Power Jets as Start-up

December 12, 2012

As mentioned previously, one thing Alex suggested I could write about was the idea of Power Jets as a start-up company. Though it was in some sense Metrovick’s competitor, I’ve not done huge amounts of primary research on Power Jets, (the go-to people for that would be Andrew Nahum and Hermione Giffard). I’m also not a startup scene expert, so this is not the post for detail on that side of things.

So what are the parallels between Power Jets and Silicon Valley startups, and why might it be helpful to think of the company in this way? Power Jets started on a very small scale, and was based around the ideas and patents of a single person: the aeronautical engineer and RAF officer Frank Whittle. As a result, the history of Power Jets is often framed in personalised terms around Whittle. In a similar fashion, tech startups are usually described in terms of their founders: Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Steves Jobs and Wozniak, Mark Zuckerberg, and so on. A narrow focus on the primacy of personalities, inventive genius, and ‘first’ inventions is  a continuing bugbear of historians of science technology – not least because it is so easy to slip into – but this framing is perhaps particularly seductive for start-ups.[1] I’d argue that this is because of the importance of patents and other intellectual property to start-ups, which typically have few other assets at first; their own histories and personal accounts therefore place great emphasis on the small number of individuals present at the founding and on their ideas.

However, the environment in which technologies are created and developed is of crucial importance; Silicon Valley startups are in Silicon Valley precisely because of the skills base built up in this economic cluster.[2] This makes turning new ideas into workable products possible, as well as providing a pool of potential customers for new technologies. In Whittle’s case, however, various the elements were somewhat more diffuse: the venture capital was initially raised in the City of London and then backed up by the Air Ministry; the manufacturing expertise came from the Midlands; and the engineering recruits came from Cambridge and London, with support from the RAE.

Whittle’s position as a serving RAF officer made his founding of a start-up company based around the development of his ideas and patents difficult. Contrary to much of what has been written about Whittle, he was given a fair degree of official – albeit indirect – support for his ideas. Apart from anything else, his potential had been recognised and supported throughout his air force career: first as one of a handful of RAF apprentices put forward for pilot training, then when he was sent to do a Cambridge engineering degree and allowed to develop his ideas in a year of postgraduate research; finally he was placed on the Special Duty List and allowed to act as Power Jets’ chief engineer. [3]

What is often overlooked about Power Jets story is quite how quickly the company expanded once it gained development and production contracts from the Air Ministry. Initially Whittle was the company’s only employee, and it remained very small through its initial; in 1938 it had 5 staff, and the following year it still only had 15. As a result, Whittle had to subcontract the manufacture of almost all the components of his W.1 unit; initially most of the work was done by the British Thomson-Houston Company (in whose works Power Jets had rented space), but they could draw on the broader skills of the Midlands engineering cluster. (The choice of a turbine manufacturer is interesting, given the parallel Metrovick project, but Whittle had unsuccessfully tried to interest aero-engine manufacturers in his schemes in the past.) However, once the company got the go-ahead for the manufacture of a flight engine it began to hire large numbers of staff, including lots of top engineering graduates straight out of university (mostly Cambridge and London). The growth was exponential; by the end of 1943, Power Jets had almost 1,000 employees.

Despite this massive expansion, Whittle failed to realise that Power Jets’ influence over the course of Jet R&D was fading as his designs were turned into production engines. Apart from the need for a production partner (initially the Rover company), the development of the various engine systems required outside expertise. The Royal Aircraft Establishment seconded staff to Power Jets as well as providing assistance on tap; among industrial partners, for instance, Lucas and Shell Lubbock were instrumental in the development of the combustion system, and Harry Ricardo invented a barostat that allowed the fuel system to function at altitude. Whittle’s W.2 design also suffered from all kinds of teething troubles and development glitches; producing a reliable production engine required the intervention of Rolls-Royce and their proven development expertise (though Rover and Power Jets had arguably fixed the most severe problems just as R-R took over).

