Seamus Timoney - an inspirational Leader

Seamus Timoney 1926 – 1991 - Reflections from Dr Gerry Byrne, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Head of Department at UCD                                                                                 

Given at the inaugural Timoney Leadership Institute Leadership Masterclass, 4 December 2012, Westin Hotel, Dublin.

Thumbs Up, a wink and a smile!

An academic, an industrialist, an innovator, a designer, an internationalist, a manager, a teacher, eldest of a family of 10, he was broad, he was focused, he was tolerant, he was intolerant, he knew research processes, he knew technological processes, he knew business processes – he was a true leader.

I met Seamus around 1987, 25 years ago, when he came to Berlin to visit me in the Technical University/Fraunhofer institute.

At that stage I had no idea that the man I was meeting was so eminent. I had no idea that I would become his successor as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UCD.

He was a remarkable man, academic, industrialist – remarkable in so many ways.

Like great personalities he left a legacy, a long lasting durable legacy… here we are talking about him tonight some 21 years after he passed away on 11th Nov 1991.

One word to describe his capabilities: Leadership.

So what was it about him?

Well as a young man he won the British universities welterweight title 3 years in succession was Kick Boxing Champion in Ireland and Great Britain.

He turned down a place on the Irish Olympic team in 1948 because of his final exams.

Even at that young age he was confronted with decisions and his dedication to his long term career development won out.

I often think of his dedication to achievement – to addressing in a single minded, focused manner, the issue at hand, without much philosophising and debate, just getting in there and making sure you come out the winner.

This characteristic, coupled with total dedication, is what accompanied him throughout his whole life: in the academic world, in the industrial world, in societal matters, in religion….

On a personal note, in the mid 80’s, I had a strong interest in ceramic materials and, working in Berlin, I was researching the methods for making automotive components out of ceramics. Not an easy task: in fact a very complex task ensuring the component quality and thus reliability in service.

But Seamus was an optimist, although strong in his critical appraisal capabilities. He took the positive view rather than the negative perspective. He set his boundaries in different places than most and this set him apart.

He was always searching for something, a new idea, a new perspective, an opportunity.

He could see that if the ceramic materials were successful in automobile internal combustion then there would be lubrication benefits, cooling benefits, higher energy efficiency … all the things we strive for today.

My discussion with him for a day and a half in Berlin with him was for me completely inspirational.

Let me quote from his colleague Vincent McCabe, former Dean of Engineering and an outstanding teacher and colleague in Mechanical Engineering:

“Ireland it might appear is simply not a place to set up an operation for the design, development and manufacture of special purpose vehicles. There is no tradition, no infrastructure, no future in it, and they wont take you seriously. Yet that is precisely what Seamus Timoney did.

With the help of his brothers and a small team he took on the best in the world and won the orders and contracts or sold licences to manufacture in Europe, the US and the far East.

Simply because the vehicles, fire tenders, armoured personnel carriers, forestry vehicles, airport rescue vehicles, were better than the rest”.

Is there not a great message here? You can read out of this the personality of the man.

This is what we need: people who are not stifled by the perceived limits of boundaries, people who inspire us….

In the academic world, Seamus was different, different to most academics. In what way? Well, he had a different philosophy.

He firmly believed in the practical and industrial aspects of engineering. Whilst he was very comfortable in a research environment and made outstanding contributions, he always wanted to go one or more steps further and to see the research translated into an industrial product or process.

For him it was not adequate to let it rest with academic papers. It was this philosophy that led him to taking out some numerous patents.

This quote from Seamus illustrates his vision:

"We need closer links between the engineering schools and industry . This tends to be frowned upon by many academics, but really when all is said and done, engineering is all about making useful things at a price that people can afford, and thus raising the 'well-offness' of the entire population”.

Today we talk about innovation and its importance. Some who talk of innovation do not really grasp the true meaning of the processes involved, from concept to design to manufacture to the market and to making the business work. Seamus knew these processes. He was an innovator in the true sense of the word.

I am confident that were he alive he would be in the thick of things with Minister Richard Bruton and the jobs in Ireland agenda.

We need people like Seamus more today than perhaps ever before.

Our country with the state it is in needs the bridge builder.

The person who has the ability to straddle across divide, who can handle interdisciplinarity, who can lead in developing the partnerships necessary between academia and industry.

In Ireland there is a great divide between Industry, academia, the public service sector: cultural divides, that are not acceptable in a country we so urgently need to now develop.

I myself left school at 16 to serve my time as an apprentice draughtsman and worked my way through the ranks to become an engineer.

I have enormous respect for the Timoney philosophy.

I also have enormous respect for those people who have skills in their heads, their eyes and their hands.

My wish is to leave a legacy behind which is even half as positive as the one Seamus left us with.

A wink and a thumbs up sign ….. this was Seamus Timoney, my predecessor, a truly outstanding academic and industrial personality.

Thank you. John Killeen and Paul Harman for the invitation to speak here tonight and I wish you enjoyable and successful deliberations.

Dr Gerry Byrne

Seamus Timoney, BE, PhD, DSc, FEng, FSAE, FIMechE, FIEI


Born: Galway 1926

Lecturer Mechanical Engineering University College Dublin 1954-65

Professor 1965-79

Professor of Mechanical Engineering 1979 – 91

Chairman Timoney Technology Group 1971-1990

Died: Pamplona Spain 11 November 1991

Dr Gerry Byrne

Gerry is a mechanical engineer and succeeded Professor Seamus Timoney as Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Head of Department at UCD in 1993.

He left school at 16 years of age and began his career as an apprentice draughtsman at ARUP in Dublin. He trained with the ESB as a mechanical engineering technician and then continued to take his degrees in engineering.

In 1983 he went to Germany and undertook a PhD at the Technical University Berlin. He worked as a divisional manager at Mercedes Benz in southern Germany before returning (after a total of 10 years in Germany) to Ireland and to the UCD post.

He was been involved since the early days in the development of the OpenHydro Group which is developing tidal stream turbines and has been on the Board of Directors of this company for the last 7 years.