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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Brief History of the Brittish Section of the Combustion Institute

by David Smith.
Original article appeared in the Newsletter Nov 2004

The British Section of the Combustion Institute was formed essentially at the same time as the International Institute, largely under the influence of Sir Alfred Egerton, to whom (upon his death) the Proceedings of the 1960 Symposium in Pasadena were dedicated. Although no record of the first meeting of the British Committee is available, the 1954 Symposium in Pittsburgh lists three members, Sir Alfred Egerton, Stanley Clarke (Joseph Lucas, Burnley, makers of engine ignition systems) and Peter Lloyd (National Gas Turbine Establishment). Others active in the early days were R.G.W. Norrish, J.W. Linnett and A.R. Ubbelohde.

It is clear from these earliest names that the Section had both academic and industrial involvement. This has continued, as has its wish to represent the full range of combustion science and engineering interests in its activities. In 2003, it had 194 members, comprising 123 academic and 71 industrial. It has always encouraged students to join; last year there were 30. Their special membership rate also applies to retired members; last year there were 29 such. The activities of the Section are overseen by a Committee, comprising 12-15, again endeavouring to represent the full span of combustion.

Particularly over the past few years, industrial membership has shown a gradual decline, largely resulting from the declining emphasis placed on combustion by Government and industrial organisations, including research-funding bodies. The view sometimes seems to be that combustion has been around a long time, so surely we know it all by now! Given the vast changes in choice and use of energy occurring now and set to continue and probably to accelerate, such a view seems grossly short sighted. It is causing increasing concern to members of the British combustion community, who sees its task as providing a counter-force to this, but it is an uphill struggle.

One of the main ways the Section communicates with members is through a Newsletter, produced several times a year. This has been highly successful, largely to the efforts of its editors. The last three of these have been Derek Bradley, Brian Tyler and now Tony Burgess. Each has carried it forward and made their own distinctive contributions to its development. More recently, this has been augmented by a web site. As well as providing a wider range of information to members, this can address a wider interest group and act as a possible recruiting mechanism.

The main Section activity has been and remains the organisation of one-day technical meetings - normally held in Spring and Autumn of each year. There used to be a third around early December. A major factor in these last being discontinued was an occasion when the meeting had to be cancelled at the last-minute because of inclement weather, with a sudden fall of snow playing havoc with road and rail transport. (Many of our European colleagues must continue to be surprised at how regularly such disruptions happen in Britain, given our relatively mild winters.) Late cancellations always provide severe headaches for organizers. This was no exception; lesson learned.

The Committee endeavours to make these one-day meetings varied in subject matter. A selection from the past decade includes Combustion in Gas Turbines; Industrial Combustion Hazards; Auto-ignition; Numerical Simulation in Combustion; and Flame Chemistry, to single out but a very few. The size of audience varies but is generally in the range 40-100. To increase their impact, meetings are normally held in conjunction with another group with a combustion interest, e.g. from Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, or Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Political developments in Europe have given a new dimension to our activities. We have been delighted to work with other European Sections in the organization of joint meetings. As well as their technical objective, these meetings provide enjoyable social occasions. In some cases, attempts have also been made to use them to stress a political message about the significance of combustion knowledge and so, hopefully, aiding Governments' future energy policies.

On an international level, the main events are the biennial Combustion Symposia. The British Section has been fortunate to organize four of these. Below are a few anecdotes, which hopefully capture some of the flavour of these meetings.

London/Oxford in 1958: Because it was over 40 years ago, few memories survive. But Tony Burgess, then a student (well it was a long time ago) does recall his supervisor, Charles Cullis, giving him ?10 to cover attendance. This is the only Symposium held on split sites. The meeting began in London, with an inaugural lecture in the famous Lecture Room of the Royal Institution (where previous lecturers have been Faraday, Davy and Rumford). Then, with the permission of the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs and Corporation of the City of London, a Sunday evening gala banquet was held amid medieval splendour in the Guildhall. The traditional "Loving Cup Ceremony" lent emphasis to what Sir Alfred Egerton termed "the Brotherhood of Science - friends in search of truth" - still true today in the Institute.