In this sense, the jet engine was being drawn into an innovation ecosystem similar to the existing one around the piston aero-engine. That De Havilland and Rolls-Royce were the only British companies to develop production jets during the Second World War underlines the importance of good links to these networks, as does the wartime creation of the Gas Turbine Collaboration Committee. Intended to share common problems and to discuss solutions, the committee comprised all the UK institutions working on gas turbines, and was remarkably successful; it explicitly set aside issues of patenting so that technical problems could be thrashed out without reference to commercial secrecy. This approach seems to have been was typical of the wider aviation industry, where on the whole know-how was far more important than patenting.[4] However, Whittle does not seem to have appreciated how much this industrial know-how contributed to his designs’ success, and clung to his moral rights as the jet’s inventor, insisting that Power Jets should be allowed to design and manufacture further engines. Unfortunately for Whittle, by 1944 Stafford Cripps, Minister of Aircraft Production (and former patent lawyer), had decided to nationalise the company. Power Jets had been reliant on government finance since its inception, but the Ministry had limited formal control over the company; Cripps decided that straight nationalisation would solve this issue, as well as preventing any dispute over the validity of Power Jets’ patents. As part of the nationalisation, the company was merged with the RAE’s turbine section as Power Jets (R&D) Ltd; it continued to develop its own gas turbine designs and put them into low-rate production.

The whole scheme was an experiment on Cripps’s part; no precedent existed for such a company, and indeed the Treasury was not particularly enthusiastic.[5] In the event it proved unsuccessful; Whittle was frustrated by the company’s lack of major production facilities, and the aero-engine companies were unhappy about a government-funded competitor that had taken over the state’s research role. In 1946, the matter was resolved by the creation of the National Gas Turbine Establishment, which absorbed most of Power Jets’ staff and facilities; Whittle and a few others left for pastures new. He received an ex gratia award from the post-war Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors for his work on the jet, yet remained somewhat bitter about Power Jets’ fate for the rest of his life.

Essentially Whittle’s problem had been that despite his possession of the idea for a jet, the costs of development were such that he would need investment on a large scale; having failed to interest the aero-engine industry in development, the only practical investor was the state. Turning the jet engine into a practical powerplant required the know-how of the aero-engine industry, but Whittle’s insistence on total control over ‘his’ invention (which he justified on the basis of his patents and intellectual property) meant that he minimised the importance of this assistance. However, when conflict arose with aero-engine manufacturers, the Ministry of Aircraft Production’s dissatisfaction about its lack of control over a company for which it provided all the capital led to Power Jets’ nationalisation. Could this have been avoided? I suspect not; given Whittle’s (understandable) possessiveness about the jet, he was unlikely to cede control over his invention by accepting a buy-out from an aero-engine manufacturer. Yet by the time the jet engine was a workable proposition, the Ministry of Aircraft Production had invested too much money in the idea to leave its development to Power Jets.

Financially, Power Jets was a qualified success for its early investors, who each received £3.25 for their £1 shares. However, the major spoils of the jet engine went to the existing aero-engine manufacturers; in a future post I’ll look at how finance, diplomacy and politics interacted in the sale of Rolls-Royce jets to Soviet Russia.

[1] This is not least because it’s easier to find the first patent application for an idea than it is to trace its diffusion and influence through wider realms.

[2] An environment, it should be noted, pretty much entirely created through the US Air Force’s need for electronic components for their ICBM programmes.

[3] There was some sleight of hand involved here, as there was no existing mechanism by which a serving officer could act as an employee of a private company. Formally Whittle was not supposed to spend more than 8 hours per week on Power Jets, but in practice he worked on the jet full-time.

[4] I vaguely recall a piece on patenting in the US (?) aero-industry, which argued that patent pools were used as defensive tools but never really enforced in a predatory fashion; absent exceptions like the leading-edge slat, this seems to have been the UK pattern as well. (Erik may disagree with me here)

[5] I can’t think of any neat precedents; state companies tended to be set up from scratch (I’m thinking here of things like the British Metal Corporation, which was anyhow arms-length from the state). I’d welcome counter-examples.


