Saturday, March 16, 2013

Postblogging 1939 in Technology, II: February

There's always a parachute in these drawings. You would wonder whether anyone with any sense would wait until the plane was in the air to decide that it was a bad idea in the first place, but you wonder   wrongly.

In a completely unrelated note, I continue to believe that an implied contemporary reader adds value to this liveblogging exercise, even if I'm a little unclear as to how to deliver. Stealing shamelessly from the success of that Samuel Richardson fellow, here's an attempt at an epistolary framing! (Pay careful attention in September, or you'll miss the obliquely implied kinky sex scene.)

On a more serious note, I've dug up the notes I took from The Engineer six years ago, specifically from the run of which Vancouver Public Library has subsequently "disposed." Boo!

 My Dear Reggie:

Another month, another batch of engineering papers to review and digest. You will notice that I have found the club's copies of  The Engineer and begin with a short summary of January news from the more interesting of London's queen technical newspapers.

The Engineer

...Begins by covering industry and engineering New Years Honours. I'm not sure why anyone would care that engineers and scientists receive gongs in 1939, but perhaps someday an academic will be born who at least seems unaware of such things. 

January is the month of synthetic reviews of the previous year at The Engineer. Hector Bywater, a name of note in the last decade. (Were the 1920s really so long ago? I know that you don't remember them, my Dear Reggie, but we are not talking about Scotch here.) Apparently, as of January, Britain had 600,000 tons on the stocks, with America as our next nearest rival at 400,000. Japan, Germany and Italy were gamely trying to keep up, although the question had to be how they could possibly afford to do so. Bywater is not keen on all of this construction. The six British carriers on the stocks strike him as excessive, not because he is opposed to aircraft carriers, but because, displacing more than 20,000 tons each, they are much too expensive to operate, and will surely be vulnerable to all sorts of vaguely-glimpsed countermeasures considering the actual utility of a few extra squadrons of aeroplanes. Perhaps he would be more receptive to the recent sale of 20 motor torpedo boats to the Dutch, to be engined with a navalised version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin aeroengine? 

"Roads, Bridges and Tunnels in 1938" notes that two Thames bridges and one tunnel are under construction this month, and another one is being planned. If you are wondering why I am taking such an interest in the future of the engineering industry at this moment, Reggie, you might contemplate the location of one of our townhouses and draw your own conclusions. . . .

"Aeronautics in 193*" notes how things have changed since Professor Jones discovered "streamlining" ten years ago. Now we are concerned with turbulence instead, and a threshold of performance for airscrew-propelled planes in the transsonic range, which I understand to be the region just around the speed of sound, or starting at roughly 500mph at useful altitudes. Gyroplanes are quite exciting, our correspondent thinks, and the future of long range aviation is in flying boats. The correspondent is underwhelmed by Vickers' "geodetic" construction, and, unsurprisingly, sees the future as lying with aluminium. 

"Oil-Engined Rail Traction in 1938" apparently warrants its own section, mainly a mindnumbing review of new gadgets for domestic service and for South American exports, such as turbocharging, gears, reversible engines, novel transmissions, "torque converters," "electropneumatic and Extractor controls" and ever more compact and powerful oil engine plants, with 220hp, 350hp and 450hp machines all noted.  The major markets are domestic (including the new Royal Ordnance Factories, which require quite substantial works locomotives) and in South America. It is elsewhere noted that the capital servicing costs of German and even American railways are approaching 100%, that is, that the international industry has no money for re-investment. With British charges at "only" 84%, concentrating on the domestic market actually makes a great deal of sense. It is clear that reinvestment can potentially deliver greatly improved and more economical service, at least if all of these newfangled gadgets live up to their promise.

I shan't comment on the South American situation. 

"Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering in 1938" reviews a quite pessimistic outlook. It is likely that, once all contracts let last year are laid down, only a quarter of the country's 2 million tons of annual capacity will be in play this year, especially since only 18% of domestic berths are suitable for Admiralty work.  

Flight 2 February 1939

Our editor is on about airports, then about American expert Paul Johnston’s “Box Score” article in Aviation that notoriously suggested that, inter alia of being behind Germany in technology and numbers of aircraft, the RAF's morale was "5" to the Luftwaffe's "10," or some such. We could all learn something about manners from moves like the one where Poulsen manages to take all of this unpleasantness and pull out some numbers in which Johnson (inadvertently?) notices  that it is all going to be all right. (6000 German a/c produced in 1938, 3500 British; 8000/5000 in 1939.

