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 Grid.
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 possible.
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.
Hinton died in 1983.