November 16, 2012

I have most of a post on Frank Whittle and Power Jets as start-up sitting in the queue, but this has been delated for a number of reasons, not least by the fact that I just got back from Manchester having been up for my viva yesterday. Subject to corrections, I’ve passed my PhD, which is nice.

More substantive material soon, promise…

The Royal Navy, steam turbine plant, and engineering cultures

October 21, 2012

Attention conservation notice: c. 2,000 words on the sociology of the RN’s interwar engineering corps and its impact on steam plant design.

As mentioned previously, I’ve been meaning to write something about the Royal Navy’s interwar steam plant. This was inspired in part by this piece by Erik Lund, but this has also been something I touch on in the thesis. I argue that the Admiralty’s post-war adoption of new propulsive technologies such as the gas turbine – and thus Metrovick’s involvement with the RN – was in part a reaction to the perceived failings of the RN’s steam plant. Much of the material below is based on a draft section cut from the thesis for reasons of length, but I think it’s interesting enough that it’s worth sharing, not least because I’ve been able to find very little scholarship on the RN’s engineering branch in the 20th century. In writing this section, I had in mind David Bloor’s excellent book on the development of aerodynamics in England and Germany in the first quarter of the 20th century (particularly Bloor’s sociological approach), as well as Louis Le Bailly’s account of powerplant engineering in the RN. Though somewhat idiosyncratic, Le Bailly’s is the best overview of the subject I’ve seen, and the outline matches the other materials I’ve been able to find. The lack of a broad secondary literature on the RN’s engineering corps means that I’ve had to rely on a relatively small number of sources; though I looked at some more-or-less contemporaneous material, most of the accounts of being a serving engineering officer were (for obvious reasons) retrospective personal memoirs, which are somewhat problematic. I’d be interested to know what readers think, and whether it would be worth trying to work this up into something more substantive.The referencing of this blog version is a little minimalist, but if I can get wordpress to play nice I’ll try and update it at some point; if you need more detail just ask.

Powerplant Engineering and the Royal Navy

During the Second World War the Royal Navy discovered, to its dismay, that its warship steam plants could not compete with those of the US Navy in maintainability and fuel efficiency.[1] In comparison with the US, the RN’s steam plant used notably lower temperatures and pressures. This was not the result of any particular British industrial backwardness, as British turbine manufacturers were not noticeably inferior to US companies (indeed, in many cases the companies had cross-licensing agreements). The difference is usually ascribed to the fact that the Admiralty gave shipbuilders contracts to build warship turbines, whereas the US Navy placed contracts with the specialist turbine manufacturers, who could draw on recent developments in power station steam turbines. Yet this account simply relocates the source of technical backwardness from British industry to a reactionary Admiralty; a brief sociological analysis of the Navy’s engineering corps and its Engineer-in-Chief’s department (responsible for naval machinery) provides a more satisfactory explanation.

Engineering Officers had had to fight long and hard for status in the Royal Navy; introduced to tend the machinery as steam propulsion became more common during the nineteenth century, they remained civilian officers outside the chain of command and with their own rank structure. There was great antagonism between ‘gentleman’ naval officers and the ‘tradesman’ engineers, with extraordinarily vitriolic debates about the latter’s status in the technical and naval press.[2]  However, in response to warships’ increasing technical sophistication, in 1903 the new Second Sea Lord ‘Jacky’ Fisher, with the approval of the Earl of Selborne, the First Lord of the Admiralty, completely overhauled naval officer recruitment and training. The ‘Selborne-Fisher scheme’ aimed at common entry for both general branch and engineering officer cadets. Crucially, under the common-entry system Engineering Officers (who had an (E) appended to their rank) had executive authority, and could aspire to command of a warship.