Articles: i) Airports. Apparently, there are over 20 new airports under construction in Britain right now. That's a lot, I take it, considering that even ten years ago they were talking about how domestic air services could not compete with rail. 

ii) The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, has flown off to Reading, where he is presiding over the opening of the new Phillips and Powis factory, and is photographed taking a flight in a new Magister trainer. Page over, and I think this does not count as a new article, the Cunliffe-Owen factory has opened at Southampton Airport.

iii) “Fighter Bombers for the Fleet:” This new Blackburn Skua is quite something, a two-seater for combating enemy aircraft during naval operations and for making low-flying attacks on ships upperworks, and for delivering dive-bombing attacks. 

(iv): “Present Trends in Radio Services:” of particular note is a discussion of High-Frequency Developments. Currently HF is used for direction-finding receivers at airports. These include ground beacons emitting definite track signal, and ground beacons emitting “omni-directional signals,” comparable to, and sometimes actual radio stations. Glide path beacons might be developed from the first concept, using the existing VHF installation associated with the continental Lorenz or Telefunken direction finding systems. An editorial note indicates that the article on “Air Traffic Problems” is held over to a  future issue by circumstances beyond our control.

Service Aviation is buried at the back and is short, only two pages. The picture features K.W. in a “four-gun turret” at the Parnall Works. Apparently, the minister has been out on the town a great deal this week.

The Engineer 3 February, 1939

"Structural Engineering at Norwich." Boulton Paul, the aeronautical firm, was born out of an older structural engineering firm, which still exists. It has moved to a new location, and is busy making huge chunks of steel into structural bits with very impressive special purpose tools. Apparently, they're the lads if you want a hangar for a very large aircraft erected quickly. 

"The Alaska Highway." Apparently, Alaska is quite a ways from the rest of the United States, and Canada's maidenly virtue is on offers for enough of the Yankee dollar. So perhaps soon a very long, very expensive road will be built from one to the other through the third. (Hmm. I begin to appreciate why you're so ungrateful for your bank drafts, Reggie. We're sending them in the wrong currency.)

A. A. McMurdo, "Railways and the Quest for Speed," is a discussion of the Pacific locomotive, which, due to its reduced hammering, solved all structural problems on British railways forever! This is an odd article, and I am expecting a very large and loud other shoe to drop soon. 

Engineering 27 January 1939 

Article: Apparently, the paper likes being behind the times as well as boring. It has been a month since the first flight of the new De Havilland plane ended with its back being broken on landing, and here is an article about the Albatross. Apparently, it will be quite good, once the wrinkles have been worked out. Which is all very well, but it is hard to get worked up about a pure mail plane, exciting as the idea of business air mail between London and New York might be. 

Editorial: (I've mentioned the paper's charming habit of putting these in the middle of the paper, so that bound volumes switch dates between one article and the next, haven't I. Splendidly convenient for the bibliographer or "post-blogger" of the distant future, whom I choose to imagine will wear red capes and work from a hot air balloon.) Anyway, content: the paper chooses to speculate about what Auckland Geddes called “the third phase” of a war emergency to come. The first, if you have been following the conversation, will have been by this point the evacuation of the cities by nonessentials, followed in the second step by the deployment of the Fleet. The third step, then, is “the kind of war we had before.”) At this point, our editor finds his point hovering into view, hull-down, on the horizon, and begins a dilatory move towards it? Apparently, we engineers will build a great many civil defence-type strucutres. Well, good, then. I had hoped that we wouldn't stop pouring concrete at home, just because of some silly "war like the one we had before." God save us from that. 

Flight 9 Feb 1939

Editorial: Flight is worried that the Army might not have enough air cooperation types in the event of war. the thought is raised by Group Captain Chapel, who, in a paper to RUSI points out that, ultimately, only the Cabinet can decide how many aircraft should accompany the army overseas. Only political rectitude, therefore, can assure that the army will have the air support that it needs. Flight therefore thinks that squadrons need to be specially designated, as well as specially trained, as some already are, for the army expeditionary force. all very well, but the sting in the tail is "above an beyond an adequate basis for home defence." Yes, quite, Flight thinks we need to buy more planes. For the army. Think of poor Tommy Atkins!


(i) “Spitfires for the Squadrons:” Just when you think that Vickers-Supermarine's little ship is last year's model, out comes one with a de Havilland three blade two-position propeller. 

(ii) “The Air Minister Goes South.” No picture of the Secretary of State, just coverage of his visit to Supermarine last week. Which said coverage is awfully extended. Has the Prime Minister perhaps some point to make? I frankly begin to dread the foreign news, Reggie. Have I mentioned that your son has been gazetted Commander(E)? He really would like to meet you someday.

