Dr Gerald Avison
Doctor of Engineering
Monday 18 July 2016 at 4 pm - Orator: Professor Ian Bond
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor
Gerald Avison was born and raised in Saddleworth, West Yorkshire. He was a bright, inquisitive boy who enjoyed making various contraptions out of Meccano – a sign of things to come. Despite being born in ‘Gods Own County’, his education took place over the border in Lancashire, where Gerald won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar school, an 18 mile daily bus-walk-bus journey. Following his A levels, Gerald was turned down by Clare College Cambridge, instead coming to Bristol to study. He later realised this was the best thing that had happened to him as Bristol gave him such an excellent education and subsequent opportunity do a PhD.
As well as being academically oriented, Gerald was a good athlete. He swam for the Manchester Grammar School team, and when he came to Bristol, played badminton for the University. Some may say that the peak of his university athletic contribution was being part of the Engineering Society team to be entered in the 1959 inaugural 24 Hour Pedal Car Race around College Green. In those days, the pedal cars were just modified children’s cars so this meant being squeezed into a small seat with little legroom. After 24 hours, Gerald’s shins were a sorry sight to see.
Gerald graduated with a BSc Hons in Aeronautical Engineering in July 1962 and took a job with Hunting Engineering. But after less than three months, he was contacted by John Flower, then a lecturer in the Aeronautical Engineering Department here at Bristol and offered the chance to work towards a PhD - the subject being ‘The Determination of Icing Patterns on Slender Delta Wings’, work that later proved to be invaluable in the design of Concorde.
This research required a wing model to be suspended in water and the ice particles to be represented by glass beads flowing past the wing. There was no such facility in Engineering so Gerald built two vertical water tunnels, (the first to demonstrate such principles) that took several years to build and commission before any results were obtained. I have had the pleasure of reading Gerald’s thesis, and it is striking to see what was achievable without the aid of the digital imaging and computing technology we now all take for granted!!!
On completion of his PhD in 1967, Gerald went on to work at the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton working on a variety of advanced projects but in 1973, two notable events occurred, he left the Company and joined PA Technology in Cambridge and he met and married his wife Jean, a midwife then working at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Gerald and Jean went on to have two children Margaret and Tom who are both here today to join in paying tribute to their father. Unfortunately Jean is unwell and was unable to make the journey from Cambridge.
At PA Technology, Gerald worked as design engineer on a range of projects – at that time PA Technology was leading the development hi-fidelity audio technologies of the day, and one such project was to implement mechanical recording of audio onto vinyl discs – something I suspect sounds rather ancient in today’s digital world!
1987 brought a step change for Gerald, as a group engineers from PA broke away to form The Technology Partnership or TTP, an organisation set up to develop new technologies, new products and solve problems. Gerald was one of the founding members of this new venture, which was started with an ethos of social partnership which has carried on until today, where all employees partake in and hold the majority of shares.
As a start-up company TTP had to get off the mark quickly if it was to survive, one of its first projects being to develop a coin handling system for public telephones. Thankfully, with the virtues of team effort bestowed from the outset by Gerald, within two years the business was profitable. TTP is also unusual for a technology developer in that it undertakes both innovative design and manufactures a small range of unique products.
As of 2016, TTP employs 400 highly skilled individuals, and comprises a collection of demerged companies spun out from the original. These spin outs encompass a diversity of technologies that have been developed over the years.
Notable examples include:
- the underpinning chip design for 2G/3G mobile communications and DAB radios
- a variety of drug delivery systems for asthma inhalers, nebulisers, and glucose monitors
- a range of fully indexable cryogenic storage systems for life sciences and medical research
- and bespoke, high quality inkjet printing for packaging and containers – the personalized beer can!
Throughout his working career, Gerald has left an indelible mark on the organisations and people with whom he has worked. To quote Peter Taylor, the successor to Gerald as Chairman of TTP:
“Gerald is a great practitioner of ‘management by walking about’, helping and motivating people with great humility. Staff past and present speak of Gerald very fondly. In a recent survey of leadership, they ranked him with people like Steve Jobs, Churchill and Ghandi, describing him as hugely inspiring, someone who genuinely cares, shows an interest and manages by making small suggestions, allowing you to solve problems and operate and thrive outside your comfort zone. He has had a huge benevolent impact on technologies, products, markets and people. Through this and his extracurricular activities he has contributed a lot to the growth of the technology cluster, to the broader community and nationally to promoting STEM subjects and the role of business as force for good.”
Gerald is fortunate in that his work has been his hobby throughout his life. He describes himself as an architect and communicator. His interests in traveling, especially by boat or train, have seem him visit both the Arctic and the Antarctic, as well as travelling overland from Moscow to Beijing.
So, what lessons can we take from Gerald’s remarkable career:
- hi-tech, innovative design and engineering in the UK is alive, well and flourishing,
- what may appear a risky venture can grow to become a world leader,
- teams are important BUT partnership is key.
And Gerald’s advice to those commencing their career? “Decide what you want to do, believe in it, go for it by the shortest possible route, and don't stop until you get there”.
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Gerald Avison as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering honoris causa.