This decision was reversed in the ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1925, causing huge resentment among serving Engineering Officers.[3]  In the wake of the Royal Navy’s failings (perceived or real) during the First World War, the Navy’s senior leadership had fallen back on the ideal of the naval officer as heroic Nelsonian commander.  The increased technical demands and specialisation within the Navy, they argued, meant that Engineering Officers could not also master the ‘above-deck’ skills required for command. However, by the engineers this was seen as a reversion to the antagonism of the 19th century; consequently many officers left the service for industry, and the standard of candidates applying for engineering duties dropped.  The problem was essentially one of status; once again non-executive officers, engineers could not command a warship, could not issue orders to non-engine-room crew, and had no power to award punishments.  In some sense this status was similar to other ‘guilds’ within the Admiralty; the Corps of Naval Constructors, the Royal Dockyards, and the scientific staff of the Directorate of Research. All were acknowledged as important to the smooth functioning of the Navy, and they were separate – but not quite equal – from the RN, each with their own promotion paths, albeit civilian ones.[4]  Unlike these guilds, however, Engineering Officers were both military officers and embarked on warships, and the definite social divide between the Engineering and Executive branches of the Navy did not always make for the happiest working relationships, harking back to the Victorian Navy’s ‘gentlemen’ and ‘tradesmen’. Indeed, naval officer cadets were actively discouraged from joining the engineering branch, though it was sometimes seen as an option of last resort for those that failed the executive branch’s medical requirements.[5]

The ‘Great Betrayal’ seems to have affected the Engineer-in-Chief’s department in more subtle ways. The Royal Navy’s engineering college at Keyham had closed in 1910 as initial officer training was centralised under the Selborne-Fisher reforms, but with the disruption of the First World War it did not reopen until the early 1920s.  Coupled with the loss of younger Engineering Officers to industrial careers in the wake of the ‘Great Betrayal’, this meant that the Engineer-in-Chief’s department was staffed mainly by older pre-Selborne-Fisher officers. At the same time, the Naval Staff had developed as an ‘elite within an executive elite’, and had little contact with the engineering hierarchy. These factors led to a somewhat insular Engineering Branch, which had limited influence on staff requirements, and whose officers had as much in common with their counterparts in the civilian sector as they did with the rest of the Navy. Initial attempts by the RN to develop high-pressure steam plant in the 1920s in HMS Acheron were beset with development troubles, and the programme was abandoned.  The interwar period also saw a severe slump in the British shipbuilding industry, which had problems in maintaining skilled labour and building capacity; together with reduced warship production and limited funds, this militated against further steam plant development.  Perhaps as a result, the Engineer-in-Chief’s department’s major concern was with reliability, which encouraged technical conservatism, an evolutionary approach to machinery development, and a certain amount of groupthink between the department and shipbuilders.  In this environment, ordering turbines from shipbuilders made perfect sense; it helped keep them in business at a time of economic uncertainty, and avoided costly development problems such as had been encountered with the Acheron. It was with the machinery developed in this way that the RN entered the Second World War.

Yet from the early 1930s the Engineering Branch began to change and attract higher-quality candidates. In part this was due to engineering’s increased attractiveness to naval entrants; the depression caused applicants to think than an engineering qualification would be useful in civilian life, and applications to the Engineering Branch from public schools and from the Royal Naval College began to increase.  Finally, by the late 1930s there was a cohort of (E) scheme Engineering Officers with seniority and postgraduate engineering qualifications rising through the Engineering Branch’s ranks; the Engineer-in-Chief’s department created specialist sections to investigate boiler design and steam turbine efficiency headed by such officers, which led to new assessments of naval propulsion technologies. During the Second World, despite the urgent need for engineering officers to keep the Navy’s warships running, the Admiralty attempted to ensure that they were rotated through ship and shore appointments, so that experience was spread throughout the Engineer-in-Chief’s department and the Fleet.  Spurred on by what they had seen of their own and other nations’ machinery, the Engineering Officers ascending through the hierarchy brought with them a sense that change was needed in the RN’s propulsive design. By the war’s end the Navy had taken on board a number of innovations in propulsion machinery – not least the gas turbine – and had begun the design process for a new generation of steam powerplants. A new generation of Engineering Officers was now in senior positions within the Navy’s Engineering hierarchy, which led to a more adventurous Engineer-in-Chief’s department.  The wider post-war Royal Navy was also more receptive to the idea that fleet mobility should be a priority, with many of its senior officers having fought alongside the US Navy in the Pacific; the long distances of this campaign had emphasized the poor endurance of the British Pacific Fleet when compared to the USN.

