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The nicest man I never met

One of my regrets is that I never met the acoustician Derek Sugden, who by all accounts was an enchanting man as well as the virtual founder of acoustic engineering. And I never will, so have to make do with the fascinating obituary that appeared in The Guardian today.

The story is fascinating, not least because he seems to have worked out his acoustics almost from scratch, and through his love of music. And he wasn’t the only music lover. I love this part of the obituary: ‘At Snape, Derek was blessed with a brilliant general foreman, Bill Muttit, whose advice he readily accepted. On site one day, the strains of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto were heard. Bill explained that it was Leonard, the joiner who made the heavy doors, undertaking his hour’s violin practice. In due course Leonard was introduced to Yehudi Menuhin – but he felt one up on him, because Menuhin did not make his own violins; two-up, because Menuhin doubted whether he could have made the heavy doors either.’

And the fact that Ove Arup employed Sugden more for his interest in music and philosophy than for his engineering training. Arup is of course a hugely respected and successful practice now and the personal eccentricities encouraged by its founder have long gone.

Is there any place left for the kind of inspired amateurism that Sugden embodied? (I am using the word more in the French sense of an amateur as somebody who loves a subject, rather than the rather sneering English implication of somebody who isn’t very good. Sugden certainly couldn’t be accused of that.).

I think there is still a corner for it and it is in the area of services engineering. The university courses are rather dull and so as some of the graduates. The result is that some of the best consultancies (one thinks particularly of Max Fordham) believe that the best environmental engineering will be done by those with broad imaginations and therefore recruit almost entirely from related but different disciplines. As computing power becomes ever more sophisticated, and our need for number crunchers dwindles, engineering may take wing again as a place for some of the very best imaginations.

Ruth Slavid

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