Service Aviation has pictures of the Boulton Paul Defiant and Hawker Hotspur with their turrets, but oddly censored. The turrets apparently carry a number of machine guns, but the precise total is suppressed in the photo. The implication that I come away with is that the Air Ministry is treating us like nursery-school children.

Engineering 3 Feb 1939

Article: “High Speed Chain Track Vehicles” Having successfully rooked the reader with a dry-as-dust title, this turns out to be article about how tanks are getting faster. Today’s “Engineering Outlook” article covers the aviation industry, presenting the unsurprising news that it is growing.

Engineering 10 February 1939

Article: “The Engineering Aspect of Air-Raid Precautions.” Well, at least the title of the article manages to say what it is about, for a change.

Flight 16 Feb 1939

Editorial: Comment on Fedden’s RAeS/IAE talk. Er. Which, apparently, cannot be covered here. 

About that....

Jour. Roy. Aero. Soc. 43 (1939):
F. R. C. Smith, “Mechanical Properties, Uses and Manipulations of Aluminum Alloys,” is a brief and condensed review of current developments.
P. H. Rayner, “Notes on Aero Engine Research,” is a student paper.
F. Entwhistle, “The Meteorological Problem of the North Atlantic.” A nice chart reveals just how dangerous it is to fly over the Atlantic in the winter, beginning, interestingly enough, in November, and relenting in March. I would have put the season at something more astronomically winterish, perhaps January--April. Perhaps some day this will actually be relevant, perhaps in understanding an air-sea "Battle of the North Atlantic?"

So no coverage of the Fedder talk here. 

Continuing with Flight,
(no. 1573, Vol 35, 16 February 1939)

Our Editor continues with the observation that American research equipment is better than ours. 


(i) De Havilland has another new airliner, if I hadn't already heard officially. This DH 95 Flamingo is splendid, and has the high wing format to make sure that everyone has a good downwards view. Hmm. If commercial aviation really does continue to get better and better, might people who do not like flying actually some day do it? I am not convinced that the high wing is such a selling feature, length of undercarriage stroke set aside. 

(ii) Buried in the articles is a brief summary of aspects of the Fedden talk, specifically, sleeve valve development. Whatever their merits as engine components, they do sound like a metallurgical marvel. 

Service Aviation has another picture of a Defiant with the guns whited out, and of the new Fokker fighter.

Industry has a visit to the Sheet Metal, Inc. factory. They make fuel tanks! For planes. I would never have predicted five years ago that this could be a business that would support a factory. Not, to be clear, that I read the article closely enough to be sure that this is the firm's only source of custom.

Engineering 17 Feb, 24 Feb

Our editor repents of his brief digression into the minimally interesting with two articles devoted to civil engineering projects. Which, I am sure, are interesting to bridge, dam and harbour work builders.

The Engineer, 17 February 1939

The Engineer Vice-Admiral of the Fleet, Sir George Preece, spoke to a local branch of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently, taking as text the theme that even though 25% of the Navy is in the Engineering Branch, still its hunger for brains is not satisfied, and in particular brains who have attended advanced studies at the navy's engineering college at Greenwich. Not that I am implying anything about your personal peccadillos, Reggie. Yet.

This week, a book review covers Stephen* T. Possony's book on To-morrow's War: Its Planning, Management, and Cost. Possony thinks that total war will prove too expensive to be fought, and that there shan't be any of that terror bombing of which people speak. Given just how wrong this line of argument proved in 1914, you may be assured that I will be out digging a bomb shelter in the back garden this afternoon! Ah, well, perhaps the good professor is a better educator than he is a prognosticator, and his name will be remembered for the brilliance of his students

Flight 23 February 1939

Editorial: i) Empire air forces are growing but have a long way to go. Perhaps I am old and cynical, but this whole thing with plucky Canadians, bearded Indians, brash Australians, disaffected South Africans and, well, whatever-they-are  New Zealanders grates a little, Certainly, they have planes, but is not the point rather that they need planes if they can do some good? The last war was one "Fokker panic" after another, and surely we don't want to send sturdy Dominion human material up in second-rate planes to be mowed down by the successors of the Albatros and Triplane?

