The sensuous charms of the archive

November 22, 2009

I’ve been making fairly slow progress for the fast month; the whole PhD process still hasn’t quite gelled in the way I’d hoped it would do by now, and I think I”m still suffering from a bit of culture shock moving up from last year. The travel up and down to Manchester seems more tiring than last year as well, but that may just be the onset of the winter blues. In better news, I passed my masters with a distinction, so I am – formally at least – no longer a provisional PhD student!

My literature review has rather stalled, partly because I need to rethink what I’ve done so far, and partly because I’ve been doing some empirical work. For the past few weeks I’ve been spending time looking at correspondence and papers in archives, both at the National Archives and at the Museum of Science and Industry. For the next couple of weeks I’m going to have to be spending more time at MOSI, as their archives are shutting after Christmas for three months as part of the museum’s refurbishment.

Archival work has its intellectual pleasures – the thrill of discovery, the hunt through the files – but I’ve been quite taken with the sensual pleasures of some of the material. I used to work with technical documentation and so I’ve handled more than my fair share of ring-binders stuffed with laser printer output. In the National Archives, I’ve been looking at ARC engine sub-committee minutes, and have greatly enjoyed the retro charms of the 1930s files as physical objects.  One way in which things were better in the old days would appear to be in the choice of paper. This is lovely cream heavy laid foolscap (did A4 even exist?)  with an SO – Stationery Office? – watermark. As the minutes go into the war years, signs of  rationing show up – the nice paper is replaced with nasty flimsy economy stuff, and later both sides are used;  The text becomes a blurry carbon copy, and the paper is covered with handwritten amendments – no retyping of a clean copy especially for the file.

Sadly, most of the the correspondence between Metrovicks and the RAE seems to have used the contemporary equivalent of bog-standard office copier paper, so for the next few weeks I’ll have to content myself with the occasional look at the company’s leather-bound minute books…



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.

Done! (ish)

September 19, 2009

Well,  I handed in the dissertation almost two weeks ago, and have spent the time since then de-stressing and preparing for the PhD. I’ve spent some time tidying our study, clearing away the reams of paper lying everywhere, and finally got round to throwing away most of my undergraduate engineering notes (me, a pack rat?!)

The PhD is due to start with induction on Monday; after much prodding of universtity admin I seem to have completed all the registration I can do ahead of time, apart from (what else?) getting my grant payments sorted, something that will take priority when I arrive.

I don’t actually get my formal MSc result until the exam board meets in mid-November. This is slightly annoying, as I technically have a conditional PhD offer, but my supervisor should have seen the dissertation by now and he hasn’t raised any issues – in this case no news is good news. I’m not entirely happy with the dissertation as submitted; another week to let it mature and add more analysis would have been nice, and another month would have allowed me more time to look at more materials at the National Archives, but it should do. I’d like to think about getting some of the info published somewhere, but I’ll have to discuss this with my supervisor, as I suspect it will need serious re-drafting. Anyhow, onward!

Best-laid plans

August 28, 2009

Well, I’d hoped to have my Masters dissertation in draft by now, but as the post title suggests things haven’t quite gone that way…

I had a meeting with my supervisor last week, the upshot of which was that I needed to rethink my plans, as I was getting bogged down in detail, and letting my argument be shaped by my sources rather than vice versa. He also wanted me to bring in some wider sources, placing my narrative in a wider context. The dissertation is now split into four chapters:

  • an introduction giving an overview of the founding of the RAE (or RAF as then was) up until the end of the First World War
  • background to the interwar period – RAF strategy, the aeronautical industry, Air Ministry and R&D organisation, and key social networks
  • Engine development c. 1918-1932
  • Engine development and rearmament, with the rise of the jet engine

All this is with reference to the way that government supported engine development, directly and indirectly, and the role that the RAE played in this.

