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Joseph Ernest Petavel

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Joseph Ernest Petavel (1873-1936), director of the National Physical Laboratory from 1919 to 1936 and was the designer of the Petavel gauge for measurement of the pressures within exploding gasses.


1936 Obituary [1]

Sir JOSEPH ERNEST PETAVEL, K.B.E., D.Sc., was director of the National Physical Laboratory, a position to which he succeeded on the retirement of the late Sir Richard Glazebrook, Hon. M.I.Mech.E., in 1919. He was thus responsible for the remarkable changes in organization and for the numerous extensions to the Laboratory which came into being after the War.

Among the chief additions to the buildings were the high-voltage building, containing a 1,000,000-volt installation; the great compressed-air wind tunnel, completed in 1931; a second tank for ship models; a new building for acoustical research; and two open-jet wind tunnels, added in 1933-4. Recently a new photometry building was also added. The metallurgical department was also enlarged, and a commencement was made with the investigations now conducted by the Radio Research Board.

Sir Joseph was born in London and received his training under Sir Ambrose Fleming at University College, after which he studied at the University of Lausanne. He gained an 1851 Exhibition research scholarship in 1895, which enabled him to proceed with research on primary standards of light in the Davy-Faraday Laboratory of the Royal Institution.

In 1900 he went to Owens College, Manchester, as John Marling Research Fellow, and later he became a lecturer in physics and meteorology. Four years later he went to the St. Louis Exhibition as scientific manager of the liquid air plant shown there by the British Royal Commission.

He was appointed Beyer Professor of engineering and director of the Whitworth Laboratories at the University of Manchester in 1908, and was a member of the council of the University and of the senate. Whilst occupying this position he continued his researches, particularly in connexion with very high gas pressures, up to 45,000 lb. per sq. in., to withstand which he designed special joints; he also devised a pressure indicator for use at such pressures, a time scale which could be read to 1/1,000 second being included in the apparatus. Valuable records of the pressure waves created by explosives were thus obtained.

Sir Joseph's connexion with the National Physical Laboratory dated back to 1911, when he joined the general board, of which he remained a member until 1916. He also served on the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now the Aeronautical Research Committee) of which he became chairman in 1917. The great extension of aerodynamical research which took place about that time was largely due to him.

He also served on multitudinous Government and other technical committees, and on the councils of the British Electrical and Allied Industries Research Association and the British Standards Institution. In addition he was a past-president of the Engineering Section of the British Association.

He was the author of a large number of articles published in the technical press, and contributed to the discussions of meetings of the Institution, of which he had been a Member since 1914.

He was also a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. His election to Fellowship of the Royal Society took place in 1907. In 1920 he was created a K.B.E.

His death occurred at Bushy House, Teddington, on 31st March 1936, in his sixty-third year.


1936 Obituary [2]

SIR JOSEPH ERNEST PETAVEL, K.B.E., D.Sc., F.R.S., died on March 31, 1936, at Bushy House, where he had lived since 1919 as Director of the National Physical Laboratory.

He was the son of the late Rev. E. Petavel, and was born in London on August 14, 1873. He studied electrical engineering at University College, London, and then worked as an 1851 Exhibitioner at the Royal Institution on the use of molten platinum as a standard of light. He became a Research Fellow of Owens College, Manchester, in 1900, and was appointed eight years later to be Professor of Engineering of Manchester University. While directing the Whitworth Laboratories he carried out, partly in collaboration with Dr. R. S. Hutton, important researches on high pressures, involving the design and construction of novel forms of apparatus, and thus provided a basis for most of the later work on reactions under high pressures, especially those involving also high temperatures.

His interest in aeronautical research, to which he continued to render great services down to the end of his life, dates from that time, but a serious accident prevented him from continuing actual flying, and affected his physical activity in later years.

In 1919, on the retirement of the late Sir Richard Glazebrook, the first Director of the National Physical Laboratory, Petavel was appointed to succeed him, and for the remainder of his life he identified himself wholly with the service of the Laboratory. His mastery of detail was remarkable, and his insistence on a high standard of accuracy helped much to maintain and increase the prestige of the Institution. At the same time, the heavy administrative duties of the post made research work impossible for him, and his original contributions to science came to an end.

For many years he was Vice-President of the Aeronautical Research Committee, and his services to this and to other scientific committees were greatly valued. Apart from his official duties, Sir Joseph took a great pride in Bushy House. His keen artistic taste and the results of his wide travelling led him to embellish both the residence of the Director and the beautiful gardens, and he made generous provision to enable his successors to enjoy the fruits of his work. He was an admirable host, with a great capacity for friendship, and many scientific workers, with their wives and daughters, have happy memories of his hospitality. Sir Joseph Petavel received the honour of K.B.E. in 1920.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1907, and was an Original Member of the Institute of Metals. — C. H. D.


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