(ii) The Defence estimates: 580 million pounds. Have I gone to sleep and woken in some Alice in Wonderlands dream world, Reggie? 580 million pounds? Well, no wonder the Empire air forces do have a long way to go. They can't put the twist on the City for that much money! Honestly, this is more than a tenth of the national income, leaving any supplementary estimates out of it. (And I hope I am not telling tales out of school when I say that certain old shipmates are extremely displeased by having to settle for two 28 knot battleships when near-new armaments taken off of Fisher's follies are left on the quay to rust away.) The Air Estimates, by the way, cover two hundred million of that. It’s being  spent on new planes, and 37 new stations, and there’s the FAA, still partly funded out of the Air Estimates, the editor says, although elsewhere he seems more sensibly aware that that was always Admiralty money, and that the Navy really should have a say in it. 

Never mind, Reggie, I am sure you are tired of that particular rant. And we have a new panic about anti-aircraft artillery, but, again, that is for the army.  Our editor mentions a reversion to fixed undercarriages, and teases us with a “mystery plane” apparently revealed in the Aircraft Engineer supplement at the back. Will it be the one that jaunted over me as I was driving to the country last week? It would be nice, but I doubt it. I shall  try to contain the suspense as I continue through the main content.


(i): “Air Forces of the Empire.” Our photographer has found Indian ground crews in turbans. Isn’t that picturesque? Do Scottish mechanics wear kilts? The Aussies have Demons and Ansons! And they have the nerve to complain that they cannot get hold of our best. 
Service Aviation has no pictures, boring, especially when it mainly exists to reprint Gazette information. And it interleaves yet another bit of material on Empire Air Forces. I’m not sure that this is effective layout, especially with another picture of an Australian Anson as illustration on the first page, although over we get a Gannet, Hudson and Wirraway. New Zealand foregrounds its scenery in its pictorial, even though we eventually get a picture of a Wellington. I am not sure how New Zealand gets our best bomber, whereas Australia cannot? Is it the scenery? Or is it because our industry does not wish to export its capabilities, only its products? I am sure it is the former, Reggie. Canada has float planes. Because it's an Arctic wilderness, you see. And biplanes. Oh, and Blenheims! South Africa has Westland Wapitis, and Airspeed Envoy Cheetahs, which are to regular RAF planes as European animals are to African. Which is to say that they are larger, and have spots and stripes? I am not sure, but, whatever be the case, they will surely be cause enough for the Dutch to forgive us the whole "concentration camp" unpleasantness.

On the same topic, I note that the author regards Egypt and Iraq as Empire Air Forces. And people task Dame Agatha for making her village policemen so utterly clueless! Having actually talked to some real Arabs on matters political, I do not hesitate to predict that  neither country will rally round the Union flag in time of war.

Finally, as promised, The Aircraft Engineer. How have you controlled your anticipation, Reggie? The  article is about”Inertia Starters," and the mystery plane, by the way, is a Bristol Bulldog being used to flight test an Alvis Leonides, an engine that has rather less chance of an Air Ministry contracts than my cleaning lady's son's "Really gigantic wound up rubber band" plan. 

Now, if you have actually read all of this, you will be wondering what, at the end, I take away from it. My answer may be unexpected, but I do have some friends who did not throw their maths in the dustbin after Cambridge, and so "unexpected it is:"

"Three-bladed airscrews, Reggie." I was not present at the Fedden talk, and I cannot tell you why it seems to have been embargoed. What I can tell you is that the Rolls-Royce concern was able to increase the horsepower of their last engine, the Kestrel, from 500 to 700 horsepower during its lifetime. There is good reason why fast aeroplanes have two-bladed propellers. Words such as "balance" and "torque" come up, and "the conservation of angular momentum." There can only be one reason for going to three blades, and that is that increased airscrew area is needed to absorb increased engine power. A new Merlin is coming.

Yet, at the same time, the company is selling a navalised version. Remember that the power boat industry has been sourcing engines in all sorts of outlandish places. Italian engines, American engines, even the Napier Lion, the which appears to have turned from the very quintessence of modernity into a drab old workhorse in the blink of an eye. Certainly we never saw a "Sea Kestrel," and that is because Rolls-Royce had enough Air Ministry custom to absorb its production. Now, in spite of vast increases in aircraft production, we are seeing surplus Merlins turned over for export, at the same time that, I speculate shamelessly, new makes and models of the Merlin are under development.

It is not news, of course, that Rolls-Royce has built up a great deal of productive capacity in the last three years, with its new plant at Crewe, and the one proposed for Glasgow. I just wonder how much capacity the internal combustion engine industry will be able to absorb after this war scare ends. Whither the roads?

We shall see, Reggie. We shall see.

Yours, etc. 

P.S. Your son was gazetted Commander(E) in the New Years list, and will be lecturing at Greenwich this spring, I am sure you have not heard, as no congratulations from Vancouver have been as yet forthcoming. 


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