Professor Godfrey Boyle

Professor Godfrey Boyle, Emeritus Professor in the Design Group at the Open University, has sadly died.
After studying Electrical Engineering at Queens University, Belfast and working as journalist for Electronics Weekly, in the early 1970s he founded ‘Undercurrents’, a pioneering quarterly magazine of ‘radical science and people’s technology’. ‘Undies’ initially came out as a collection of individual articles in a cellophane bag, to which people could add further contributions. Soon a group formed around Godfrey to edit the contents.
In 1972 Godfrey led the editorial team of Undercurrents to the first ‘United Nations Conference on the Human Environment’ in Stockholm where they distributed a special issue and organised an exhibition on ‘Alternative Technologies’.
A high point of Godfrey’s life was the book ‘Radical Technology’, which he edited with Peter Harper in 1975, with contributions from the Undies stable. A truly pioneering book, it became best known for the inspired series of ‘Visions’, drawings created by the anarchist artist Cliff Harper. The futurist Alvin Toffler remarked: “For people who still think about the future in terms of mega-machines and all-powerful bureaucracies, this book is an eye-opener. Radical Technology offers a fresh way to think about tomorrow”.
Undercurrents became highly successful, with a bimonthly circulation 7,000, and inspired a wide variety of sustainable energy, housing, transport and community projects throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Godfrey ‘led from behind’, managing to assemble a loyal and talented team. Undies combined reportage, opinion pieces and slabs of heavy theory on alternative futures. Then, after ten years of independence, the decision was taken to merge Undercurrents with Resurgence Magazine.
Godfrey was a very multi-faceted person. He was also instrumental in establishing the ‘Rainbow Housing Cooperative’ in New Bradwell, Milton Keynes where he and his family lived from the late 70s until the mid-80s, one of the first such housing cooperatives in the UK. He also played a key role in the ‘Green Town’ project, an eco-community that was to be built on one of Milton Keynes’s grid squares. It came close to realisation until the project was derailed by the privatisation of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation.
In 1975 Godfrey published his first book ‘Living on the Sun: harnessing renewable energy for an equitable society’. It advanced the then revolutionary idea that industrial countries could wean themselves off fossil fuels and fully power themselves by renewable energy instead.
In 1976 Godfrey, against the wishes of some more traditionally minded members of the Faculty, he was appointed as a lecturer in the Design Group at the Open University and established the ‘Alternative Technology Group’ which later became the ‘Energy and Environment Research Unit’. At its height the group included 18 academics and researchers and attracted many distinguished visitors.
Godfrey’s OU unit pioneered teaching and academic research into renewable energy – anticipating more mainstream thinking on this topic by some 40 years. His own research concentrated on wind and solar systems, with some work on electric bikes. During the 1980s, Godfrey led a series of research projects to develop innovative wind turbines and to monitor domestic renewable energy systems. He worked closely with Derek Taylor whose innovative single-bladed ‘V’ turbine turbines can still be seen at wind sites around the UK. As a world expert in renewables, Godfrey created and led an OU centre of excellence that attracted grant income of over £1 million.
One of his best-known achievements was the development of a series of Open University courses on renewable energy, which included a series of energy textbooks, published by the Oxford University Press which are widely read throughout the world. ‘Renewable Energy: Power for a Sustainable Future’ is often cited as the best introductory textbook on renewable energy. The current version of the book is still used for educating many students in renewable energy and energy efficiency. In 2007, assisted by the British Council, Godfrey established a long-term collaboration between the OU and the Tata Energy Research Institute in India, travelling there many times. In 2009 he was awarded a personal Chair at the OU. In 2011 he retired, as an Emeritus Professor, sharing an office with another Emeritus Professor, Robin Roy, with whom he had worked on several Design courses from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Godfrey loved music and enjoyed playing the keyboard in the OU Design Group’s former band – Wimpey 3 (named after the WWII RAF hut they had first begun work in at the OU). There were few occasions that did not require the services of Godfrey, his keyboard and whatever band could be mustered to re-write the lyrics to some well-known number, often taking aim at University practices and bureaucracy.

In later years Godfrey became a self-deprecating elder statesman, pun-ready to bring a smile on people’s faces. He enjoyed living in London and on his partner Romy Fraser’s teaching farm in Devon, where he continued pass on his wide-ranging knowledge to younger people. Godfrey considered himself a real scientist because of his self-critical approach to advancing information and knowledge, always open to new ideas. With his kindness, warmth and effervescent optimism, and as a leading figure in the British Alternative Technology movement, he was the very embodiment of a fresh way to think about tomorrow.
After a fall at his home in November 2018, Godfrey became seriously ill and spent several months in a London hospital and a nursing home, welcoming a constant stream of visiting friends and relations who kept in touch with him via an email list. The support provided by this group is a testament to how much this environmental pioneer was loved. He passed away on Monday 8 July. He is survived by his daughters Holly and Katie and 4 grandchildren.

Robin Roy with acknowledgements to Stephen Peake and Herbie Giradet






3 responses to “Professor Godfrey Boyle”

  1. Nigel Cross avatar
    Nigel Cross

    As the Acting Head of the Design Discipline in 1976 when Godfrey was appointed as a lecturer, I am glad that we prevailed over those who were antagonistic to the appointment partly because of his relative lack of academic qualifications at that time. Godfrey rapidly became a key staff member, and made an outstanding success of the appointment. A consistent and reliable course contributor as well as an innovative researcher and developer in radical and responsible technologies, Godfrey embodied the OU ethos of being open to all. The fact that he rose to full Professor is a credit both to him and to the OU for recognising his abilities.

    Nigel Cross

  2. Nicole Lotz avatar
    Nicole Lotz

    I was inspired by Godfrey’s biography and agree it showed good judgement, which would be more difficult to apply today when faced with an application that cannot show sufficient academic qualifications. What a loss are we making? I didn’t know about his career before reading about it here, and in a longer obituary by Stephen Peak that went around the school’s internal communication. There is also a shorter version on the Guardian.

  3. Steve Parkes avatar
    Steve Parkes

    Sad news. Godfrey was my landlord for a couple of years when I worked at the OU. A warm-hearted man.

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