Doubtful Reliability and Questionable Mentality

Birmingham University Chemical Engineer - Volume 1 - CoverI opened the front cover of the Birmingham University Chemical Engineer Volumes 1 – 3 book and was astonished to discover the previous date of return for the library book read 1 MAY 1963 – nearly 50 years since this piece of history was taken from the store room and opened! It records life in the University of Birmingham Chemical Engineering department during 1948-1951 and is made more fascinating by the stories of a student at the time.

Vacation Training

I was looking in Chemical Engineer as my father-in-law G. Gordon Betts came to the University of Birmingham to study Chemical Engineering in 1948 and had expressed an interest in seeing what he had written about vacation training in 1950 in Wales. He told me an interesting story about Professor F. H. Garner OBE and the article he published in the magazine.

Birmingham University Chemical Engineer - Volume 1 - Vacation 1An important part of the Chemical Engineering degree course at that time was practical experience through vacation training during the summer holidays. The first year was spent at a mechanical engineering works and subsequent years in chemical engineering. Gordon was sent to the Royal Ordinance Factory Pembrey in South Wales for six weeks and received his notification as a simple telegram “Report to Mr. Cox at R.O.F. PEMBREY”.

Birmingham University Chemical Engineer - Volume 1 - Vacation 2He wrote about his experiences in the Chemical Engineer describing the processes performed at the site and documented the number of the plant ‘ROF 34’. After he had published the article he was called up to the office of Professor Garner who had been appointed as the first Director of Chemical Engineering in 1946. At the time, Professor Garner’s brother was a Superintendent for the Royal Ordinance Factory and had received a copy of Chemical Engineer to read.

Professor Garner had been contacted by his brother who was not too happy about the content of the article including that ROF 34 had been mentioned which gave an idea of the number of ROF sites. The meeting was to tell Gordon he was not too happy but there was little that could be done about this. The article went all over the world and if you search Google today you will find the University of Michigan has a copy of the magazine.

Gordon went on to spend his following summers at the City of Birmingham gas works and Shell in Southend.

A Chemical Engineer

Each year the department held an annual dinner and on the 15th March 1949 it was held at the Midland Hotel, Birmingham. Professor Garner gave a speech with an amusing and well used variation of definition for a Chemical Engineer:

“He is a person who passes as an exacting expert, on the basis of being able to calculate on a slide rule afflicted with stick-slip, infinite strings of of incomprehensible formulae, with Greek symbols whose powers are unknown, from vague assumptions which are based on debatable figures taken from inconclusive experiments, carried out with instruments with problematical accuracy, by persons of doubtful reliability and questionable mentality.”

Has it changed much today other than there are computers rather than slide rules? Part of the definition is used in a humorous definition for engineers and computer programmers but Gordon thinks it is likely the definition originated from Professor Garner.

Coming Next

Next is Professor Garner and the brown teapot…

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