Forbes Pearson

Born: June 25, 1931;

Died: March 14, 2024

Forbes Pearson, who has died aged 92, was a world-renowned engineer who was instrumental in setting up Christian outreach activities in the West End of Glasgow.

Born Stephen Forbes Pearson, he was the first child of Stephen H Pearson, an engineer from Northumberland, and Gladys Stewart, from Glasgow. He was born in Pollokshields, Glasgow, and attended school at Paisley Grammar and Kelvinside Academy. He was a precocious child who absorbed facts easily, particularly about the natural sciences. In infant school, he was reprimanded for arguing with a teacher who had told the class that the earth was a sphere. “No, it’s an oblate spheroid,” he said.

He considered becoming a doctor like his grandfather, Charles Stewart, but instead studied mechanical engineering at Glasgow University, graduating in 1953. He spent summer vacations working in the Rolls Royce factory at Hillington and the Tecumseh compressor factory in Michigan.

Following graduation Forbes enrolled at the Royal College of Science and Technology in Glasgow to complete a thesis on valve design for reciprocating compressors under the supervision of Dr Jimmy Brown, who remained a friend and colleague for life, working together on a wide range of technical developments in refrigeration. They also shared a love of language and a rather coarse sense of humour that sometimes took others by surprise.

With his PhD complete, Forbes was appointed scientific officer at the Torry Research Station in Aberdeen and spent three years developing techniques for freezing fish on trawlers to enhance the quality and extend shelf life. This work included time spent in rough seas off the coast of Newfoundland, which added a very practical, self-reliant aspect to his scientific training.

In April 1959 he married Jean Lyall and returned to Glasgow, setting up home in Maryhill and joining his father at L Sterne and Co’s Crown Iron Works. As chief engineer for Sterne his work was divided between design of products, such as industrial compressors and heat exchangers, and design of industrial refrigeration systems.

By 1969 the company had decided to close down the industrial division to focus on the mass market manufacturing of domestic and commercial equipment. Forbes and two of his colleagues, Bert Campbell and Anthony Brown, decided there was plenty of industrial work available in Scotland and set up Star Refrigeration Ltd in 1970, initially from the Pearson family home in Maryhill, moving a few months later to Thornliebank Industrial Estate.

Star Refrigeration quickly gained a reputation for innovative but robust and reliable engineering, mainly founded on the technical developments led by Forbes in his role as technical director. In the late 1980s the phaseout of CFCs under the Montreal Protocol prompted him to combine his knowledge of organic chemistry with his understanding of how compressors worked to create a range of refrigerant fluids suited to the rigours of extreme temperature operation.

Forbes was one of the first people in the world to recognise the possibilities of blending organic chemicals to create a refrigerant fluid mixture with particularly favourable properties for unusual or extreme operating conditions. This pioneering work led to the award by the International Institute of Refrigeration of their Gustav Lorentzen medal in 2003, only the second time that this international accolade, “the Nobel prize for Refrigeration”, was presented.

He firmly believed in supporting the wider refrigeration industry and was a regular contributor of technical papers on a range of topics to the Institute of Refrigeration, receiving their Lightfoot medal for the best paper of the year on six occasions. He also chaired the Institute’s Technical Committee for many years, served as president from 1987 to 1988 and was awarded the Institute’s Hall-Thermotank Gold medal in 1991. He helped to set up the Institute’s Scottish Branch in the mid 1970s and was awarded their Kooltech medal in 1987.

His service to the wider refrigeration community included many years on the British Standards Institute’s committee on refrigeration safety. He was honoured to be appointed as a visiting Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, and enjoyed mentoring undergraduate engineering students in their project work.

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Forbes had a strong Christian faith, first professed as a teenager in the 1940s and nurtured through the Paisley class of the Crusaders Union, where he made lifelong friendships, and Church of Scotland Seaside Mission. He was ordained as an elder in the Church of Scotland, serving in several capacities at Wellington Church in Glasgow’s West End.

He had a firm belief that Christianity should be robust, invigorating and, above all, fun. He founded and led a Friday night youth club for teenagers from Partick in the Wellington Church crypt and instigated an annual summer mission, Park Week, in Kelvingrove Park, which attracted hundreds of young people from all across the West End.

He also founded and led a new Crusader class, Kelvindale, which met in Kelvindale Primary School through the 1970s and organised Saturday morning football matches, swimming galas, games on Mugdock Moor, midweek chess matches and occasional visits to watch Scotland at Murrayfield for the Crusader class. He had two daughters and three sons, who participated more or less willingly in all these activities but in a wider sense, his family was hundreds of sons and daughters, whose lives were influenced by his strong Christian witness.

Forbes and Jean moved down the Clyde to Innellan in 2001 when he retired from full-time work and they became active members of the community through the parish church, the village hall and the sailing club. His inventiveness extended to a prototype device for trapping midgies, a design of electricity generator using tidal stream power and a concept for a car engine powered by ammonia.

His vigorous Christian witness ran in parallel with the establishment and growth of the business of Star Refrigeration through the 1970s. The two worlds were very different but there was a significant overlap. His care and concern for individuals was evident in the business principles adopted in Star as much as in the evangelism promoted in Kelvingrove, on Mugdock Moor or at Murrayfield. He had no difficulty reconciling his scientific understanding of the world with his faith, recognising that science answers the “how” questions but faith addresses the “why”. The two aspects of his life are summed up in the word “integrity”.

Forbes is survived by his wife Jean, daughters Muriel and Libby, and sons Stephen, Andy and Dave.