50 objects for 50 years. No 22. The Horlock Building

This week’s object is a building on the Walton Hall campus named after Professor Sir John Horlock, 1928─2015.  John Horlock revolutionised transportation through his significant contribution to aerodynamics, fluid dynamics and energy and the development of gas turbines. By describing the detailed air flow in turbines and compressors in mathematical terms he paved the way for greater efficiency in jet engine design. Moreover, he was an adviser to British government and industry for decades. His contributions included being a Board member at the National Grid and, from 1979, the chair of the UK’s Aeronautical Research Council which provided advice on aeronautical research to the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Industry. He was also chair of the advisory committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations, 1984-1993. He was elected as a member of the US-based National Academy of Engineering in 1988. In addition, he was a university Vice-Chancellor for 16 years, most of those at The Open University.

John Horlock grew up in north London and had a trial with Tottenham Hotspur Juniors. He continued to support Spurs but his career took a different direction. While at St John’s College, Cambridge to read for the mechanical sciences Tripos, he became interested in gas turbines, won Rex Moir Prize (awarded to the examination candidate who demonstrated the greatest distinction in engineering) obtained a First Class degree and gained a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following graduation he worked as a design engineer for Rolls-Royce, 1949-1951. He contributed to the redesign of the compressor. Rolls-Royce funded his return to Cambridge where he taught and completed a PhD. In 1957 he won the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ James Clayton prize, awarded for an exceptional contribution to mechanical engineering and related science, technology and invention. In 1959 he was awarded the annual Thomas Hawksley Gold Medal – the Institute of Mechanical Engineers prize for the best original paper published by the Institution during the past 12 months. Only one Gold Medal is awarded each year for each award and only if a paper is deemed worthy of the award. Aged 30 he became a professor at Liverpool and then returned to Cambridge and became the first director of the Whittle Laboratory. In 1973 the Laboratory’s extension was named after him. He was vice-chancellor of Salford University, 1974-81 where his work included administering a government funding cut of 40 per cent over three years.

He was second vice-chancellor of The Open University, 1981- 1990. Horlock presided over a policy of making savings.The capital grant from the UK government was halved in real terms in 1982 and there were further cuts in subsequent years. He also had to engage with a senior politician after the Permanent Under-Secretary at Education, David Hancock, commissioned a report by economists which found two OU course units which presented an ‘essentially Marxist’ view. This was passed to the Secretary of State for Education, Sir Keith Joseph. Sir John noted that ‘the civil servants liked to have their fingers in the Open University pie, whereas I hardly saw a civil servant in all my time at Salford’. He recalled being ‘summoned to what proved to be a very difficult interview’ with Sir Keith who, in 1985, also visited the campus. Horlock concluded that although the ‘major crisis’ over bias was ‘not overtly linked’ to funding he still felt that ‘the whole affair had clearly done us no good in the eyes of the Tory government’ He added that ‘I am sure that he [Joseph] would willingly have closed the OU down if it had been politically possible to do so, particularly after the affair of academic bias’.

Nevertheless, Sir John was able to strengthen science and engineering at the university, ensure the introduction of a taught postgraduate Masters programme, and oversee the opening of the Open Business School and the expansion of the university into Western Europe. In common with his predecessor, Walter Perry, he was committed to support for academic research. While Vice Chancellor he continued to maintain his interest in turbomachinery and thermodynamic cycles and to publish papers. Known as ‘The students’ Vice-Chancellor”, the Association of Open University Graduates’ established the Sir John Horlock Award for Science in 1991. Appointed for a decade he did not seek reappointment, but retired, aged 62. By that point he felt that the university was ‘no longer a strange new immature organisation, but a massive national resource, with a high international reputation’. The Open University named a building in his honor in 1989. It is currently home to the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS).




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