May 1960: Tracking the UK's tech transfer

May 1960 saw the publication of the second part of a feature that took The Engineer’s editors in a wholly new direction, investigating whether work in government labs was making its way into the wider world.

Firms like the English Electric Company said they benefited from work done by agencies such as the NEL
Firms like the English Electric Company said they benefited from work done by agencies such as the NEL

Established as an irregular section of the magazine, the feature sought to look at the industrial value of the UK’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), which administered BRE, NEL, and TRL among others before being disbanded in 1965.

“Our method is to visit a laboratory and to ask its director to bring to our attention recently published papers describing its researches within some more or less limited field, “ said The Engineer. “We then summarise the papers concerned…ask for and receive the concurrence of the laboratory that the summaries do fairly represent the contents of the papers and send out proofs of this material to a number of firms which we think may have made use of the information.”


The Engineer continued: “We follow up in person, asking for comments and, more especially, for particulars of any real hardware produced by the firm, the design of which has been influenced directly or indirectly by the work of the laboratory and for information about any work the firm may have carried out itself in the same field, and so forth. The resultant report, which has to be approved by the firm before it gets printed, represents as accurately as we can manage what the representatives of the firm said to us. We ourselves express no opinions.”

The first article of its kind focussed on hydraulic subjects investigated at the National Engineering Laboratory (NEL), East Kilbride, and for the May 1960 edition The Engineer approached J. Blakeborough and Sons, Towler brothers (Patents), Rover Company, Gwynnes Pumps, Metropolitan Water Board, Sperry Gyroscope Company, CEGB, and the English Electric Company, who provided the information that follows.

“Venturimeters and Head Readings: This firm makes no use of venturimeters for testing hydraulic machinery except in the laboratory, where they are maintained in tip-top condition,” reported The Engineer. “Its representatives could not therefore cite any relevant practical experiments, but felt that there was no doubt as to the value of this work.

“For the testing of large pump turbines, absorbing 5000hp or more, of which the firm is a manufacturer, free surfaces are almost always available for the purpose of head measurements.” The Engineer added that English Electrics’ representatives were aware of the effects caused by inlet swirl, but had never had occasion to use the suggested method of correction. Attention was then drawn to the fact that the British Standards Institution was considering the desirability of rewriting a section of a relevant specification relating to the placing of gauges.

“The present requirement is that they shall be placed close to the pump, in fact just in the position likely to yield incorrect readings,” said The Engineer.

The findings of a paper on Computation of Flows had not been applied, but English Electric noted that it was not difficult to think of cases in which this method would be of value.

“Reduced costs could arise out of the saving of time in the taking of readings, but since the computation from the readings would be done on a computer, the saving in cost was not likely to be substantial,” said The Engineer. “There was nevertheless great convenience in being able to place a pre-calibrated arrangement of gauges in a pipeline. The paper is also considered to have a value in its own right as a contribution to the theory of flow.”

From a paper on valve design, the use of a type 3 valve had been considered, but its excessive length was a disadvantage for the particular application at that time.

“Use had been made of valves of type 1, but it is thought that the design was arrived at independently of the work of the Laboratory,” said The Engineer. “No attempt has been made to experiment with the angle of the spear cone. It was felt that this kind of valve would, in fact, be used in preference to type 3, at least for heads up to 50lb per square inch. This compares with a head of 48ft for the valve described in the paper.”

Valves of the type 2 had been designed by English Electric and used for certain purposes. Although there had been some doubt as to the exact origin of this design, The Engineer said it ‘was probably influenced by that described in the paper.’

“The holes are not graded as in the NEL design, nor are they tapped as in the Blakeborough arrangement,” said The Engineer.

After these investigations, did NEL’s expertise translate into industrial value for English Electric? It would appear so.

“This firm expressed a high regard for NEL and felt that, in particular, it performed an invaluable service in the development of improved measurement methods, and in acting as a centre for collecting, collating and disseminating information,” said The Engineer. “In recent months the company has been particularly pleased to see changes in the hydraulics policy of NEL, giving greater emphasis to practical problems of turbine and pump design and manufacture confronting industry today. It is felt that in the highly competitive export market this is the best way in which the needs of industry can be satisfied.”