The changes in the Engineer-in-Chief’s department fed back into changes of the steam plant procurement process. In 1943 the Admiralty ordered the ‘Daring’-class destroyers, which were intended to operate in the Pacific, and would need long range. Conscious of their existing steam plant’s unfavourable performance, the Admiralty formed a Propulsion Committee. This comprised representatives of the major shipbuilders and the Engineer-in-Chief’s department; the US Navy also supplied representatives, who gave accounts of the USN’s development problems with high steam conditions.[6] A Turbine Sub-Committee, chaired by Commander(E) IG Maclean, head of the E-i-C’s Gearing and Turbines section, brought together marine engineering and industrial turbine companies, and requested turbine design tenders. The sub-committee selected two promising English Electric designs for further development; a joint BTH-PAMETRADA design was later added.  PAMETRADA was the Parsons and Marine Engineers Turbine Research and Development Association, which was formed by the shipbuilders in 1943 in order to improve their turbine designs. This seems to have been a defensive move to stop the Admiralty from simply switching to procuring turbines from specialist manufacturers. Although the Admiralty were members of the association, finance came mainly from the shipbuilding and turbine companies; the DSIR also made a ‘considerable’ financial contribution. The designs chosen by the Turbine Sub-Committee were to be developed by PAMETRADA and English Electric respectively, and to be tested at PAMETRADA’s new shore test facility.[7]

By 1944, the Admiralty had issued the requirements for the Daring-class destroyers’ machinery, and Sir Harold Yarrow picked the English Electric turbines to power those Darings built by the Yarrow shipyards, as he considered these to be the best of the turbine designs available (the other Daring-class shipbuilders used the PAMETRADA designs). As a result of this relationship, post-war the Admiralty asked Yarrows and English Electric to collaborate on a survey of world naval steam plant practice.  Engineers from both companies worked with the E-i-C’s department as an engineering consultancy team to the Admiralty. By 1950 English Electric had withdrawn from the collaboration, possibly because the company was divesting itself of its naval engineering business; as a result the consultancy team adopted the name Yarrow-Admiralty Research Department (Y-ARD) in 1952. Effectively independent from Yarrow shipbuilders, Y-ARD acted as engineering consultants and project managers to the Admiralty. The conclusions of the YE47A investigation were that ‘British Naval machinery has, for the first time in history, become inferior in many vital aspects to that of the United States Navy.’ Y-ARD noted that the Daring-class machinery currently under test was comparable to current US plants, but that in order to bridge the gap in future, the research and development capabilities of both the naval and the commercial organisations should be reviewed.[8]

As part of the YE47A study, YARD had been asked to design a complete steam plant installation including boilers, gearing, and turbines. Designing a plant for optimum performance required careful selection and matching of the various components; previous practice had been to pick components in more-or-less standard sizes, but then to adapt them to the desired rating. The first integrated design built by YARD was the YEAD-1 plant (Yarrow-English Electric Advanced Design), which was a shore test plant. YEAD-1 was shortly followed by the design of the Y.100 plant, which was a production design fitted to anti-submarine frigates. Given the success of these designs, in 1952 the RN issued a staff requirement for a next-generation plant, Y.102, which would use high-pressure steam for cruising, but would have gas turbines for boost purposes in a ‘combined steam and gas’ (COSAG) layout. As a design partner for Y.102, Y-ARD would team up with Metropolitan Vickers.

Essentially, then, changes in the makeup of the RN’s engineering corps and an appreciation of progress elsewhere led to changes in the Admiralty’s propulsion plant procurement process, which allowed MV to get a foot in the door for the naval propulsion market; in a future post I hope to explore quite how and why MV developed the expertise to get involved in this project.

[1] The RN’s warships were generally shorter-legged than the USN’s, which was a combination of plant efficiencies and the fact that the RN tended to optimise its warships for high top speeds rather than efficient cruise.

[2] See Geoffrey Penn’s Up Funnel, Down Screw: The Story of the naval engineer (London: Hollis and Carter) for more on Victorian naval engineers.

