To avoid system errors, if Chrome is your preferred browser, please update to the latest version of Chrome (81 or higher) or use an alternative browser.
Click here to login if you're an NAE Member
Recover Your Account Information
This is the third volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.
BY JAMES N. LANDIS
Vivian Fitzgeorge Estcourt died in San Francisco on May 11, 1985. He was one of many Stanford University engineering graduates who have attained distinction. In 1963 he was made an honorary life member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers "for distinguished engineering leadership in plant design, operation, organization, and management of modern electric power generating facilities."
Three years later the Franklin Institute awarded him the Newcomen Gold Medal in Steam and the Newcomen Society made him an honorary life member. During his long professional life, he dedicated his highly analytic abilities to improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of steam electric plants.
His brother, a public accountant eleven years his junior, says of Mr. Estcourt, "Without the guidance of a wise father and the loving and tender care of a wonderful mother, none of' us could have done what we have done." Mr. Estcourt's father was an English barrister-at-law; at the time of Vivian's birth in the Hammersmith section of London on May 31, 1897, the family also included two daughters, ages seven and three.
Vivian's early education took place at King Edward's School, a prestigious English public school in Birmingham. On his arrival in the United States in 1912, he attended Lowell High School in San Francisco, where he was a member of the Debating Society in 1913. He later entered Stanford University to study engineering and while there participated in soccer, figure skating, and hiking in the High Sierras with the younger of his sisters and her friends.
Vivian joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps, driving ambulances in France and training other drivers for the job. He was discharged on November 5, 1921, and became a U.S. citizen on December 29, 1921. Because of his army service, he did not graduate from Stanford until 1922; he finished with two bachelor of arts degrees—one in mechanical engineering and one in electrical engineering.
After graduation, he worked for seven months as a design draftsman for the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company and then joined the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), an affiliation that was to last from 1923 to 1964. In 1923 PG&E was a hydro company that had a single small steam plant, although its steam plant capacity would eventually undergo a period of major expansion. After a short time, Mr. Estcourt became an efficiency engineer in charge of power plant betterment work, a post he retained for eight years.
Thereafter, he rose through several successive positions of responsibility and finally became manager of the Steam Generation Department. As manager he was in charge of a system of more than four million kilowatts produced by thermal power plants burning gas, oil, delayed coke, fluid coke, sulfonated tar, pitch, and acid sludge, and including the very early Vallecitos and Humboldt Bay nuclear stations, the Geysers geothermal plant, and a city business area steam heating plant.
A major responsibility he assumed early in his utility career was that of manning several steam plants during a time when the San Francisco area had almost no steam plant personnel on which to draw. For years in his operation of the plants, Mr. Estcourt required that the log sheets be made in triplicate, with one copy coming to his office for personal review. Significant verbal reports were required to be confirmed in writing. As one station-operating subordinate reports, "Estcourt ran the show ... did not tolerate shortcomings in people ... wanted to know everything ... was extremely interested in personnel training ... kept aloof ... was very perceptive and always agreeable to making changes to aid operation no matter who might suggest them." Today, this is called hands-on management.
He wrote seven papers from 1936 to 1953 that illustrate the very wide range of his mechanical, chemical, and electrical interests. One in particular dealt with generator end-iron heating and stability when operating large generators in the underexcited region for control of system voltage, thereby extending the load range for this type of operation. Using much firsthand personal experience, he prepared two additional papers: "Manpower and Other Factors Affecting Operating Costs in Generating Stations" (ASME 53-A-95) and "Plant Management and Other Factors Affecting Maintenance Costs" (ASME 55-A-87). These two papers received the 1955 Prime Movers Award of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for best international contribution on power plant operations.
For several years Mr. Estcourt was chairman of the Edison Electric Institute Prime Movers Equipment Availability Sub-committee. The extremely important committee work that he spearheaded consisted of collecting and analyzing power plant steam generator and turbine generator equipment availability statistics as reported by nearly all the companies that were members of the Edison Electric Institute.
Mr. Estcourt also became active in power station stack discharge research, which at that time was of great concern to public authorities and the utility industry. He was soon selected as the chairman of the Edison Electric Institute/ U.S. Public Health Service Joint Steering Committee for Stack Plume Opacity Measurement and Evaluation Research.
For a period of six or more years, Mr. Estcourt devoted a great deal of his time to encouraging graduating engineers to work in the utility industry. He wrote three papers in connection with this industry recruitment activity while serving as the American Society for Mechanical Engineers representative on the Engineers Council for Professional Development Accreditation Team for Engineering Colleges.
From 1962 through 1964 Mr. Estcourt continued his association with PG&E as a consulting engineer in thermal power production. Late in 1963 he joined the Bechtel Power Corporation as a consulting engineer. He remained with Bechtel through 1984, completing many assignments to improve plant availability, reduce capital and operating costs, and develop a means of reducing stack emissions.
The unsatisfactory performance of electrostatic precipitators in collecting ash from low-sulfur coals led him to introduce the "European Design" electrostatic precipitator in this country for high-efficiency performance with western low-sulfur coals. Mr. Estcourt recognized the need to standardize the measuring and reporting of electrical fly ash characteristics to permit the proper sizing of precipitators, and he formed and chaired an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers committee to address this matter. In the field of sulfur dioxide emission control, he combined the spray dryer and baghouse concepts and was a driving force in the development and application of this dry sulfur dioxide control system, an approach that is now widely accepted. He produced four papers in his eightieth and eighty-first years.
Although Mr. Estcourt was a distinctive individual who circulated broadly, he was also a very private person and never discussed his background and experiences. In 1929 he married Helen Grant, a lovely California lady and companion. The two traveled extensively; their trips included a safari to Africa and travels to many other locales outside the United States.
Mr. Estcourt was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1981. He was a member of numerous other societies throughout his professional life, serving on many committees and generally ascending to the chairmanship of the committees in which his interest was greatest. He always attended conventions alone. He would sometimes surprise associates at the convention social gatherings by dancing very ably with their wives—behavior that seemed completely out of character for the man associates thought him to be: that is, someone possessing solely technical interests.
Some of his personal character traits are revealed by the statements of several individuals who worked closely with him. From a secretary of many years: "He appeared to use every moment in a disciplined way." An office technical associate noted these characteristics: "His inquisitive nature propelled him into investigating a subject of interest until he understood it fully; and he tenaciously followed through on any program until his objectives were achieved. He had little patience with ignorance or stupidity but was always ready to take an interest in and assist young, promising, eager engineers."
One of two manufacturers' representatives who dealt a lot with him said: "He was always on the look-out for a 'snow-job'; he demanded honesty and appreciated it!" The other observed: "My discussions with him were very enlightening to me. I felt he was my friend. He gave willingly of his time when questioned but answers were not expansive."
Mr. Estcourt was never able to enjoy, except in brief anticipation, the Santa Barbara home he had purchased for retirement. His last seven and a half years were spent alone in his San Francisco home, as a widower, which may account for his continuation of technical activity. In addition to being a Mason for fifty- five years, he is known to have had three other nontechnical interests, which he very rarely discussed: football, the Theosophical Society in America, and the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. Soon after Mrs. Estcourt's death, he flew around the world, stopping at many places, including several stops in India, which his brother believes were connected with Mr. Estcourt's theosophical beliefs. It can be said that Vivian Fitzgerald Estcourt appeared to live his life as he wished, little affected by others, always investigating something, with the accomplishment of his objectives as his reward. He has left an enduring written record of many technical contributions to the utility industry in which he spent a long and very active professional life.