Memory Thirteen

In January, 1953, my G.I. Bill British equivalent money ended but Professor Newitt, the Head of the Chemical Engineering Department at Imperial College, appointed me as Assistant Lecturer for a term of one year. At the same time, my supervisor, Professor Geoffrey Haselden decided that I had an adequate research plan to qualify for a Ph.D. My life was suddenly changing and I went to work with renewed spirit. As I have reported, Doris and I got married in July, 1951, and we were enjoying married life.

I designed a jet ejector and got all the parts machined in our department workshop. This was to run at very low temperatures, but I first did some warm studies in the department’s Jet Propulsion Lab. This involved taking Schlieren photos of the shock waves inside the jet in order to optimize its performance. I made everything adjustable because the operation at the dew point of air could only be visualized. My warm tests were all encouraging so I modified the process cycle to incorporate the jet ejector. We were getting very close to being able to operate the entire liquefaction plant and its new distillation cycle.

330px-107SFEC_LONDON-20070917Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was scheduled for June 2nd, 1953, although she had been Queen since her father died on February 6th, 1952. They did not want the celebrations to take place during the mourning period. Alan and Pamela Francia came down from Peterborough to join us in watching the parade and we had invited them to come to the college’s Coronation Ball in the Albert Hall.

The night before the parade, we, and thousands330px-Elizabeth_and_Philip_1953 of others, slept along the route so that we could hold a good viewing spot. We chose to be on the park side of Hyde Park Avenue, and got set up with our blankets, raincoats and umbrellas and tried to get some sleep. There was a steady rain for most of the night. About 2 o’clock in the morning, a lone runner came up the parade route, waving a Union Jack. He was shouting, “They are on top!” We gradually got the message that Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing had become the first people to successfully reach the top of Mount Everest. When morning came, we listened to the Coronation ceremony on our portable radio and started eagerly waiting for the parade to begin. The parade itself was fantastic, even with the rain.

330px-Gold_state_coachWe saw the Queen and Prince Phillip up close as they came by, but I think the biggest cheers were for the 300 pound, black Queen of Tonga, who stood up in an open carriage in the rain as she went by the entire crowd. Our Coronation Ball was impressive and we all had a good time. Then, it was back to work again.

We started making cold runs with our plant and found that we had several leaks to fix. We also realized that it was taking so long to get the plant cold enough to make liquid air, there was little time left to start trying to distill it to separate the oxygen, nitrogen and argon. About this time, another Australian, Rupert Nottle joined us and we set him to work on reducing our cool-down time. He designed and built a Hilsch vortex tube which is a novel device that, by centrifugally injecting high pressure air into the middle of the tube, it is possible to separate the air into a hot stream and a cold stream. By discarding the hot stream, we were able to reduce the cool-down time by two hours. I think Rupert got a Masters degree before he left.

Through the end of 1953 and into 1954, I started to write notes for my thesis. At the same time, I was trying to get all the apparatus parts to function properly and together. It would be hard to list all the problems I had, but it seemed never-ending at times. My actual thesis had to be typed on a special transparent paper so the letters would not fade, and there had to be three copies. Doris had a small portable, non-electric typewriter and she copied all my notes, making corrections manually on all three copies with white-out ink. She deserved a degree of her own for just doing that.

Gradually, it began to take shape. What I needed then was actual results and gas compositions to study the efficiency of the distillation, and this meant making many long and laborious runs from early morning to evening. It seemed as though I would never get a perfect set of data, let alone several sets.

My year as assistant-lecturer ended and I was out of money again with close to a year’s work left. Again, Professor Newitt came to my help by getting me a research grant from the British Oxygen Company in London. The implication was also given that they would offer me a job when I got my doctorate. This was a relief and encouraged me to greater lengths.

Our social life was suffering, but we went to college events and free movies at the college Film Club. The big news came in November when we discovered that Doris was pregnant and probably expecting birth in May of 1954. This applied a little more pressure and I started getting a series of good runs with the plant. Through the early months of 1954, I did my best work and it made up for the earlier three years when it looked as though I was not going to succeed.

I have mentioned Professor Newitt several times but I should also relate what he did during the war. Winston 450px-The_Phoenix_breakwaters_(1)Churchill asked a committee he appointed what person could do the most damage in a chemical plant or refinery if he were dropped behind enemy lines. The answer was a “chemical engineer,” which is not too flattering to our profession. He found that the best chemical engineer in the country was Prof. Newitt, and he immediately put him on his “Dirty Tricks Committee.” This group was involved in PLUTO, the pipeline under the ocean that successfully replenished gasoline to the D-Day beaches and to Winston’s Mulberry Harbour project that got our vehicles ashore. They were also heavily involved in the biggest deception of General Patton’s fictitious army in East Anglia, making the Nazis assume D-Day would be at Calais and not Normandy. He was my hero but also one of Winston’s.

Entering the last few days of college and also thinking of a family and a job, made me pause a little and what actually happened is another memory for another day.

4 thoughts on “Memory Thirteen

  1. We were in Arromanches in Normandy a couple of summers ago and there are still parts of the Mulberry harbour in the water. We took our small boat out to part of it and ended up sunbathing on it for the day. How times have changed.
    Really enjoying your memories Ken.

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    • I am so pleased you are reading my stuff. It’s nice to think families can talk to each other so easily now. Lots of this stuff would be lost for ever without today’s technology.

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  2. It makes perfect sense that you would drop a chemical engineer behind enemy lines. Pretty incredible that you knew someone so well who worked with Churchill. Your sweet wife typing all of those notes on a nonelectronic typewriter. It was hard enough on an electric one which is what I used for my papers in college. And yes, people are reading your blog!

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