[3] Le Bailly makes quite a big deal of this, but it was borne out in pretty much all the personal papers I looked at of naval engineers who had been active in that period, including the Vice-Admiral (E) Denys Ford (at the IWM archives) and Engineer Vice-Admiral Harold Brown (at the Liddell Hart Archives, KCL).

4] This point about the Admiralty Guilds I got from Scott and Hughes’ Official History volume on the Administration of War Production.

[5] Louis Le Bailly’s Memoir The Man around the Engine mentions being discouraged from an engineering path; I also came across other examples in the unpublished memoirs of Vice-Admiral Allen Trewby, held in the Liddell Hart Archives Centre at KCL.

[6] As Erik notes, the USN’s high-pressure steam plants had relatively short lives due to piping and weld failures.

[7] Much of the detail of this section comes from a paper by the English Electric turbine engineers Cowlin and Veitch in the Transactions of the Institute of Marine Engineers.

[8] Many Y-ARD project reports, including this one, are held in the National Archives.

Ada Lovelace Day 2012: Anne Burns

October 16, 2012

One of the immediate spurs for me posting again was Ada Lovelace Day; as I have done previously, I thought I’d write about a female RAE engineer that I’ve come across during the PhD research.


I first came across Anne Burns, engineer, RAE flight test observer, and champion glider pilot, in Richard Dennis’s book Farnborough’s Caterpillars. Born Anne Pellew, and only the second woman ever to study Engineering Sciences at Oxford, she graduated with a first and went on to do research with Professor RV Southwell, including a paper on Rayleigh-Benard convection that was published in the Royal Society’s Proceedings. At the outbreak of the Second World War she attempted to join the Air Transport Auxiliary, but her engineering expertise meant she was turned down and drafted to do work at the RAE. At Farnborough she worked on flutter behaviour, and stayed after the war as a flight test observer. She worked on the Comet crash investigation, and was one of the observers for the RAE’s flight test programme on an unpressurised Comet. Apparently all the staff onboard wore oxygen gear and parachutes fitted with barometric releases; the hope was that if the aircraft broke up in flight and the crew were thrown clear, they might survive even if unconscious, so long as the chutes triggered at the right altitude. For her part in the tests, Burns was awarded a Queen’s Commendation, as well as a medal by the Royal Aeronautical Society. She continued to do flight test work at the RAE, in particular investigating clear-air turbulence, for which she carried out some of the flight programme in her motor-glider. She was awarded another Queen’s Commendation for her work in 1963; other awards included the Royal Aeronautical’s Silver Medal, as well as it’s inaugural Whitney Straight Award for women in aviation. She retired from the RAE in 1976.

Burns had taken up recreational gliding in the 1950s, and in 1966 became the first female British Gliding Champion. However, she had another notable achievement still to come: in 1977 her glider suffered a birdstrike, and she took to her parachute to escape from the damaged aircraft; this made her the first female since the 1930s to become a member of the Caterpillar Club, and at 62 its oldest member ever. Though this led her to take up the somewhat more sedate sports of golf and fly fishing, in typical fashion she became expert at these as well. Burns died in January 2001.


October 16, 2012

It’s been a while since I last posted, for a number of reasons: though Cornwall is a beautiful part of the country, my department was at the wrong end of an 8-hour train journey, which rather cut down on my ability to keep up with the blog. Somehow posting on other people’s blogs seems much easer, and like many other folks, much of my interaction moved to twitter… Since my last post, my situation’s changed again: my other half got a job (and a promotion!) on the other side of the country, which meant leaving Cornwall and moving to Cambridge; the hassles of moving, as well as commuting to Manchester, and indeed the rest of the PhD, have rather taken their toll. The last stretch of the PhD was also made slightly more stressful for a good reason – we’re expecting twins in the new year, but my other half has been laid up with hyperemesis gravidarum; as those of you with a classical education will be able to deduce, this is extreme pregnancy sickness, and has been a bit of a drag. However, I am now officially a gentleman of leisure – I submitted the thesis about a fortnight ago, and should have my viva in mid-November. As a result, I hope to now have the time to post a bit about some of the thesis research, as well as bits I found interesting but that had to be chopped. I know I owe Erik Lund a post on interwar Royal Navy steam plant procurement, and Alex recently suggested I should write something on Power Jets as tech start-up.

