The Department of Aeronautics

A Brief History

Imperial College of Science and Technology, as it was originally called, was established in 1907 on its present site in South Kensington. It was the result of a merger of the Royal College of Science, the City and Guilds College and the Royal School of Mines with the three components retaining their identities.  From its foundation, Imperial College, being a College of the University of London, granted London University degrees. One hundred years later, in July 2007, having acquired a Medical School and a Business School, Imperial College was declared an independent university and for the first time in its history it could grant its own degrees.

The founding of Imperial College occurred just four years after the Wright Brothers’ inaugural powered flight and it was quick to realise the importance of this development. The first lecture courses in aeronautics were offered by the College during the 1909 -1910 academic year. Three lecture courses were presented in the Department of Physics entitled: The Dynamics of an Aeroplane; Wind Pressure; Light Petrol Motors for Aerial Work. The records show that 99 students attended these courses. The first full course in Aeronautics was established in 1916 and the following year Sir Basil Zaharoff offered to fund a chair in Aviation and donated £25,000. In 1919 Sir Richard Glazebrook was appointed as the first Zaharoff Professor of Aviation. One year later the Air Ministry entered into an agreement with the College to provide £8,500 per annum to establish a Department of Aeronautics. The new Department joined the Royal School of Science, acknowledging that ‘aeronautics’ is defined as the ‘science of flight’, and in 1932 it transferred to the City & Guilds College and is now part of the Faculty of Engineering.

Graduates and staff of the Department have played a significant role in the development of the UK aerospace industry. This proved to be particularly important in the regeneration period after the Second World War. In 1943 and at under 30 years of age, Arnold Hall, later Sir Arnold Hall, joined the Department as a Professor. He left in 1951 to become Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and is probably best known for leading the investigation into the cause of the Comet disasters. Following his time at Farnborough he became Chairman and Managing Director of the Hawker Siddeley Group. During his period at Imperial Hall reorganised the Department into sections: Aerodynamics and Structures. John Argyris, very well known for his pioneering work in developing finite element analysis, was appointed Head of the Structures section. Following Hall, Professor Herbert Squire, who preferred to be known as Brian Squire, became Head of Department. He maintained close links with Farnborough during the initial design stages of Concorde and his expertise in wing design and flow over delta wings was highly valued.

A significant change took place in the mid 1960’s with the appointment of Professor Paul Owen FRS as Head of Department. His aeronautical background was gained at Farnborough but he also had an interest in the application of aeronautical science to other fields of engineering. He offered a home for the newly formed Physiological Flow Studies Unit which over time led to the development of a Bioengineering Department at Imperial. Road vehicle aerodynamics, initiated by John Stollery, was another area that prospered. Stollery was closely associated with the world record attempts on land and water of Donald Campbell. He later left for Cranfield where he became Head of the College of Aeronautics but not before he had set the foundations for collaboration with Formula 1 teams. Today there are more than 50 alumni employed in Formula 1, mainly in aerodynamics and composite structures, and including chief designers and chief engineers. In the early 1980s, attracted by the work being carried out by Professors Peter Bearman and John Harvey, the Honda R&D Company made a major investment in the Department to build a state of the art vehicle wind tunnel. It has recently been designated a National Wind Tunnel Facility and is currently undergoing substantial upgrading.

Another area in the Department Paul Owen helped to develop was the understanding of turbulent motion. He recruited Peter Bradshaw from the National Physical Laboratory, already well known for his work on turbulent boundary layers. Professor Peter Bradshaw was recognised for the excellence of his research into the understanding of turbulence by the award of an FRS in 1981. Earlier important contributions to boundary layer research by people associated with the Department include by Professor Bryan Thwaites FRS and B.S. Stratford. Owen’s initiative to widen the horizons of the Department served it well during a period when the aerospace industry was going through difficult times. Moving closer to the present day, we should not overlook the contribution made by Michael Crisfield who joined the Department in 1989 as the FEA Professor of Computational Mechanics. He was an internationally known and respected expert in non-linear mechanics and at the time of his early death in 2002 he was one of the UK’s most cited engineers.

There is not space to describe all the achievements of the large number of people who have passed through the Department since its founding almost 100 years ago. Instead, just a very few are selected to illustrate what has been accomplished. The Department has a long history of educating students sponsored by the RAF and two that stand out are Air Marshal Sir Colin Terry who rose to the position of Chief Engineer and is now Chairman of Meggitt plc and Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy who became Chief of the Air Staff. Harold Roxbee Cox, later to be known as Lord Kings Norton, was an early PhD student supervised by Sir Richard Glazebrook and then Sir Leonard Bairstow. He lists his most important achievements as the design and construction of the R101 airship, his role in the formation of the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield and being Chairman and Managing Director of Power Jets Ltd. Throughout the lifespan of RAE Farnborough there were close ties with the Department. In 1984 Dr Geoffrey Pope was appointed as Director of the RAE and he had graduated with a first class honours BSc from the Department in 1956. Also it was around this time that Dietrich Küchemann, a world expert in aircraft design working at the RAE, was appointed as a Visiting Professor. Turning to motorsport, Dr John Owen the Chief Engineer for the highly successful Mercedes Formula 1 team gained both his MEng degree and PhD in the Department. It is impossible to end without mentioning Kirsty Moore, the first woman to be recruited as a Red Arrows’ pilot and Andreas Mogensen who was selected for the European Space Agency astronaut corps.

In terms of staff and student numbers, the Department today is roughly twice the size it was 30 years ago illustrating the continuing popularity of aeronautics as a degree subject and the importance of aerospace to the UK economy. While important aspects of Professor Owen’s’ wider applications of aeronautical research’ strategy remain, the Department has moved from mainly specialising in aerodynamics and aeronautical structures to a more broad-ranging approach reflecting the current needs of the aerospace industry.

Peter Bearman                                                                     25th May 2016

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