Taylor, Sir Geoffrey Ingram

(1886-1975), physicist and engineer

by G. K. Batchelor,rev.

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Taylor, Sir Geoffrey Ingram (1886-1975), physicist and engineer, was born on 7 March 1886 at 10 Blenheim Villas, St John's Wood, London, the elder son (there were no daughters) of Edward Ingram Taylor, artist, of St John's Wood, and his wife, Margaret (1858-1935), daughter of George Boole, professor of mathematics at Queen's College, Cork, and Mary Boole née Everest. He was educated at University College School (1899-1905) where already he was strongly attracted to physical science. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he read first mathematics (part one, 1907, twenty-second wrangler) and then natural sciences, in which he obtained first-class honours in part two (1908). The award of a major scholarship by Trinity College in 1908, followed by a prize fellowship two years later, enabled him to stay on in the Cavendish Laboratory.

Taylor's first research project, suggested to him by Sir Joseph Thomson, was a simple test of the compatibility of the new idea of quantization of energy with the wave character of light when the intensity of the light is extremely small. But tangible macroscopic physics had a greater appeal for Taylor, and virtually all his subsequent investigations were concerned with the mechanics of fluid and solid materials and their applications in geophysics and engineering. He was actively engaged in research from the time of his graduation in 1908 to 1972 when he suffered a severe stroke, during which time he wrote over 200 scientific papers and articles, nearly all of which were later republished by Cambridge University Press in four volumes. His research was profoundly original. In his ability to combine incisive mathematical analysis and simple imaginative experiments to illuminate a fundamental mechanical process or phenomenon he had few equals, yet he was modest, unassuming, gentle, and boyish in manner, and much loved by those who knew him.

Taylor's first major investigation concerned the turbulent transfer processes in the friction layer of the earth's atmosphere, and was undertaken on his appointment in 1911 to the Schuster readership in dynamical meteorology at Cambridge. A year or so later he was invited to serve as the meteorologist on an expedition to observe the path of icebergs in the north Atlantic following the sinking of the Titanic, and this gave him an opportunity of observing the distributions of mean wind velocity, temperature, and water vapour content at different heights above the sea. This early work was the beginning of a preoccupation with the nature of turbulent motion of fluids and led to a remarkable series of pioneering papers which extended over twenty-seven years and transformed the understanding of turbulence.

Early in the First World War, Taylor was recruited to the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough with several other able young scientists to help put the design and military operation of aeroplanes on a scientific basis. This experience led directly to some useful investigations in aerodynamics and in the strength of materials, and it was also the origin of a continuing interest in aeronautics and many important research developments in later years, for example in supersonic flow. He also gained a pilot's certificate in 1915.

Taylor returned to Cambridge in 1919 as a fellow and lecturer in mathematics at Trinity College and was given the use of experimental facilities in the Cavendish Laboratory. He was elected FRS in 1919, and in 1923 was appointed to the Royal Society Yarrow research professorship, which he chose to hold at the Cavendish Laboratory. On 15 August 1925 Taylor married Grace Stephanie Frances (1884/5-1967), known as Stephanie, a schoolmistress, who was daughter of Thomas Holmes Ravenhill, a general practitioner in Birmingham. There were no children. In the period up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Taylor brought to fruition two great research themes, one on the deformation of crystalline materials and dislocation theory and the other on the statistical theory of turbulence, as well as a host of other novel investigations in fluid and solid mechanics.

During the Second World War Taylor was much in demand as a consultant and adviser to civil and military authorities faced with new technical problems. The detonation of high explosives, propagation of blast waves, effects of blast waves on structures, and undersea explosions represented the main areas of his work. In 1944-5 he visited Los Alamos, New Mexico, and worked with the group making the first nuclear explosion. Many of these wartime problems suggested basic research investigations in new areas of mechanics to which he turned later.

In 1952 Taylor retired formally from his research professorship, but he continued working in the Cavendish Laboratory with undiminished enthusiasm and fertility and for twenty years explored a remarkable range of novel and unconventional problems in fluid mechanics. In this last phase of his research life he was the international great man of mechanics, welcome at every conference, and he enjoyed the opportunities for travel and the honours that came to him. Sailing was an interest shared with his wife, and they made a number of notable voyages together, in one case to the Lofoten islands, Norway. These voyages provided part of the stimulus for Taylor to produce a startlingly original design of anchor which had a much better holding power than conventional designs and became popular with owners of small boats.

Taylor was knighted in 1944 and admitted to the Order of Merit in 1969. He was awarded many honorary degrees by universities at home and abroad (including Oxford, 1938, and Cambridge, 1957), was elected to honorary membership of a large number of learned societies, and received many prizes and medals, among which were the Copley medal of the Royal Society in 1944 and the US medal for merit in 1946.

Taylor's greatness as a scientist lay in his ability to foresee those narrow and unpromising problems in mechanical science which would turn out to be of significant value, and to pursue these in preference to more fashionable themes. Taylor died on 27 June 1975 at his home, Farmfield, Huntingdon Road, Cambridge, soon after a second stroke.

G. K. BATCHELOR, rev.

Sources   G. Batchelor, The life and legacy of G. I. Taylor (1997)
personal knowledge (1986)
G. K. Batchelor, 'Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, 7 March 1886-27 June 1975', Journal of Fluid Mechanics, 173 (1986), 1-14
G. K. Batchelor, Memoirs FRS, 22 (1976), 565-633
b. cert.
m. cert.
d. cert.
Archives   NMM, papers relating to naval designs
Trinity Cam., corresp. and papers |  IWM, corresp. with Sir Henry Tizard
Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell
Trinity Cam., letters to Rosenthal family
University of Bristol, corresp. with H. E. Hinton
Likenesses   W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1933-58, NPG
H. Coster, photographs, 1940-1959, NPG [see illus.]
T. C. Dugdale, pencil drawing, 1949, Trinity Cam.
photograph, repro. in Batchelor, Memoirs FRS
photograph, repro. in Batchelor, 'Geoffrey Ingram Taylor'

Wealth at death  
£137,390: probate, 4 Sept 1975, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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