In the mean time, I’ve been applying for a variety of academic and non-academic jobs, but haven’t had much joy so far; so if anyone has any London- or Cambridge-based tips that might suit a lapsed engineer and almost-PhD in the History of Tech, I’m all ears…

I may have been some time…

September 21, 2010

So this blog has been dormant, if not entirely defunct, for far too long now – almost exactly six months. My absence has not been entirely due to indolence; in the past half-year I’ve finished my first chapter and transfer report, had my transfer viva, and have been to a number of conferences – more details on the interesting bits will be forthcoming in a series of catch-up posts. As well as this academic stuff, there have been a number of other demands on my time. A pleasing one was helping Mrs thrust vector get her PhD thesis finished and submitted, which happened in mid-August. The other exciting but time-consuming event was that she has started a new job, having been appointed to a permanent lectureship. Given the state of the academic job market, this is fantastic news, but there was one small snag – her new employer is University College Falmouth. For various reasons this wasn’t fully confirmed until quite late, so we had to up sticks and move to Cornwall at very short notice; a rather stressful experience, and not one that I would recommend.

Cornwall, on the other hand, is beautiful, and whilst it is rather a change of pace from London or Manchester, the area has gone some way to mollifying even such a committed urban-dweller as myself. The main down-side is that it is rather remote from, well, anywhere, and so I will be becoming even better acquainted with the long-distance rail network than I have been for the past few years…

Anyhow, my next major milestone for the thesis is to produce a draft second chapter by Christmas, which will deal in some more detail with the collaboration between Metrovick and the RAE, and the evolution of the MV work from an experimental turbocompressor to a flight-capable jet engine. In the next couple of posts I hope to explore some of the theoretical and analytical approaches that I’ve been trying out on my material, and how these might be used to illuminate the project.

Beatrice Shilling

March 24, 2010

Today, March 24th, is Ada Lovelace Day, and so I thought I would write a bit about one of the characters I came across whilst working on my MSc thesis: Beatrice Shilling.

Read the rest of this entry »

Engine options

February 28, 2010

Earlier this week I gave an updated version of my ‘Why Metrovicks‘ talk for my departmental postgraduate seminar series, and my past few weeks have been spent looking at sources to flesh out the basic story. So far I’ve looked mainly at the Engine Sub-Committee minutes, but I’ve also spent some time looking at Henry Tizard’s papers at the IWM, and hope to head back to the National Archives to go through the Air Ministry papers and see if I can find anything related to the Directorates of Scientific Research and Technical Development.

In going through the meeting minutes, I’ve come across some wild and wacky powerplant ideas that the ESC asked to consider in the 1930s, some of which I thought I’d share below.  Most of these remained paper ideas, but they’re still of interest, as they were all thought at some point to offer a chance of being useful aero-engines. One of the problems in the history of technology is the ways in which the roads never taken are later written out of the story, making the choices taken retrospectively the obvious ones. This whiggish approach flattens the rich texture of history, making actors’ choices seem inexplicable and  ‘wrong’ when they do not back the ultimate winners. I’m not going to go into the gas turbine discussions in any detail, which will be no doubt fully covered in future posts; this is about the also- and never-rans.

Interestingly in light of what I’ve said previously about the needs of air defence driving high-powered engine development, one of the earliest explicit statements about the need for very big engines was made in February 1935. The chairman noted that the ARC had referred the issue of powerplants for very large seaplanes to the sub-committee, and he asked them  ‘to consider the possibility of producing engines of the order of 10,000 h.p., and to make suggestions as to lines of investigation that might facilitate their production. Further, in considering this problem the Sub-Committee should not confine itself to the internal combustion engine if other types of prime mover appeared to be more hopeful.’ This was an order of magnitude more than contemporary engines, and the sub-committee concluded that cylinder sizes could not be greatly increased without a loss in combustion efficiency and specific weight. Harry Ricardo suggested that a two-stroke might be suited to larger cylinders, as the gas pressure would counteract the inertia forces on the piston. W.S. Farren suggested that since six-throw crankshafts and a 9-cylinder radial engines were currently possible, it should be possible to combine these and build a six-row 54-cylinder liquid-cooled radial – with the caveat that there might be problems in manufacturing the crank-case, and ‘difficulties of a mechanical nature’ might arise!

