As promised previously, here’s a version of the talk I gave at the BSHS PG conference, with some of my slides. I used notes rather than a script, so it may have varied slightly.
Good afternoon, and thank you to the organisers for having me. My name’s Jakob Whitfield, and I’m a first-year doctoral student at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester. My project is an examination of the Gas Turbine work done by the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Engineering Co. (M-V or Metrovick) from just before the Second World War to about 1960. This talk is based on materials from my MSc thesis, as well as some of the work I have done so far in my PhD.
In 1940 the British Ministry of Aircraft Production awarded Metrovick a contract to build a jet engine based on a design by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE.) The question I hope to answer in this talk is how did a company best known for building kit like this:
To go into places like this:
End up building one of these:
To power this?
In order to answer this question, we need to go back to the early 1930s, and the fear of this:
The background is a still from the Korda film version of H.G. Wells’s ‘Things to Come,’ and the image is a propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War. Both of these are from later in the 1930s; the fear was in fact inspired by this:
This is a Hawker Hart. In 1931 it was possibly the fastest bomber in the world; when introduced it had been faster than any RAF fighter in service, and in the the 1931 air exercises none of the defending fighters could catch these aircraft – an event which inspired Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, to state in parliament that ‘the bomber would always get through.’
Clearly the RAF needed a more powerful engine for its fighters, and the man to help with this was Henry Thomas Tizard.
Tizard had fingers in many establishment pies: an Oxford chemist, he had done aeronautical research in the First World War, and had then moved to the DSIR. In 1929 he had become the Rector of the elite Imperial College of Science and Technology, but remained involved with many government institutions. One of these was the Engine Sub-Committee of the Aeronautical Research Committee (ESC,) which advised the Air Ministry, and helped set the programme for its research establishment at Farnborough.
The requirements for air defence led the RAF, and thus the ESC, to look for solutions that would give lightweight engines of very high power, even at the cost of other aspects of performance such as range or endurance. Thankfully here Tizard had an ace up his sleeve:
The Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence, or ‘Tizard Committee’, had overseen the first British radar experiments. Tizard was thus aware that radar-guided interception might allow fighters to be designed with lower endurance requirements, as they would no longer need to perform standing patrols. This meant that high-fuel-consumption engines of high power might have a practical military application. One of the many technologies that the ESC was considering was the Gas Turbine.
One of the members of the engine sub-committee was A.A. Griffith, who was a senior scientist at the RAE. Griffith had first started to think about gas turbines in the 1920s, and had realised that the component efficiencies of the compressor and turbine needed to be significantly higher if a gas turbine was to provide a useful power output. Up to that point, most designers had analysed turbines and axial blowers as a series of rotating nozzles and passages, rather than as aerofoils. Applying aerodynamic theory, Griffith realised that in most blowers the compressor blades were operating in a stalled state, with a dramatic loss of efficiency. In 1926, he published his work in the report ‘An Aerodynamic Theory of Turbine Design.’ In order to test his theories, the RAE workshop built a number of experimental models, some of which are shown above. The results were encouraging, suggesting that the axial blower could achieve the efficiencies claimed.
Hayne Constant was another researcher in the RAE’s engine department, who had returned to Farnborough in 1936 after some time spent lecturing at Imperial College. He had found teaching not to his liking, and the College’s rector had suggested that he might want to return to the RAE, as there was interesting work to be done on gas turbines. As Imperial’s rector was Henry Tizard, he clearly knew a thing or two about the engine research being done at Farnborough, and on his return Constant was put in charge of the engine department’s supercharger section, which was investigating axial compressors.
At around the same time, the RAF officer Frank Whittle had succeeded in bench-running his first gas turbine, and in 1937 he submitted a report to the ARC in the hope of obtaining financial support for his work. At the engine sub-committee’s meeting of March 1937, the committee discussed a report on Whittle’s work by Griffith, as well as a report by Constant on ‘The internal combustion turbine as a power plant for aircraft.’ The committee’s conclusions were that Whittle’s work was deserving of support, but that the RAE’s work promised greater efficiencies. It recommended that the Air Ministry fund Whittle’s work for further tests, and that the RAE should seek an industrial partner for the purpose of developing a gas turbine.
There were important differences between the Whittle and RAE schemes. The most fundamental was that Whittle was thinking in terms of jet propulsion, whereas the RAE were aiming to produce a turboprop. Component efficiency was less important with the jet scheme, as it did not have to produce shaft horsepower. Whittle’s choice of the less efficient but mechanically simpler centrifugal compressor was a result of this emphasis. From the Air Ministry’s point of view, both forms of gas turbine were medium to long-term prospects; at the same time, the engine sub-committee was investigating various more or less exotic forms of internal combustion piston engine, as well as considering hybrids such as gas turbines driven by piston gas generators.
The Engine Sub-committee recommended that the RAE should team up with an existing steam turbine manufacturer to develop its gas turbine, and suggested that Metropolitan Vickers would be ideal, as they had expressed an interest. Apart from the obvious similarities between steam and gas turbines, traditional aero-engine manufacturers were fully occupied in trying to increase production to meet the RAF’s expansion targets. Metrovick had a reputation as a forward-looking and ‘scientific’ company. This was due in large part to the company’s well-equipped research department, which had built experimental equipment for places like the Cavendish Lab. In addition, M-V employed an unusually high number of scientifically-trained staff with advanced qualifications, of whom at least four were elected FRS. Although the research department’s staff promoted the spin-off benefits of their research, the advantages to the company were as much rhetorical as economic. Metrovick was seen as modern; a fact which in itself led to contracts such as for the gas turbine.
What was in it for M-V? One of the senior research staff at the company had been investigating the high-temperature creep behaviour of materials, and in the mid-1930s had suggested that new materials might make gas turbines a practical possibility. Certainly Metrovick were not motivated by immediate financial gain; the initial contracts for the research turbines were on a cost-plus basis, for which the fees were a couple of hundred pounds. This was not to say that later production runs might not be substantial; as the Engine Sub-Committee’s chair pointed out when discussing the issue, ‘the Air Force might want 2 million horsepower, and this should be worth catering for.’
In the event, the RAF was to take delivery of engine horsepower totally many multiples of that figure, but Metrovicks was not to have any substantive part of it; although they were to develop perhaps the best jet engine of the war, it was never to enter series production, and shortly after the war the company was to leave the aircraft propulsion field. My next step will be to examine exactly how the RAE-MV collaboration worked in practice, and how the RAE’s theories were turned into engineering hardware, with all the tensions inherent therein. Thank you.