Men who set wheels in motion

24th January 1997 at 00:00

When the time came for me to go to public school, in 1933, the family rubber-manufacturing firm, Spencer-Moulton, was not doing very well in the wake of the Depression. My father and uncle, who were both deceased, had been to Eton, but I had to be sent somewhere less pricey. My grandparents chose Marlborough, whose fees were roughly half Eton's.

Marlborough gave me a tremendously rigorous education, both physically and intellectually. I was not good at games, but we had to go on things called "sweats" (long runs into Savernake Forest) which gave me a taste for exercise that has stayed with me. Academically, we didn't have to specialise at 16, unlike today, but I had known from an early age that I wanted to be an engineer.

I knew mathematics was important to engineering, and owe a tremendous amount to my two maths masters in the upper school, A R Robson and E G H Kempson. (We had no idea of the masters' first names; it was always "Mr Robson" or "Sir". )

We were taught in classes of about 20. It was very much blackboard teaching, going through examples, with Robson or Kempson walking around seeing how we were getting on. We were fairly senior, so discipline issues didn't arise. We were just anxious to learn. Robson and Kempson were very helpful with personal tuition; you could always see them out of hours if you were struggling on a particular point.

We had prep at about seven in the morning, before chapel and breakfast, which is another thing I'm grateful for: the discipline of getting up early. I still rise early to work.

Robson was something of a doyen of maths teaching. With a man called Durrell, who taught at Winchester, he had written important textbooks on algebra, trigonometry and calculus. He was an outstanding teacher, very friendly to all the boys. But he was guilty of intellectual snobbery, which manifested itself in an amazing statement he made one day. He told the class: "Engineers and plumbers do maths one way, mathematicians do it another way."

As a would-be engineer I was rather taken aback by this and, while I wouldn't have presumed to get my own back on a man whom I revered, I did want to show him what we engineers were capable of. So, in the school metalwork shop that I had set up a couple of years earlier (bringing in my late uncle's lathe from his workshop at home), I made a surprisingly accurate steel dodecahedron - a 12-sided sphere. I presented this to Robson, who was so stunned by this lovely geometric object that he kept it on his mantelpiece.

Robson was a rather small, portly man who used to take his favoured pupils on reading parties to the Lake District in the holidays. I wasn't one of the chosen because he could see I was not going to be a mathematician. My wonderful, sensible housemaster, R A U Jennings, also saw this and switched me to the Woolwich Sixth, the special stream set up to prepare those boys who were going into the Royal Engineers Royal Artillery training college at Woolwich. It concentrated on a more practical form of mathematics and, though I wasn't heading for the services, Jennings knew this would be more appropriate for me.

The Woolwich Sixth was run by Kempson. He was a splendid man, very athletic, and famous for having taken part in one of the first ascents of Everest in the Twenties. Kempson drilled into me the fundamentals of statics and dynamics, which combine to form mechanics, and which were the foundation of all my later work on motorcars and bicycles. I always had difficulties with the less "visualisable" things, algebra and so on, which involved a high degree of complex equations, but I loved mechanics.

There's no doubt that when I went to King's College, Cambridge, in 1938, to read mechanical sciences, my degree work was a natural extension of the foundations laid by Kempson. It must be very satisfying as a master to know you have given a pupil such a solid start. The practical maths I learned from him was also vital when I went into business by myself in the Fifties and had to come to terms with the laws of production: the need to manufacture components in large quantities at low cost.

But it wasn't only maths that helped me. I enjoyed Latin and Greek, which was just as well because they were required for entrance to King's. I've benefited from the classics, not only because they help one see the origins of words, but also because understanding the structure of language helps organise one's thinking. My ability to express engineering ideas in clear English is undoubtedly underpinned by Marlborough's classics teaching.

Dr Alex Moulton CBE, mechanical engineer, invented the revolutionary Hydragas and Hydrolastic suspension systems installed on millions of Minis and other cars. He also created the small-wheeled, two-piece Moulton bicycles, tens of thousands of which were sold in the Sixties and which are still manufactured today. Now 76, he lives and works at The Hall, in Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath

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