John Partridge Speech Transcript

Thank you Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor for your great honour bestowed upon me, and thank you Dr Dickinson for your kind words. And that’s the best seat I have ever had at an organ recital. I am here today to celebrate Bristol, and how the short time I spent here influenced my career in deep-ocean engineering.

Now I am going to get a bit serious about engineering education. According to John R. Dixon, a writer on engineering education, the key skills required in engineering are inventiveness, analysis and decision making. Very few people have all three of Dickson’s specified skills, which is why engineering is best done as a group activity, and it is why I am totally indebted to my engineering colleagues in Sonardyne, particularly in compensating for my poor skills at mathematical analysis. Some of my colleagues joined Sonardyne straight from university and stayed until their retirement. But the really difficult part of running a business is decision making, which applies at all stages and covers a wide variety of subjects: technical, commercial, financial, legal. One incorrect decision can spell the end of a substantial company. In recent decades, bad decisions by chief executives have killed off large successful British companies some of which had survived and prospered for over a century.

Now I would like to pay tribute to alumni and professors of this university who I have found influential, such as Will Hutton, political economist and journalist, now principal of Hertford College, Oxford. I remember a newspaper article by Hutton decades ago entitled “The familiar shape of things to come”, a pun on H.G. Wells’ futuristic novel “The unfamiliar shape of things to come”. Hutton’s article explained how my parents’ generation, not my generation, not your generation, my parents’ generation had experienced the fastest rate of technological change in history. They grew up in the era of gas light but by the end of their days the man had been on the moon, jet airliners and colour television were a common experience. But, Hutton argued, since the 1960s subsequent progress of technology has been quantitative rather than qualitative.

But, how about the dramatic improvements in microelectronics and communications, etc.?, much of which has occurred since Hutton’s article was written. Are they quantitative or qualitative improvements? I think they are quantitative because so much of the groundwork had already been completed long before the basic inventions could be turned into economical production.

One of those who laid the scientific foundation for present microelectronic technology, way back in the 1930s, was Bristol professor of physics and 1977 Nobel Prize winner Sir Neville Mott. His work in solid state physics provided the underpinning theory that enabled the invention of the transistor in the 1950s. Now we harbour millions of these tiny devices inside the mobile phones of our pockets. That is quantitative progress from bytes to gigabytes.

So what is engineering? Is it just a branch of applied science, or does it have a separate nature? What is technology? These questions were asked by Gordon Rodgers in his 1983 essay “The nature of engineering and philosophy of technology”. Gordon Rodgers was by then emeritus professor of this university but I remember him in 1962 and his Hungarian colleague Jan Mayhew for their seminal textbook on heat engines and their lectures on thermodynamics. Only recently have I been aware of his philosophical interest. The philosophy of science has a large corpus of work but the philosophy of technology is still an emerging subject, and very relevant to engineering education. I hope to follow its development. But one question interests me in particular: Can one teach inventiveness or is it a gift? Thank you very much.

 

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