Christopher Hinton (1901-1983)
Christopher Hinton was born in Tisbury, Wiltshire,
where his father was the village schoolmaster. At sixteen he was apprenticed to
the Great Western Railway’s Swindon Works, spending six ‘unnecessarily long and
wearisome’ years there. In 1923 he received the William Henry Allen grant from
the IMechE and went to Trinity College, Cambridge.
After graduation, Hinton was turned down by his
former employer. One of his professors, Sir Charles Edward Inglis, was told
that ‘Hinton would have been a good engineer if he had stayed with us, but now
he has had three years at Cambridge we wouldn’t dream of taking him.’ Instead
he went to the Brunner Mond Company, which soon became the Alkali Division of
Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).
At 29 Hinton became Chief Engineer at ICI, just
before the 1930s Depression. While there, he learned much about
standardisation, management programming and other techniques of financial
control. Under Hinton, the company made great progress in mechanical handling
of raw materials and in process plant reconstruction.
Christopher Hinton’s ICI experiences in large-scale
organisation became important to Britain’s war effort. From 1941 Hinton was
Deputy Director-General of the Royal Filling Factory organization, overseeing
the operations of nine major plants, each employing 20,000-30,000 workers.
Hinton later wrote that ‘size alone does not constitute a difficulty provided
that the management is not afraid and knows how to create structures appropriate
to the size’.
Post-war, Hinton became head of the Atomic Energy
Authority’s industrial production base at Risley, effectively creating an
entirely new industry by building Britain’s nuclear infrastructure. Although
early UK research reactors such as the British Experimental Pie (BEPO) provided
important technical information, Hinton’s team lacked sufficient resources to
build pilot plants. They built plants for uranium enrichment, fuel rod
production, plutonium separation and the nuclear reactors themselves without
such pilots. The Windscale piles, described by Hinton as ‘monuments to our
initial ignorance’, went critical between 1950 and 1952, but Windscale pile no.1
was the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents in 1957.
Although the application of nuclear technology to
civil power stations was delayed by the government’s weapons procurement
priorities, Hinton was a successful project manager, and brought all his
projects in on time and on budget. By 1956, Calder Hall power station had
become the first nuclear power station to supply electricity to the National
In 1957 Sir Christopher Hinton was appointed
Chairman of the new Central Electricity Generating Board. He moved the industry
from entirely coal-based to a more diverse mixture of coal, oil and nuclear
power stations. Although his appointment may have been intended to bolster the
new nuclear industry, Hinton believed that nuclear electricity generation should
be judged on commercial and engineering grounds. He did not lose his faith in
nuclear power but felt that the industry had been expanded too quickly.
Before leaving the CEGB Hinton was responsible for
major conventional plant construction and an upgrading of the grid. The new
‘supergrid’ was planned so as to cause as little environmental impact as
Upon his retirement Baron Hinton of Bankside took
on several different roles, including advising the World Bank on energy matters,
and serving as President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. A Fellow
of the Royal Society and awarded the Order of Merit, he was one of the most
honoured engineers of his generation.