Archive for October, 2009


October 27, 2009

Induction week and all its attendant paperwork is now a month past, and I’ve been getting down to my reading for the PhD. As part of my faculty progression requirements I have to produce a formal literature review by Christmas, and so for the next few months my energies need to be directed towards this.

As background my supervisor suggested that I try and get a feel for where Metrovicks fitted in to the electrical engineering sector, and to try and get an overview of the interwar economy more generally. The idea is to try and understand why a heavy plant manufacturer would be given a contract to build a jet engine. Due to a variety of reasons I’ve been making slow progress, and my first draft was rather cursory – and, as was pointed out, lacking in any discussion of the historiography.

So, as well as revising my first draft, I’ve now been set the task of looking at British interwar military procurement policy. I’ve got a reasonable sense of the RAF side of things, but am pretty much at sea  for the Naval and Army arrangements. Any advice would be much appreciated.

The Topic.

October 7, 2009

Even though I’ve now only formally been a PhD student for a fortnight, I already understand about The Topic. This is what people mean when they ask you ‘what is Your Topic?’

Formally, the project title is ‘Power and Propulsion in the Jet Age: A Socio-Technical History of Gas Turbine Development at Metropolitan-Vickers, 1937-1965,’ which is a bit of a mouthful. Founded at the turn of the twentieth century as British Westinghouse, Metropolitan Vickers (M-V or Metrovick) were a Manchester electrical engineering firm. As a producer of steam generating plant they had an appreciation of the requirements of  high-temperature turbines, and they also had a strong culture of in-house research.1 In the late 1930s RAE Farnborough awarded M-V contracts to build some axial compressors, which were followed by contracts for a gas turbine test rig, and eventually M-V was given the task of developing the RAE’s F.2 jet engine design. Post-war Metrovick’s jet division was sold to Armstrong Siddeley as part of the rationalisation of the post-war aviation industry, but the Manchester company continued to build gas turbines for power generation and other uses, building the world’s first naval gas turbine in the late 1940s.

There are a number of themes and areas that I suspect will be worth exploring over the course of the PhD:

  • The post-war uses of high technology as a signifier of modernity, and as a tool for confirming Britain’s world status; This links in with the idea of ‘New Elizabethans.’
  • The Warfare State and Industry
  • British cultures of engineering

More on that later. For now, though, when asked, I just say I’m looking at the history of jet engines in Manchester…

1 Including building experimental particle physics equipment for the Cavendish Lab.

The Balloon Factory and Private Enterprise

October 6, 2009

As mentioned previously, my first substantive chapter was about the RAE up until the end of the First World War. The sources I used were mainly secondary;  Apart from an RAE chronology published in the late 1940s as RAE Report Aero. 2150, I drew heavily on Hugh Driver’s The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1997) and on Paul Hare’s The Royal Aircraft Factory (London: Putnam, 1990). In lots of ways these books are on opposite sides of a historical debate about Farnborough’s effect on aircraft procurement and on the private aircraft manufacturers.

The argument against Farnborough, which Driver makes, is that the the RFC’s procurement decisions were biased in favour of the state design facility. Because they were both organs of the War Office, this closeness led to the exclusion of private enterprise, retarding the development of a native aircraft industry. Coupled with this is often the charge that Farnborough’s staff were interested in academic aeronautics rather than practical applications.  For Driver, the main villain of the piece is Lord Haldane, who as Secretary of State for War shaped the UK’s policy on Aerial Navigation. Driver argues that Haldane’s enthusiasm for German science, philosophy, and administrative methods led him to create institutions such as the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and to reorganise the institutions of military aeronautics. Driver claims that Haldane influenced the committee that decided to cancel all work on heavier-than-air research at Farnborough, concentrating instead on airships. The fact that the Germans were into Zeppelins in a big way didn’t hurt.

When the Royal Aircraft Factory (as it was now named) did turn to practical aircraft design, argues Driver, they had to hire one of the pioneer empirical experimenters to help them. Geoffrey de Havilland was the man hired, and the Factory’s successful BE2 was mainly his design. This aircraft was used as a benchmark for the Military Aircraft trials of 1912, and although it was not formally entered, its performance was so much superior to the aircraft that was deemed to have won that it was accepted as the RFC’s standard type. The Factory itself did not manufacture many BE2s; instead contracts were given to a number of firms to build them, including such pioneer firms as Handley Page. However, Driver argues that this deprived the pioneer firms of design experience. He contrasts RFC procurement with that of the RNAS; the Navy ordered private designs from companies such as Sopwith.

It seems to me that Driver is rather unfairly critical of the Factory, and underestimates the advantages to the military of a standard aircraft type. Whilst the BE2 was aproaching obsolesence in 1915, the Farnborough staff were aware of this and were designing new aircraft to meet new requirements. The fact that it was produced in such large number was mainly because it was perhaps the only aircraft with suitable production blueprints.1 Farnborough was an important vehicle for the professionalisation of the aircraft industry; through the letting of sub-contracts it gave the early industry valuable production experience, and it helped transmit the methods of engineering science to industry. One of the ways this was done was through its role in checking the structural calculations on aircraft selected for military service.

Many of the RFC’s early-war procurement problems can be traced not to government interference in aircraft design, but simply to the challenges of expanding production to meet the needs of mass warfare. As David Edgerton points out,2 in 1914 the UK had the world’s largest air force relative to the size of its army. (As aircraft were used mainly for reconnaissance and observation, this is the relevant comparator.) As the market for aircraft was mainly a military one, it is hard to see how a larger industry could have been sustained. Much of the performance advantage of the RNAS’s aircraft was due to the fact that the naval service had a better supply of high-powered rotary engines.3 At war’s outbreak there was no high-powered British aero-engine for the same reason that there was not a mass aviation industry: the market could not support the capital investment required.

In the ‘Fokker Scourge’ of 1915-16, the RFC’s BE2s proved themselves to be vulnerable to enemy aircraft equipped with synchronised machine-guns. Because of the observer’s location in front of the pilot, it proved difficult to fit the BE2 with defensive armament; in any case, by this time the BE2’s performance was pedestrian at best. As a result of the RFC losses, a number of parliamentary enquiries were held. Their recommendation was that the Royal Aircraft Factory be turned into a research and development facility, and it had its design authority removed in late 1916. Perhaps ironically, by this point Factory staff had designed one of the war’s finest scouts, the SE5, and until war’s end Farnborough continued to produce small batches of aircraft to assist commercial producers.

1 This was the War Office’s rationale;  sub-contractors complained about inaccurate drawings and changes made after the start of production. The BE2 was certainly the design with which companies had the most experience of mass production.

2 In his England and the Aeroplane.

3 At one point the RFC and RNAS both had procurement officers in Paris attempting to buy whatever Gnome-Rhone engines could be found; This competition seems to have been resolved by the RFC agreeing to (temporarily) manage with its RAF engines.