Why Metrovicks?

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.


11 Responses to “Why Metrovicks?”

  1. Airminded · Military History Carnival 21 Says:

    […] in Haiti. 1918: Gladys Wake, a Canadian nurse who died on active service in France. 1931-7: Why Metrovicks got into gas turbine research. 1939: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’: then an unused […]

  2. Erik Lund Says:

    Because there’s just not enough Correlli Barnett bashing on the Internet, let me here commemorate his comment in _Audit of War_ to the effect that the only electrical engineering firms in Britain in 1939 were American branch plants. (Although I can’t recall if he was ragging on GEC specifically or actually knew that Metrovick started out as a Westinghouse subsidiary.)
    Anyhoo… is there going to be a metallurgical digression here? Thinking about the political context of 1937, the shadow factory scheme was causing real problems with Alvis and Wolseley. Granted that Alvis would bite on the offer, this would have been a great project to throw their way, in the same manner that the Christie tank bought off Nuffield. Metallurgical knowledge would be the place where I can see Metrovick having an edge over Alvis.
    Of course, they could have just gone with an underemployed actual aeroengine firm. I hear Armstrong-Siddeley isn’t doing much….

  3. Jakob Says:

    Well, GE of America seem to have tried to gain overall control of the UK electrical engineering industry through various behind-the-scenes machinations in the 20s and 30s, if Marriott and Jones are to be believed, but IIRC they’d given up by the mid-30s. Possibly because English Electric wouldn’t play along? I don’t have the book to hand right now.

    From what I’ve heard from ex-MV people, the Metrovick design staff were unusual for the industry in having a good knowledge of maths-intensive theoretical design methods, which would no doubt have influenced their selection. They certainly did a fair amount of research work on compressors themselves, rather than simply manufacturing stuff to RAE designs. The Engine Sub-Committee seem to have given a fair amount of weight to having a turbine manufacturer on board as well.

    Regarding Armstrong Siddeley, from what I’ve heard they were notorious for spending as little on R&D as they could get away with, a legacy of Siddeley’s tenure in charge. They were brought in to work with MV on the F.2 to help with airframe integration on the Meteor, as well as (reading between the lines) being lined up for possible production contracts. From what I’ve seen, they were being given supercharger development work by the Air Ministry in the late 1930s, and I gather they were pretty much forced to do jet work by MAP under threat of losing all future engine contracts, although by this point I suspect everyone knew that jets were going to be the future…

    I don’t know how much of a metallurgical digression there will be – what did you have in mind? Certainly there are constant complaints in the files about Vickers-Firth not being able to deliver the special high-temperature steels, something which I gather was a problem for all of the jet projects. I think Hermione Giffard at Imperial was doing some work on metallurgy (she’s a former materials scientist) – she gave a seminar paper on tungsten carbide machine tools a couple of years ago.

  4. Erik Lund Says:

    I know that Armstrong-Siddeley gets a bad rap from the gossips. What I’m wondering about is if this is a hostile, outside view. It would appear that the firm’s main work was in torpedoes, and this was highly classified. Even today the British burner-cycle torpedo is little known, and does _anyone_ know what went on with British 23″ torpedoes after the early 1920s?
    So with A.S., if you can’t talk about what you are reallly doing for a living, maybe people concluded that they didn’t do anything at all? I know that the Sapphire has been described as being better than it had any right to be.
    As for metallurgy, if I recall Constant’s postwar articles correctly (1946 number of J. Roy. Aero. Soc., I think, no, wait, never mind this morning laziness, I can look it up; Constant, Hayne. “The Development of the Internal Combustion Turbine.” Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. (War Emergency Issues, 1-12, 1945), 12: 22-3), turbine blade creep was a serious problem addressed by the use of a fairly exotic (for the time) metal, not a high temperature steel at all.
    Aha: indeed. It was “Nimonic.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nimonic. And here’s the FRS obituary of the worker credited with developing it. (Looks like close family ties to Hadfield’s and David Brown, so there might be more to the story, especially since I only have first page access to JSTOR.)

  5. Jakob Says:

    Thanks for the links – I’ve seen the IMechE article, but not the RS obit. I think MV started out with steel blades on the B.10 test rig – from memory, Rex 78 – but they were manufactured from bar. The main problem was with the turbine drum forging, which was also in Rex 78. Vickers-Firth were the only people with the capacity to forge it, and they were overloaded with orders. There is definitely some Royal Society Freemasonry going on, with Henry Guy FRS of Metrovick writing to various other FRS’s at the steel companies to try and expedite his order. In contrast, I haven’t yet come across the same degree of trouble with regard to the materials for the F.2, but I’ve been concentrating on the earlier projects so far.

    I will happily confess my complete ignorance of torpedoes – was there a huge market for them in the interwar period? I thought Vickers was the main supplier beyond the RN’s own dockyards. Regarding the lack of engine development, I don’t know of any insider accounts from A-S apart from that of S.D. Heron, who left the company after a row with Siddeley. The outsider’s perspective is that A-S were happy to concentrate on lower-powered radials for trainers and the like; certainly the later high-powered pistons (deerhound, &c.) only seem to get underway once Hawker Siddeley is formed.

  6. Erik Lund Says:

    Campbell’s _Naval Weapons of World War II_ notes a prewar British production of 80 torpedoes/month, this rising to a peak of 800/monthly during the war. Vickers made heater (Whitehead) torpedoes for export, while the new burner torpedoes, designed by Brotherhood, began production at the Royal Torpedo Factory, Greenock, in 1931. Campbell names some subcontractors, but not Armstrong-Siddelely. So I’m thinking that I saw A-S listed as the managers of a torpedo shadow factory in Coventry in Postan.
    Or it’s a synaptic misfiring.
    I’ve always thought of the torpedo angle as one perhaps yielding an explanation for what happened to A.S. (apart from Cheetahs) between the late 30s and the beginning of the turbine era as well as bridging two eras of corporate R&D.
    If, that is, Heron is overstating the problems at Siddeley. Big if, there.

  7. Engine options « Thrust Vector Says:

    […] Thrust Vector The RAE, Metrovick, and the gas turbine, 1935-1960 « Why Metrovicks? […]

  8. Alex Says:

    My grandmother spent much of the second world war working at Metrovick in Trafford Park, assembling aircraft instruments. Detail: her union shop steward was none other than Hugh Scanlon.

  9. Alex Says:

    Also, that point about Correlli Barnett is astonishing. Really? He was unaware of both Metrovick and EE? File under “interesting, but knowing what I know now, impossible to say how much else is made up”.

  10. Jakob Says:

    Cool – do you know what she was working on in particular? MV seem to have had a rather mixed attitude to the unions; although they had a reputation for treating staff well, this was very much in the paternalistic benevolent tyrant mode, and from what people have told me union staff were viewed with some suspicion by the management.

    One ex-MV engineer told me that when he joined all the Catholics were concentrated in the factory’s aisle G; when he asked why, he was told that was where the company put all the union staff so they could keep an eye on them. Apparently Catholics were more likely to be union members than non-Catholics.

  11. Alex Says:

    That would have been a function of Manchester’s sectarian/class breakdown – there are a lot of working-class people in Manchester with Irish roots and most of them are Catholic if they’re anything religious. In 1935-1965, they would have been that much closer to Ireland and the Church. I’d guess that they’d also be disproportionately concentrated in the unskilled and semiskilled trades, whose unions were traditionally more radical.

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