Professor Meredith Wooldridge Thring. ScD FREng
Med Thring, who died on September 15th, aged 90 was one of the founders of IFRF. For 25 years he was General Superintendent of Research and only recently retired from the Vice-Presidency of British Flame. He was a far-sighted engineer who involved himself in all aspects of engineering with the theme of responsible design directed to the sustainable well-being of humanity. Thirty years ago, in his book ‘Energy and Humanity’, he highlighted the need for a sustainable energy supply, an effective programme for its conservation and the control of pollution; a message ignored at the time. He challenged engineers to provide a decent quality of life for the disabled and underprivileged and he was a respected teacher, with many of his ex-students attaining high office in British and overseas industry.
Med was born in Australia, but as a child returned to England. He gained a Scholarship in Mathematics to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1934 and in 1937 gained a double first in maths and physics. In 1964 he received the ScD degree from Cambridge. On gaining his first, Thring was offered a research post at The Cavendish Laboratory by Lord Rutherford to work on some aspect of radioactivity. He declined as he wanted to work on problems of immediate concern in the real world, and was subsequently relieved that he, a confirmed pacifist, had thus avoided any possibility of being involved in the development of nuclear weapons.
He chose to join the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) working on combustion of coal and gaseous fuels. For this work he was awarded The Student Medal of the Institute of Fuel (now the Energy Institute) in 1938: in 1962 he was its president. Projects included Downjet Combustion and the modification of motor vehicles to run on producer gas generated from wood, in order to save petrol in wartime. He became Head of the Combustion Research Laboratory at BCURA in 1944, but at the end of the war he moved to BISRA to establish the Physics Department. There, the Thring–Newby scaling criterion for cold model studies and the Heat Flow Meter were developed: for the latter he was awarded the Hadfield Medal of the Iron and Steel Institute.
One of Thring’s strengths was his ability to stimulate others. He was the author of BISRA Physics Notes 40 and 41 which outlined the basis of international cooperation and a programme of research on luminous flames, and led to the establishment of the IFRF and the test station at IJmuiden. Initially formed by the British, Dutch and French steel industries to examine problems resulting from replacing coal by oil in steel production after the war, it expanded so that today it incorporates many countries and industries. IFRF has studied almost every form of coal, oil and gas flame and has lasted more than 50 years.
Administration was not Med’s forte, so his appointment in1953 as professor of Fuel Technology and Chemical Engineering in Sheffield University was no surprise. He proved a worthy successor to Prof. R.V. Wheeler, ‘the miners greatest friend after Humphrey Davy’ and the first professor, who died at the outbreak of war and Prof. R.J. Sarjant, formerly of Hadfields Ltd, Sheffield steel producers, who started the task of rebuilding the Department when the war ended. Thring continued Sarjant’s work, and when he took the chair in Mechanical Engineering at Queen Mary College London in 1964, he had more than doubled the undergraduate intake at Sheffield and supervised the construction of new accomodation and research facilities at a time of financial stringency.
His researches in Sheffield had expanded to include magnetohydrodynamics, robotics and telechirs which he took to Queen Mary from where he retired in 1981. A feasibility study of Telechiric Mining showed that it would be possible to extract coal without miners ever going under ground, an example of his search to protect humans from dangerous environments and relieve them of mundane chores: another was his robotic fire fighter though the popular media remembers only his unsuccessful robotic housemaid! Great effort was put into devising aids for thalidomide children, the elderly, disabled and handicapped to allow them to lead more normal lives: that did not always involve high technology, but demanded appreciation of others’ problems.
After retirement Med devoted himself to helping Africa. He set up the charity ‘Power Aid’ to develop engineering equipment needed by the rural poor and shanty town – dwellers; and sponsored a village in Tanzania. At the time of his death he was seeking to secure the charity’s future, particularly a project to develop a village-size Leaf Fractionation Apparatus which could be built and used in Nigeria. It would produce Leaf Concentrate, a protein- rich diet supplement, from plants.
Thring published widely in technical and scientific journals and was the author of a number of books dealing with engineering and its use to solve civilisation’s problems. We remember him for his many contributions to Flame Research and will miss his often provocative and trenchant opinions. However he, with his wife Margaret who died in 1986 after 46 years of happy marriage, welcomed and helped generations of students from all parts of the world who still maintain great affection for them decades after their graduation.
17th October 2006