Robert S. Silver C.B.E., M.A., Ph.D., D.Sc., D.Tech., F.I.Mech.E., F.Inst.P., F.R.S.E. engineer; born March 13, 1913; died April 21, 1997

Professor Robert Silver, who made an outstanding contribution to humanitarian and economic progress through his work on desalination, has died at the age of 84.

Bob Silver was born in 1913 in Montrose where his family had a laundry business. On leaving school he went to Glasgow University to study Natural Philosophy gaining a MA and then a BSc (1st Class Honours) in 1932. He stayed on at Glasgow to study for a PhD in gaseous combustion.

He went on to use this expertise in combustion in several engineering companies: the Gas Council, ICI, G & J Weir, but never lost his interest in research and later submitted for and was awarded a DSc from Glasgow University.

In 1952 Silver returned to G & J Weir as their research director. At that time a significant part of their business was the production of fresh water from seawater in distillation equipment on board ships. With the oil boom just beginning in the Middle East it was apparent that in order for these countries to expand they would need a reliable and affordable supply of fresh water and this would have to come from the distillation of seawater.

Silver redesigned the marine distillers and developed the Multi-Stage Flash desalination process without which the arid countries in the Middle East would have no water supply even in the present day. His contribution in the field of desalination cannot be minimised and like so may Scots his death will be felt in countries so far removed from the land of their birth. For his contribution to desalination Silver was awarded the Unesco Prize for Science in 1968.

Although Bob Silver was a very practical person he always had a deep appreciation of the philosophy of engineering and, in 1962, he began his academic career as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. In 1967 he returned to Glasgow University taking up the James Watt Chair in Mechanical Engineering a post he held until his retiral in 1979.

At Glasgow he continued his work in thermodynamics: the study of thermal energy processes and transfer, and exposed his students to his own very individual approach to the teaching of the subject. This approach he eventually published in his Introduction to Thermodynamics in 1971.

His interest in desalination research was also very important to him and students from all over the world would come, as they still do, to Glasgow to study desalination technology. In 1967 he was honoured to be awarded a CBE and happy to have it conferred at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. In 1980 he was elected as a Foreign Associate of the US Academy of Engineering. After his retiral he still took a great interest in desalination and thermodynamics and was still active as an engineering consultant for many years until ill health made this impossible.

Silver also had a love of Scotland and all things Scottish. He was an ardent Scottish Nationalist standing for the SNP as a candidate in the 1979 election in the Craigton Constituency of Glasgow as was an easily recognised figure at party conventions over many years.

He was passionate about Scottish language and literature not only of the Doric tradition of the North East, but also of Gaelic. He was a poet and a playwright.

His play The Bruce was published by the Saltire Society in 1986 subsequently broadcast by the BBC Radio and put on at the Edinburgh Festival. A one-act play The Picture was put on in London and is still popular with many amateur companies. A collection of his poems Conflict and Context has been published by Chapman. He was a prodigious writer to the newspapers and his thoughts on a wide range of topics could be seen regularly appearing in the letter columns of our national press.

Bob Silver was a Scot who had a national and international reputation. He was a big man both physically and intellectually and all who came in contact with him will never forget his contribution to science and literature.

He is survived by his sons Colin and Alasdair and his grandchildren Robbie and Catriona.

LORD Weir writes: The death of Bob Silver marks the passing of one of the most inventive and original Scottish figures in the fields of engineering and science.

His academic career as James Watt Professor at the University of Glasgow and, previously, at Heriot-Watt University was distinguished enough in its own right. Beyond that, he gained international stature and recognition from his role as the father of the modern desalination industry on which millions of people in arid countries depend today. This contribution to engineering and human wellbeing was rightly recognised in 1968 with the award to him of the Unesco Prize for Science.

His work in inventing the main desalination process used today was carried out while he was head of research for Weir at Cathcart.

The significance of his work is that it is now practical to build desalination units two-and-a-half times as efficient in energy consumption, and 15 times larger in capacity, than was possible before his developments.

In doing this he did not, however, look on himself as an inventor, but rather as someone who had logically applied a fundamental understanding of certain physical phenomena - which previously had not been well understood - to the solution of practical problems.

He was also a person of great charm, with the widest range of interests, particularly in Scottish literature, history, and politics. In that last context, he was a long time advocate of Scottish independence. All of us who worked with him were proud to have known him.