Engineering: it’s in my chemistry
Posted: December 18, 2018
My interest in science and engineering can be traced right back to the 1800s and the achievements of my great-grandfather Archibald Barr and his business partner William Stroud.
From an early age I had heard about many of their accomplishments and inventions, and this raised my curiosity about the way things worked and why.
Archibald Barr gained a BSc in engineering at the University of Glasgow in the 1870s and returned to his alma mater in the 1890s as regius professor of civil engineering and mechanics (the oldest chair of engineering science in the UK).
As part of his studies, he was required to spend just six months at university on course work and the other six months in local industry acquiring practical experience, so he served an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer. Following this, he then worked for seven years as an assistant to his professor, James Thomson.
Thomson was the brother of Sir William Thomson, the professor of natural science at Glasgow University who later became Lord Kelvin, a renowned inventor of scientific and electrical instruments and after whom the Kelvin scale measuring absolute thermodynamic temperatures is named.
James Thomson and my great-grandfather often helped Sir William with the practical work of designing the latter’s inventions, and so Barr was exposed to the potentially highly lucrative application of scientific invention to industrial enterprise.
My great-grandfather’s business partner, William Stroud possessed a BSc in chemistry, and followed this with a double-first in maths and natural science from Balliol College, Oxford. He was rewarded with the physics chair at the Yorkshire College of Science (now the University of Leeds) at the age of just 25 due to his reputation as one of the most promising scientists of his generation.
My great-grandfather first met Stroud at the Yorkshire College in 1888 where they were professors of engineering and physics respectively.
Barr & Stroud
The company they formed, Barr & Stroud, was a pioneering Glasgow optical engineering firm. They supplied rangefinders to nearly all of the world’s navies and manufactured smaller, portable instruments which were adopted by the British, French and other European armies.
In 1912, Barr & Stroud became a private limited company and my great-grandfather, who was the senior partner, resigned his university chair at Glasgow in 1913, becoming emeritus professor. He subsequently remained chairman of Barr & Stroud until his death.
Archibald Barr also invented many instruments connected with the fire-control system of a modern warship and, despite the demands of the increasing requirements for rangefinders during World War One, found time to devise a torpedo depth recorder, a bomb-dropping sight for aircraft, a height-finder for anti-aircraft services and a submarine periscope.
Barr & Stroud also made motorcycle engines, cinematographs, vacuum chambers, optophones and medical equipment such as photocoagulators.
These myriad achievements have always fascinated me and the fact they were realised at a time when there were no computers or the modern electronics that we have now, just makes them all the more remarkable.
Science and engineering
Interestingly, my great-grandfather felt strongly about the importance of employing people benefiting from scientific training within enterprises, stating in 1906:
“…I am convinced that one of the worst things a man who was going to devote his life to practical work could do was to spend too much time in any scholastic institution. The best training in applied science could only be got by a combination of scientific study in a university or college and service in a works…”
I had to make my own choice between engineering and chemistry at university and I settled for applied chemistry, focusing around the application of science in a working environment, and becoming a chartered chemist.
Given that he was an engineer, and his business partner a chemist, Barr’s foresight and ingenious thinking led him to make the following comments in 1916 regarding the co-operation that he believed was required between scientists and engineers:
“… with reference to chemists and other highly-trained assistants in industry, engineering employers in this country have not yet learned to take full advantage of the facilities that are available for securing men of sound scientific training…in my own firm we have found such men indispensable for the development of work in new lines, and we seldom – I may say never – appoint a man to a responsible job…who has not had a sound and extensive course of scientific training.”
I think it is quite fitting that this co-existence of science and engineering is apparent in my career today.
As my great-grandfather recognised the importance of marrying his flair for engineering design to Stroud’s talents for applying theoretical scientific knowledge, my current role with Proserv allows me to use my production chemistry knowledge and engineering experiences to come up with practical, technical and commercial solutions to help support and reduce total cost of operations in the oil and gas industry.
Archibald Barr, a man ahead of his time, was named a fellow of The Royal Society in 1923, an award made to those considered to have made a substantial contribution of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science, joining the likes of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and more recently, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.