Attendees then decamped to Oxford in a special train drawn by one of new gas turbine-powered locomotives, provided by British Rail. Unfortunately a technical fault occurred and the loco had to be replaced by a standard unit (plus ça change...). The main technical part of the meeting was held here, with many delegates accommodated in the somewhat spartan surroundings of the old Colleges. Away from the main technical sessions, an informal discussion was held one evening on the topic "The Study of Combustion: Is it an Art or Science?", presided over by Prof. A.R.J.P. Ubbelohde. Worth repeating?

Cambridge, 1964: Having sampled the delights of Oxford, six years later the Symposium moved to the equally ancient surroundings of Cambridge. Again, much accommodation was provided in the colleges, which, although splendid architecturally, retained some of their historical character in a rather too practical way. One of the local organisers remembers a US guest and his wife, staying in college, asking if a shower was available. The Porter's face fell; he had never heard of showers - washing facilities were still provided by jugs of hot water being brought to bedrooms. Another problem arose with a couple booked into Pembroke College. The College Porter became very excited - a woman had never slept in the college before (?!). A rapid re-think was needed and the couple moved into a hotel.

Cambridge provided many delights for the Social Programme. The Banquet was held at Woburn Abbey. This sounds very grand, except for the fact, not fully appreciated by the organisers, that it was not in the Abbey itself but in a marquee in the grounds. It was a very cold night and the guests, in particular the accompanying visitors, were therefore not pleased that the speaker at the banquet felt it was the occasion for another long, and not very scintillating, plenary lecture.

Leeds in 1978: The Wednesday Outing was to the memorable Roman city of York, with its city walls and many ancient sites. As the entertainment, a baroque string quartet played in the Assembly Rooms. With the ancient surroundings of such a venue, surely nothing could go wrong. Unfortunately it did. Hoyt Hottel, stepping into the road, was hit by a passing vehicle and rushed to hospital for treatment to a nasty injury to his skull.

One of the cultural strengths of northern Britain is traditional brass bands and the Tuesday evening concert featured one. Derek Bradley spent considerable time over the previous three years, listening to possible choices before finally selecting one, the Imperial Metals Band. Subsequently, they came very close to winning the national brass band competition. Among the items on the programme was Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture". To play on the combustion theme, it had been hoped to simulate the battle's cannon fire by real explosions; a serious snag arose - it proved impossible to synchronise these with the music. Nevertheless, Bernard Lewis was delighted with the evening and asked if he might go backstage afterwards to talk with members of the band.

The banquet was held in a marquee in the grounds of Harewood House The terrain was not entirely flat and one attendee recalls a somewhat doddery waitress knocking over a glass of wine while serving soup at the start of the meal. The table sloped towards his wife and so the wine cascaded into the soup bowl, the contents of which flowed straight into her lap.

Edinburgh in 2000: This is still too recent to allow a proper perspective. But the organizers are grateful to Dan Seery, then Institute President, for effectively selecting the venue for the Welcome Reception. The local organizers had hoped to use the Royal Museum of Scotland for the banquet but it proved unable to cope with sufficient numbers. But, some months ahead of the Symposium, Dan was checking out facilities. While passing the Museum, he was shown it as a venue we had hoped to use. He quickly realised its potential for the Reception, and so it was back in the schedule - with Dan proved correct.

The Wednesday outing was at Oxenfoord Castle for an afternoon of Highland Games and BBQ. Although the skies were gloomy, no rain fell, even though a few miles away in Edinburgh itself, rain poured down.

Problems of acoustics arose in McEwan Hall: architecturally splendid but not designed as lecture hall. Further problems arose with the space for poster displays. Conflicts always tend to occur in meeting all requirements: one wants suitable lecture rooms and space for posters, close to each other and, ideally, to reception/registration areas. Few venues can manage all these constraints.

It's still too early for the author who was closely involved with arrangements for the meeting to have any real perspective on the event. But, if readers wish to contribute their own impressions, please send them to the editor.

David Smith

Editor's note: This article was prepared by Dave Smith using the reminiscences of members and it was used as the basis for the contribution from the British Section to the booklet compiled for the 50th Anniversary celebrations in Chicago.

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