Review: The History of Imperial College London

Hannah Gay’s History of Imperial College London from 1907-2007 was published for the college centenary and is available from Imperial College press.

The zebra crossing on Prince Consort road being put in place after activist students painted one on the road; painted foot prints walking over buildings as a RAG prank and the Union Bar being closed to women until 1972 are examples of elements of the College’s history which have made the transition from myth to fact in my mind having been placed not just in print but in context by this college history.

I think there is plenty within the book to interest all those who have an association with Imperial, it is an opportunity for students and alumni to find out who the people their halls, their lecture theatres and the college’s buildings are named after were and what these people did for the college, and also in most cases for their country. More than that it helps put the contemporary education offered by Imperial in its place in relation to both the progress of science and with respect to technology and changes in the world at large. Current students might be surprised that “Imperial” hasn’t always just been a synonym for “The Best”, but reflects a real link between the work done in the College and the British Empire during the early years of the College. In 1909 a Zoology professor came to Imperial from Cambridge because: “he thought it ‘a duty to his science and the empire’ that he train young people for Imperial service”. Specifically referring to Mechanical Engineering, but perhaps expressing a sentiment which could be interpreted more generally Gay appears to believe that there is still some kind of underlying indoctrination within Imperial’s Teaching: “Today’s students are taught to think about adding value to industry at a global level, and that while selling added value is important to Britain’s economy, where it is sold is less so”. That’s not something which chimes well my experience where an Imperial education is on offer to all who want it, are able to afford it and are able to benefit from it, regardless of to what end they plan to put the knowledge gained.

Within the book we see history repeating itself in some quite idiosyncratic ways, for example exams in temporary structures appear to have been something of an Imperial tradition, a temporary building erected as a changing room for Queen Victoria and her retinue when she came to open the Imperial Institute, became used as a University of London examination hall. Though I imagine this “temporary” building was rather different to the tents in which some undergraduates sat their exams in the late nineties and the early 2000s, one older building behind the Royal College of Music, described as “temporary” in the book, is still in use.

The combined heat and power plant, appeared novel and revolutionary when it opened at Imperial in September 2001, but it was nothing new to the college and another area where the cyclic nature of the history of the college can be seen. The college had made a brave move to improve its energy efficiency about 50 years before, dumping the Kensington and Knightsbridge Electric Lighting company which was based on Prince Consort Road and installing: “new coke fired and electrode boilers”, which as well as supplying the needs of the college were the subject of research by a Professor Lander and his students. Another energy related theme is that of Nuclear Power and Weapons, both subjects of much research and policy discussion at the college.

As a Biochemistry student I knew of the ex penthouse flat on the top floor of the department’s building, remanences of which remained when I was at Imperial. What I did not know was that Nobel Prize winner Ernst Chain for whom the flat was built: “asked the college to rent a house in the neighborhood with seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, three reception rooms (one large and suitable for music), dining room, study and large kitchen”, and the penthouse flat was a compromise.

Clearly two world wars have been massively significant events in the 100 years of Imperial’s history, affecting how the College operated and what its resources were focused on. While I have learnt what various members of my family were doing in these times of conflict, I found an interesting alternative perspective on the period though learning how “my university” had fared.

One of few relatively modern students to be introduced in the book was Piers Corbyn, who maybe known to daily mail readers as a maverick long term weather forecaster, was ICU president in 1969-70. As President of Imperial College Union between 1969-1970 Corbyn was successful in establishing for the first time a sabbatical union president, enabling the elected student leader to be registered at the College and not having to study or pay fees, (in fact they received a grant from the college and union). As well as laying the foundations for the future, Corbyn negotiated a retrospective sabbatical for himself, though he appears to have served as union president after completing his studies.

Piers set up a short lived “Imperial College Representative Council”, seats on which were distributed between members of the college on the basis of their numbers, a system which nearly gave students a majority. The ICAUT, refused to co-operate with this student led initiative. While this particular council did not survive increased student representation on college boards committees was like the sabbatical president a lasting success of Corbyn’s time as ICU president.

Piers’ dress had been viewed as being a statement against upper class formality. Piers, along with the then rector, Lord Penney received the Queen when she visited to open a new administrative building in 1969, Corbyn wore a cravat, long hair and beard for the occasion (The book includes a photo). During the ceremonial visit, in front of 900 people Corbyn petitioned the Queen asking for students to be given a greater say in the governance of the college. Clearly Corbyn was great individual who achieved a huge amount for me and thousands of other students who followed him to Imperial I wonder why he’s not commemorated within ICU (Perhaps there is a Corbyn Room I managed to miss?!).

Especially in the more modern sections of the book the student perspective appears does not to be given much prominence. A number of times the later student media is described as looking out to the world beyond Imperial at the expense of internal stories. Live doesn’t get a mention at all, and more recent student media doesn’t appear to be given the same weight as editions of “The Phonenix” from the early 1900s, I wonder if the author knew of Live, or realised that Felix had has had some periods of excellence. To some degree it appears that older occurrences are seen as more important, or of more interest than their modern equivalents, for example a hosing down of the Rector in 1925 gets a mention, but the equally audacious cream pie in the face of Richard Sykes goes uncommented on.

The history of ICU is briefly covered, an Imperial College Union common room opened in the RCS building in 1909, and the Union Building opened in 1911, with a bar opened after the first world war: “At first a barmaid in traditional black silk dress presided, but after the first two barmaids married students it was decided to have male bar tenders”. “Student power diminished in the 1920s and 30s as the college took over maintenance of the building, the running of the refectory, and overall discipline”, college interference in the running of the Union clearly another perennial problem. ICU first affiliated to the NUS in 1933, that appears to have been an issue which was set spinning round in circles right from the start :”the affiliation was an on-off affair for many years”.

At 856 pages it is a hefty tome and while there were many gems these were secreted within pages of more pedestrian “history”. Its publication doesn’t appear to preclude the creation of books on the history of ICU, Imperial from a student perspective, departmental histories or individual biographies, as despite its length its coverage on any particular subject is by necessity light. There are a couple of points where I would question what’s in the book on the basis of my own experience, for example is the Flowers building a refurbishment of the biotechnology pilot plant – it looked to me like a new build, and more flippantly the SNKPJ certainly had no connection with pies by the time the Union were asked to rule on its acceptability.

Those who’ve been interviewed, or otherwise contributed to the book tend to come off well, or get mentioned when they otherwise might not have been for example a certain M.C. Black gets a footnote. There is perhaps some pro-Imperial bias, as might be expected from a book written by a member of Imperial staff, for example the brief section on Prof. Roy Anderson, since announced as the next Rector, doesn’t mention his modelling of the foot and mouth virus predicted the end of the epidemic in time for a planned general election or his subsequent highly paid government job, merely noting his disease modelling work is controversial.

One of the more mundane ways in which Imperial was ahead of its time was in the field of research administration, as early as 1930 the then rector Tizard laid down rules designed to ensure that a: “Full Economic Costing” model was used by the college for external contracts, an innovation that some might assume to have been much more modern.

Many questions are raised in the mind of the reader as they are taken though the changes of the past century. How should public research funding be distributed? – By research councils under the umbrella of the Department for Trade and Industry? What is the role of a Head of Department – a leader or facilitator? What is the role of departments in the age of interdisciplinary research centers? The point is made that “despite loud rhetoric to the contrary” undergraduate teaching has become less valued over Imperial’s first 100 years. How do we encourage, recognise and reward excellence in undergraduate teaching in Universities? What role, if any, should students play in the running of the University?

This review was written for, and submitted to Live!.

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