges and libraries. The outcome could not have been happier. The collaboration with Fishenden flourished, and their first book, The Calculation of Heat Transmission for Engineers (1932), is a classic in a subject now of widespread importance. It is essentially a manual for engineers and designers of thermal equipment. The rigour of mathematical treatment is paramount, but it could be used by engineers, and it was, the world over. By the end of the war there was hardly a copy that was not hanging out of its binding. The human outcome was that Saunders was 'spotted' by Professor CH Lander (whom he later succeeded at City and Guilds College) and Fishenden followed him there as Clothworkers Reader. A major theoretical and experimental study of heat exchange in regenerators was undertaken for the iron and steel industry with a research student, Hugh Ford, who succeeded Saunders to the chair and headship of Mechanical Engineering in the college almost 30 years later.

Early in the Second World War at Imperial College, almost certainly under the influence of Sir Henry Tizard, then Rector of Imperial College, Saunders became intimately involved with the work on the performance of aircraft piston engines at high altitude. In co-operation with Napiers he showed that with careful design the exhaust system of an engine discharging backwards could deliver some 30 per cent increase in thrust. Further power increases were gained by injecting liquid oxygen into the engine. The first attempt by Saunders with equipment made in his laboratory at the college was a little too ambitious and set a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine on fire. It was soon found how to administer the engine with oxygen under proper control and both developments were successful in aerial combat. By this time however the aircraft gas turbine was on the scene and Saunders was closely associated with Sir Frank Whittle at Power Jets and with Hayne Constant at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough. Important contributions were made to combustion and fuel- control systems.

Saunders actively supported the development of industrial applications of gas turbines with support from the Ministry of Fuel and Power and from the British Shipbuilders Research Association. He also pioneered work on rocket motors including the use of hydrogen peroxide.

We never knew quite how Saunders fitted in all his work for government committees. He served on the Aeronautical Research Council for six years as Chairman of the Propulsion Standing Committee for nine years and he was the first Chairman of the Rockets Committee. For the Admiralty he served in the Marine Propulsion Committee and was Chairman of the Panel for Special Propulsions Systems for Submarines. He was a consultant to the Engineer in Chief and a member of the Committee on Naval Engineering Establishments. He worked with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research on the steering committee of the National Engineering Laboratory from its formation. He served on the Fielden Committee on Engineering Design.

Saunders gave freely of his time and wisdom to many learned and professional societies. At the Institution of Mechanical Engineers he was a Member of Council for many years and was elected President in 1960. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1958 and was elected to its Council in 1961.

Saunders received numerous foreign honours including honorary membership of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the JapanSociety of Engineers. The award of the Max Jacob Memorial Award in 1966 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Chemical Engineers 'for eminent contributions to the science and art of heat transfer' delighted him. Saunders was a founder member of - and Chairman of the British Committee of - the International Flame Radiation Research Committee. This important organisation was a model of international co-operation in research with an experimental furnace at Ijmuidenin the Netherlands. The work greatly assisted in the design of industrial furnaces and in the understanding of the nature of flames.

Despite all this he remained the most approachable of men to his colleagues and to his students. Many public issues claimed his expertise. He was a member of the Ronan Point inquiry in 1968, sitting for many days with Lord Griffiths and Sir Alfred Pugsley. It is interesting to recall that he was so concerned at the possible hazards of a domestic gas explosion in a high- rise building that he pressed for action even before the official report was produced.

Saunders followed the development of complex computer predictions of heat transfer processes, but he did not seem to be drawn that way. He was however something of a prophet in office paperwork. One day, looking at a secretary's desk deep with papers that did not move, he predicted, 'All that will eventually go.' He had a vision of electronic mail. The secretary smiled, knowing it would still be there in the morning.

A fine lecture in his honour was given in 1986 by his last research student, Professor Peter Richardson, from Brown University, Providence. It was a triple celebration since Richardson had just been elected into the Fellowship of the Royal Society and Imperial College had taken the decision to merge with St Mary's Hospital Medical School, a decision Saunders warmly welcomed. In his philosophy, scientific principles were universal and to unite was better than to divide.

Throughout his working life and in his long retirement, Saunders enjoyed a wonderfully contented life. The death of Marion, his first wife and later the loss of a daughter, Jill, did not diminish his spirit. Daphne, his second wife, welcomed friends to their new home in Reigate almost into his 90th year. Music and news of friends in and out of his old college filled his days. It was time that ran out, not ideas. Only with the turn of the year was there a change in his health, which Daphne bore with courage.

(Photograph omitted)

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in