Martin Lowson, 1938-2013

An academic and research scientist who made major contributions to fields as diverse as noise generation, aerodynamics and urban transport has died

July 25, 2013

Martin Lowson was born in Totteridge, Hertfordshire on 5 January 1938 and educated at King’s School, Worcester. He went on to study aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Southampton, obtaining a BSc (1960) followed by a PhD (1963). While still a postgraduate, he formed part of the team responsible for the world’s first authenticated instance of human-powered aircraft flight, using a system of pedals and chains to drive a propeller.

On completing his doctorate, Professor Lowson began a career in which he oscillated between universities and industry. He spent a year at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, where he produced a number of papers still regarded as fundamental to the theoretical understanding of noise generation, before moving to the US from 1964 to 1969 as head of applied physics at Wyle Laboratories in Huntsville, Alabama, which included work on the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo spaceflight programme.

In 1969, Professor Lowson returned to Britain and the academy as Rolls-Royce reader in fluid mechanics at Loughborough University, before being appointed chief scientist and later director of corporate development for Westland Helicopters in 1973. His final post came in 1986, as Sir George White professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Bristol, where he proved a highly effective administrator while undertaking an energetic and wide-ranging portfolio of research that continued long after he became emeritus in 2000.

Although his interests included topics such as the functions of birds’ feathers during different phases of flight, Professor Lowson became increasingly concerned with the issue of ground-based transport systems. In 1995, he set up a spin-off company, ULTRA, to develop his Personal Rapid Transit scheme. This system was awarded the contract to provide the transport for passengers to transfer from the car parks to Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport, which it is hoped will prove the first of many such projects.

Mark Lowenberg, reader in flight dynamics at Bristol, remembers Professor Lowson as someone who was “always very supportive of people and understood their diverse interests and ways of working. He was very optimistic and positive, always looking ahead rather than blaming people, and came up with new ideas in all sorts of fields, from composite materials to energy harvesting, even while developing a whole innovative approach to rapid transport.”

Professor Lowson died on 14 June and is survived by his wife Ann, a son and a daughter.

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