I have the first two chapters pretty much done, but I need to do more on the final two. My primary source base is a little weak, as many of the documents relating to the RAE have been destroyed or are not catalogued, and there isn’t a huge amount of material in the National Archives. Still, when needs must…

Rank hath its privileges

August 18, 2009

I do have some more substantial posts in the pipeline, but at the moment I’ve been head down and trying to bang out thesis chapters, as the deadline is less than three weeks away…

In the meanwhile, I thought I would share this list I found during my researches. I was aware that the RAF didn’t get its own ranks until 1919, and that personnel used the RFC/RNAS titles until then. I was also aware that there was some discussion about the final titles to be used; what I didn’t know was that a list of ranks was proposed that wouldn’t annoy the Army or the Royal Navy.  They were:

  • Ensign
  • Lieutenant
  • Flight-Leader
  • Squadron-Leader
  • Reeve
  • Banneret
  • Fourth-Ardian
  • Third-Ardian
  • Second-Ardian
  • Ardian
  • Air Marshal

Despite sounding like a name from a second-rate fantasy novel, apparently ‘Ardian’ comes from the Gaelic ‘Ard’ – ‘Chief’ and ‘Ian’ or ‘Eun’ – ‘Bird’.

Source: John WR Taylor, Pictorial History of the RAF, Volume One: 1918-1939 (Shepperton: Ian Allan, 1968)

What’s it all about then?

July 18, 2009

As mentioned previously, my MSc thesis is going to be on the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Farnborough’s engine department in the interwar period. The work which I’m most directly engaging with is that of David Edgerton, notably his Warfare State and England and the Aeroplane. His argument that the British state strongly supported warlike technologies such as military aviation even through periods often viewed as peaceful and disarmed seems to me to be very strong, but his work takes a very high-level approach. On the one hand, this means that the state is treated as a monolithic actor; on the other, it means that he treats the development of technologies as simply a consequence of state funding.

I hope to explore one small facet of the warfare state in detail, namely how the research work of Farnborough’s engine department was influenced by the various actors and social groups with an interest in engine technology, such as the Air Council, the Aeronautical Research Committee (ARC), the aero-engine industry, the Air Ministry’s own R&D staff, and of course Farborough’s researchers themselves. In order to do this, I’m trying to get a picture of the work that the RAE did, from their own technical reports, as well as ARC reports and memoranda (R&Ms), papers published in the technical journals, and the aeronautical press such as Flight. At the same time, I’m trying to compile biographies of key figures and trace their movements between research establishments, industry, and other posts.

Apart from the inevitable introduction/conclusion and historiographical discussion, I plan to have 4 main chapters. Chapter 1 will deal with the RAE (or rather the Royal Aircraft Factory as then was) up to the end of the First World War, including its often strained relationship with private industry, and its eventual loss of design authority.  Chapter 2 will deal with the radial engine in the UK in roughly the decade 1916-1926, or from much of the fundamental work done at Farnborough to supercharged radials entering service. Chapter 3 will deal with the liquid-cooled engine from the mid-1920s through to the early 1930s. It will cover UK government support for the inline in the wake of the US Curtiss-powered Schneider Trophy winners,  its development and use in the UK’s Schneider Trophy aircraft, and the support given by the RAF, the Air Ministry, and Farnborough. The final chapter will cover rearmament and high-powered engines for air defence aircraft, leading finally to the letting of a  contract to Metropolitan-Vickers to develop an RAE-designed jet engine.


July 18, 2009

Inspired by Brett’s excellent blog I have also decided to try and blog my research, having obtained clearance from both my university and my funding partner. For the next six weeks or so, I will be working on my Master’s thesis, which is about the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s engine department in the interwar years. From early October, all being well, I will start a PhD on Metropolitan-Vickers and the Gas Turbine, c.1935-1960.

My deadline for the Masters is September 7th, but I need to have a final draft done by the last week of August to allow time for proofing and binding, so not very much time at all to write another 18’000 words or so. I hope to use this blog as a space to float rough ideas and to post things for the benefit of my sometimes patchy memory.  As a result, some posts may be more than a little half-baked, and I’m still fiddling about trying to get the hang of WordPress, but bear with me and hopefully there will be some things of interest. My aim is to try and post a couple of times of week, but we’ll see how things go…