Charles John Partridge, BSc (Hons)

Doctor of Engineering

Tuesday 16 February 2016 at 11.15 am - Orator: Dr Laura Dickinson

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor

Graduates.  Think back over your time at Bristol.  What important lessons have you learned?  Did you learn these lessons in the lecture theatre?  No?  Neither did John.

Fifty four years ago, John Partridge sat in his final mechanical engineering exam on the theory of structures unable to answer any of the questions.  We can all recognise that sinking feeling.

Three years earlier, John had arrived in Bristol, at Queen’s Engineering Building, with the aim of spending his time learning how to build aeroplanes and playing jazz.

The technological advances in air travel during John’s childhood had inspired him. The world’s first jet airliner, The Comet.  The first human flight at more than 1000mph by Peter Twiss.  John Partridge had dreamed of becoming a pilot.  However, the Royal Air Force didn’t want him because he is colourblind.  And so, if he couldn’t fly aeroplanes, John decided that he was going to build them instead.

In the 1950s, the underwater world began to compete with the skies for John’s attention. Underwater adventures featured in second world war books and films such as Above us the Waves, and Jacques Cousteau’s film The Silent World showed him the beauty of marine life. 

In 1953, a midget submarine moored at the town quay in York (where John was born and raised), and young John and other excited children queued to crawl through her cramped interior and inspect the inner workings. Afterwards Royal Marine ‘frogmen’ demonstrated their equipment in a swimming pool.

In 1955, Practical Mechanics magazine published the article: “Making an Aqualung”. Those handy with tools, who could not afford to buy imported aqualungs, built their own from war surplus parts.  John was one of these “handy” people, and this hard-earned experience became an example of the ‘gritty’ approach he subsequently followed all his life.

At the beginning of his second year, John founded the University of Bristol Underwater Club.  The Club brought together expertise from across the University including co-founder and zoology student Heather Angel (who would later become president of the Royal Photographic Society) and transpolar explorer and physiologist Dr Alan Rogers. 

Dr Desmond Donovan of the Geology Department provided financial support for purchasing equipment and then recruited the Club’s help to gather rock samples from the bottom of the Bristol Channel – which turned out to be pretty treacherous diving!

In his final year, John organised the Bristol-Norway Underwater Expedition, to carry out zoological research.  On that trip he rescued his fellow club member and physics undergraduate Nigel Kelland from a giant stinging Cyanea Capillata jellyfish with twelve metre tentacles.  This was fortuitous because John and Nigel’s paths would cross years later, and eventually Nigel would become director of John’s company Sonardyne.  Nigel is in the audience today.

John’s impact is still felt at the University today: the Underwater Club continues to thrive.  Currently with around 100 members, it aims to provide affordable, friendly and exciting diving experience to all.  How will the clubs and societies that you have founded, shaped and grown affect the lives of the students that come after you?

So we return to June 1962 and the exam hall, where all that diving meant that John was very ill-prepared for final engineering exams.  John used the enforced spare time in the exam to ‘invent’ the basic principles of long-baseline underwater acoustic navigation in a form suitable for SCUBA divers, which eventually became Sonardyne’s core technology.

John thinks that Professor Morrison, then Dean of Engineering, must have turned an academic blind eye in awarding John any degree at all.  But his degree proved adequate to follow the next call of the sea, northwards to fisheries research in Aberdeen – long before the oil industry arrived there.  Later, John came south again and was employed by the Polio Fund to research ‘nerve-controlled’ battery-powered artificial hands for thalidomide victims.

In 1964, John married Betsan, the Wiltshire girl he had met in the Victoria Rooms as an undergraduate, and they moved from London and set up home on the south coast in 1965.

Working on lasers for submarine detection as his day job, John could at last build a much longed-for workshop, and here he started the years of spare-time research and development to convert his invention, the Rangemeter, into a viable product.

By 1971, John and Betsan had founded Sonardyne Ltd, working in their home. The discovery of North Sea oil, in the days before GPS, created a need for precise positioning at sea, both on the surface and on the seabed. So John diverted his acoustic technology to oil drilling and pipe-laying applications. In view of the tiny size of the organisation, John thinks that BP was remarkably trusting, and the Forties Field oil platforms were successfully positioned by Sonardyne transponders built in John’s garage.

Offshore oil construction projects all round the world relied on Sonardyne underwater acoustic equipment. John’s company grew from his garage and a workboat based in Dartmouth to the Sea Trials and Training Centre now based in Plymouth and three factories.

Sonardyne’s acoustic technology has also been used to improve underwater mapping to help navigation in the Thames estuary, and the company (led by Nigel) was also heavily involved in mapping, excavating and lifting King Henry VIII’s historic shipwreck the Mary Rose in 1982.  More recently Sonardyne’s technology has been used to make a tsunami early warning system.

John’s vision is for Sonardyne to remain a British company, at the forefront of underwater technology.  To achieve this, he recognises that engineering education is an important part of the UK’s future, and Sonardyne has funded an engineering centre at Alton College in Hampshire. Through the Sonardyne Foundation charity, Sonardyne’s profits are providing grants to encourage more young people to take up a career in engineering.So what lessons can we learn from John’s story?  Following your passions with persistence and insight can lead to hard-won and well-deserved success.  And what you do in exams can be very important – but perhaps not in the way you think.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you John Partridge as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering honoris causa.

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