January 2022

Words by Andrew Mercer

Tribute to Dr William Les Mercer

Dr Les Mercer, FREng, CEng. FIMMM, FIGEM died peacefully in Solihull after a short illness on 16th September 2021. 

A metallurgist and engineer; Les followed a career in applied industrial engineering R&D, initially in civil nuclear power and then in the gas industry. He was Director of the British Gas Engineering Research Station from 1978 to 1988 and held the post of Director, Research Resources within British Gas plc when he retired in November 1993. Les served as the last President of The Institute of Metals, 1990/92, immediately before it became, by amalgamation, The Institute of Materials, and as President of the Institution of Gas Engineers, 1984/85. He was elected a Fellow of The Fellowship of Engineering in 1985, which later became The Royal Academy of Engineering. 

Les was born in 1932 in Wigan in Lancashire – he showed an early interest in engineering; building balsa wood aircraft, Meccano models, early TV receivers, and assembling motorbikes from bags of spare parts.

He studied Chemistry at Leeds University from 1950 making a number of lifelong friends, playing rugby and flying Chipmunk Trainers in the University Flying Corps. His beloved companion was a BSA GoldStar motorbike and riding it over the Lancastrian fells. He gained a PhD in metallurgy in 2 years at Leeds University involving the use of radioisotopes to study solid state diffusion in metals to obtain a fundamental understanding of vacancy/solute atom interaction

He met my mother, Barbara in 1952, who was at the Teacher Training College in Leeds and they married in August 1954.

Joining General Electric in 1955, he worked on the nascent civil nuclear engineering program in Dr Monty Finniston’s Mettallurgy Division at Harwell. He was the metallurgist working on the zirconium-magnesium alloy casings used to house the uranium fuel in the nuclear reactor and was awarded patents for the casings used in the first generation of Magnox reactors. He was part of the team that built the first civil nuclear power station in the world at Calderhall (opened Oct 1956).

The casing used a novel hollow rod design of fuel element that was intended to operate at a higher rating than in all previous designs. A critical issue was accelerated testing of the concept to provide early design confirmation assurances. It had to work and to provide an acceptable life; otherwise, the whole reactor design (and the relatively attractive project cost) would be sent back to the drawing board. 

At the age of 26 in 1959, he was sent to Australia, as a British nuclear metals expert, to test different reactor materials at the Atomic Energy Commission’s HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights. Interviewed by ABC (on TV), he was fielding questions on whether nuclear bombs could be used to build a canal from Northern Australia to Sydney, whether submarines could be nuclear powered, and why (Japanese) steel knives are not sharp (the answer was to buy knives from Sheffield!)

In June 1959, Les joined British Gas; natural gas having just started to flow from the North Sea off the coast of Norfolk. In 1965, he joined the British Gas research station at Killingworth in the North East under John van der Post, as one of several founder (engineering and metallurgical) members of a new team to research, build and test gas production and high pressure gas transmission pipelines, becoming Director in 1978. They constructed the PIG (Pipeline Inspection Gauge) which was exported around the world. Its crowning glory came in 1989 when the Online Inspection Management team received national recognition through the award of the McRobert Gold Medal for Innovation in Engineering.

He travelled extensively around the world representing British Gas in the USA, Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, USSR (behind the iron curtain) and Brazil.

Les was always a great champion of engineering, encouraging young people to take up engineering careers. He was President of the NE Branch of the Association of Science Education, working with the Engineering Department of Birmingham University and a member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) from 1995.

Around this time, he became President of Institute of Gas Engineers and President of the Institute of Metals; changing the name from Metals to Materials reflecting the introduction of plastic pipes into the gas network.

Since his retirement from full time employment in Nov 1993, Les served on the Engineering Council (later the ETB) on a voluntary basis.  Initially, this concerned the approval and auditing of Nominated Bodies (the Engineering Institutions), which undertake the various processes associated with the assessment and registration of professional engineers. He was elected to the Engineering Council Senate in 1997 and chaired its International Committee from 1998 to 2002.  He also served on the Registrant’s Panel of the ETB from its formation in 2002 to 2004. 

After retirement, he and my mother travelled around the world, played bridge, enjoyed classical music, attended plays in Solihull and regularly attended the Birmingham Symphony Hall. My father looked after my mother for 7 years when she developed dementia until she died in July 2016

Les (and Barbara) had many friends both within and outside work; all commenting on how intelligent, nice, organized, energetic he was with a great common sense. He came over as a true leader; always calm, fair but firm and yet compassionate.

He left two sons, Andrew and Geoff, and two grandsons, Ben and Josh.