Summing up, Tizard observed that ‘the general opinion seemed to be that the best method of producing the power was to use small cylinders and devise some method by which their combined power could be delivered to a single shaft. This might take 10 years and hence the question arose as to whether it might not be advisable to concentrate on the C.I. engine.’  Diesels are an interesting case of a road never taken; despite lots of support for them due to the possible advantages in fuel consumption, resistance to detonation (and – possibly – fire safety), they never took off for aviation use; partly because improvements in fuel chemistry meant that petrol engines could be developed to give more power, and partly perhaps because they were perceived to be too heavy, which meant that they were not developed as intensively as they might have been.

Tizard remarked that nobody had suggested using a lightweight turbine with a high-temperature working fluid, and the committee discussed some of the heat transfer reuquirements for such a system. Interestingly, the Velox boiler was mentioned as an example of a technology giving very high rates of heat transfer. Often cited as one of the progenitors of the gas turbine, the Velox boiler consisted of a burner supercharged by a turbine-driven axial compressor; although it was efficient enough to produce a small amount of shaft output, the main point was to achieve high rates of combustion in a limited space. A.A. Griffith was asked to prepare a note for the sub-committee on the practicality of such a system.

At the next meeting, in April 1935, Griffith stated that his preliminary calculations suggested that a condensing turbine would compare ‘very unfavourably’ with an internal combustion engine for aircraft purposes. One of the committee members then asked whether a swash-plate engine had been considered, but in the ensuing discussion Farren pointed out that the number of cylinders – and hence the power output – was limited in this type.

Perhaps more conventional – if only slightly- were Harry Ricardo’s plans for diesel two-strokes. Andrew Nahum’s excellent paper ‘Two-Stroke or Turbine’ examines these engines in detail, but these were to be ‘sprint’ engines of very high power/weight ratio, with the added advantage of running on 87 octane fuel, at a time when it was uncertain how much 100 octane would be available in wartime. The outcome was the Rolls-Royce Crecy, which never entered production. The final idea I want to mention in this post was a suggestion for a gas turbine that was to be driven by the hot gas output of a Pescara free-piston engine; the idea was that the compressor could be located in the fuselage of a large aircraft, and the hot gas could be piped to turbines in the wings providing power to propellers. Overly complex though this may sound, it was seriously considered by the ESC in late 1938, after it had committed to supporting the gas turbine projects underway at the RAE and at Power Jets. Clearly, even at this point, the ESC did not think that their advantages were so obvious as to rule out considering other options, and in my next posts I will look at what the RAE’s early gas turbine projects actually entailed.

Why Metrovicks?

February 14, 2010

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.

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What I did after my holidays…

January 23, 2010

I’ve been rather neglectful of the blog of late; I had my MSc Graduation just before Christmas, and then promptly came down with a stinking cold. As my literature review (for which I’ve put up an indicative bibliography – to be added to in future) was due in early January, and I had a conference to attend just before the deadline, it made for an interesting few weeks.

I was presenting at the British Society for the History of Science‘s  Postgraduate Conference in Cambridge. It was a very enjoyable experience; there were some very interesting talks on a variety of subjects, and we were very well looked after by the organisers. Although there weren’t many other Cambridge looked very picturesque under 2 inches of snow, which compensated somewhat for the freezing cold. An added surprise was seeing the 20-year-old departmental photos of my supervisor…

My talk was based on the work I did for my MSc, as well as some of the research I’ve done so far for the PhD, and was about the background to the award of the jet engine contract to Metrovick; I’ll put a version up soon when I’ve got my notes together.