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National Academy of Engineering Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10
Membership Directory
PublisherNational Academies Press
Copyright2002
ISBN978-0-309-08457-4
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10

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  • ROBERT S.SILVER
    
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             ROBERT S.SILVER                                          217
    
                             ROBERT S.SILVER
    
    
                                      1913–1997
    
                                  BY MYRON TRIBUS
    
                ROBERT SIMPSON SILVER, James Watt Professor of Engineering,
            Glasgow University, emeritus, died at a nursing home in Inverurie,
            Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on April 21, 1997.
                Bob was born in 1913 in Montrose, where his family had a laundry
            business. He studied natural philosophy at Glasgow University, where he
            received his M.A. and B.Sc. degrees (1st Class Honors). He continued his studies
            for the Ph.D., specializing in gaseous combustion.
                During World War II his major work at G. & J. Weir Ltd. was with the
            Admiralty, improving warship pumps, boilers, and the small onboard immersed-
            tube desalinators. He had a long career in research and development, working for
            the Gas Research Board, Imperial Chemical Industries. He worked for the
            Federated Foundries Ltd. in 1948, the John Brown Land Boilers Ltd. in 1954, and
            then returned to the G. & J. Weir Company. He returned to academia, after a
            successful career in industry, to become a professor of mechanical engineering at
            the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and later to become the James Watt
            Chair at Glasgow University, from which he retired in 1979.
                Immediately after the war, he turned his attention to the redesign of the
            ubiquitous coal-burning fireplaces, which were used in homes and offices all
            over the United Kingdom. His analysis
    
    
                 
    
    
             ROBERT S.SILVER                                          218
    
             of the heat balance of these fireplaces resulted in redesigns that saved tons of
             coal and helped reduce air pollution.
                From 1956 to 1962, while working at the G. & J. Weir Company, he
             invented the Multistage Flash (MSF) Distillation System. This invention resulted
             from a careful analysis of the sources of entropy in various systems for water
             purification. Today the method of analysis he used is called “Second Law
             Analysis,” but when he applied it to seawater demineralization, it was a novel
             idea. The first MSF plant was sold in Saudia Arabia, and Bob worked tirelessly to
             bring it on line, oftentimes at great risk to his health. It was dangerous to be
             inside the large flash chambers in the blazing Mideast sun. That plant established
             the commercial viability of the MSF process and its design was duplicated in
             many places. Multistage flash distillation represented an improvement in thermal
             efficiency of about two and one-half times. It also made practical the design of
             very large plants, upwards of millions of gallons per day of freshwater
             production. A one-million-gallon-per-day plant, based on the same principle, was
             built in San Diego as a demonstration plant by the U.S. Office of Saline Water, in
             the early 1950s. That plant was later dismantled and shipped to Guantanamo
             Bay, where it is still in use. It was always a source of bitterness for Bob Silver
             that because the G. & J. Weir Company failed to patent the design, many plants
             were built that did not have his care and attention, and, consequently, did not
             reach the efficiency and economy that was possible.
                In 1962 he retired from the G. & J. Weir Company to become a professor of
            mechanical engineering at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. This was a
            difficult decision for him, as he had a great love for education and at the same
            time wanted to remain active in seawater demineralization. He wrote
            fundamental papers on the theory of condensation of pure liquids, on
            combustion, and on explosives.
                In 1967 he returned to Glasgow University to become the James Watt
            Professor of Engineering. There he established a research program in seawater
            demineralization, to which students came from all over the world. Even after his
            retirement and passing, students still come to the center.
    
    
                 
    
    
             ROBERT S.SILVER                                          219
    
                In 1971 he published a treatise on thermodynamics, developing the subject
            in a novel way, reflecting his many years of design experience.
                He received many honors and awards, of which the following is a partial
            list:
    
                 •   Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Engineering, 1979
                 •   The George Stevenson Prize of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
                   for studies of convective circulation in water tube boilers, 1945
                 •   The William Jack Prize from the University of Glasgow for the best
                   D.Sc. thesis in the previous triennium, 1948
                 •   The Heat Transfer Division Memorial Award of the American Society
                   of Mechanical Engineers for his contributions to seawater
                   demineralization, 1963
                 •   The Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire,
                   1967
                 •   The UNESCO Prize for Science for his work in desalination, 1968
                 •   Honorary degree from Strathclyde University, 1984
                 •   Honorary degree from the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, 1996.
    
                Bob Silver had a great love of things Scottish. He was an avid fisherman and
            spent many hours on the Island of Mull, where he and his wife, Jean, had a
            summer home.
                Bob was more than a physicist-engineer. He was passionate about the
            Scottish language and wrote many essays and poems in Scots. He wrote many
            essays on behalf of Scottish independence and stood in a parliamentary election
            as candidate for the Scottish National Party in the Glasgow Craigton constituency
            in 1979. His letters to the editor appeared in many issues of Scottish papers.
                He was also a poet and playwright. His play The Bruce was published by the
            Saltire Society in 1986, read on BBC Radio, and produced at the Edinburgh
            Festival. A second edition of TheBruce was published in 1993 by the Scottish
             Cultural Press, in
    
    
                 
    
    
             ROBERT S.SILVER                                          220
    
             corporating two new scenes and other additions written for the Edinburgh
             Festival production of 1991. His play The Picture was staged in London and is
            still popular among many amateur companies.
                A copy of his book Conflict and Contexts, published by Chapman, lies on
             my desk as I write. Among other things, it contains poems dedicated to his wife,
             Jean. They were married in 1937 and remained together for fifty-one years. I lift
             the first two and last two lines from this poem, dedicated to her after her death in
             1989:
                “Number Unobtainable”
                Often my work kept us apart for weeks We used the telephone to “keep in
            touch”
    
                From Curacao I talked to you in Mull
                And touched you thus. I cannot touch you now.
                My personal memory of Bob is that of a great conversationalist, whose wit
            and humor made each meeting too short. He could discourse intelligently on
            topics from theoretical physics and engineering to politics, economics, and
            religion. He was a stimulating and steadfast friend.
                Bob is survived by his two sons, Colin and Alasdair, and his grandchildren
            Robbie and Catriona.
    
    
                 
    
    
             ROBERT S.SILVER                                                  221
    
    
                  
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