Professor M. W. Thring

M. W. Thring was a visionary who loved nothing better than a heated debate (sometimes even over breakfast) about his predictions of the future. A physicist by training, he switched to engineering because he wanted to make the world a better place to live in, not just for the next 10 years, but for his great-grandsons when they reach the age of 90.

Thring was highly intellectual, yet passionate about the future of the world and its people, and firm in his view that engineers must have a conscience to help make sustainable development possible – and so he looked to today’s engineers for renewable energy technology that could be shared throughout the world. He maintained a positive disposition, in spite of his knowledge of the dangers of the consumption by Western countries of so much more than their share of the world’s resources.

Meredith Wooldridge Thring, known to his friends as “Med”, was born in Australia in 1915, where his father, formerly a captain in the Royal Navy, was serving with the Australian Navy. Returning to England when he was four, he went up from Malvern College to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he attained a double First in Maths and Physics in 1937. He declined an offer to stay on for a PhD in the Rutherford lab, being keen to “get out into the world to help people”, a decision which may have saved him – a staunch pacifist – from being involved in early work developing the nuclear bomb.

On graduation he joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, becoming head of the combustion laboratory, where one of his projects included converting vehicles to run on producer gas made from wood, to save petrol in wartime. In 1946 he moved to become the Head of the Physics Department at the British Iron and Steel Research Association, in London.

Turning to academia in 1953, he was appointed Head of the Department of Fuel Technology and Chemical Engineering at Sheffield University. His interests there included magneto hydrodynamics, robot fire-fighters and the domestic robot, a topic of enduring interest to the popular media. In 1964 he moved to Queen Mary College, London, to become Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, working on subjects as varied as aids for thalidomide children to novel methods of low-drag ship propulsion.

He was a founder of the International Flame Research Foundation and a founder fellow of the Fellowship of Engineering, which became the Royal Academy of Engineering, London. He was also a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, and a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Fuel (now the Institute of Energy), serving as its President in 1962-63.

His numerous books include The Science of Flames and Furnaces (1952), Man, Machines and Tomorrow (1973) and How to Invent (1977), the last of these with Eric Laithwaite. He was consultant to a number of companies including Shell Oil Co, ICI and Montecatini Edison in Italy.

In retirement Med Thring worked as hard as ever, getting up at 6am and going to bed at 11.30pm; he just stopped having to go to the office and was able to focus more on his favourite areas. By this time he had become very interested in helping the people of Africa feed themselves. He founded a charity, Poweraid, sponsored a village in Tanzania and was also very active in Nigeria, making a number of visits to Lagos.

One of his favourite technologies was that used to extract edible protein from leaves. He worked out ways to harvest the weed water hyacinth from Lake Victoria and turn it into food, acting as a personal consultant to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda on this subject. His passion remained – science and engineering making a difference to the people of the world.

His wife, Margaret, gave him tremendous support, with activities ranging from entertaining students at their home in Sheffield to accompanying him to meet the Duke of Edinburgh. They married quickly during the Blitz in 1940 because, as they said, they could be dead next week. They both survived and were married 46 years.

Rob Thring

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