Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Meta-Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, April, 1948: The Two Secrets of the Fiscal 1948-9 British Budget

So this started out as a smartass answer over at Quora to the question, "What did Britain lose in World War II?" The expected answer is, of course, "the Empire, which was awesome," so you can see why my push back was "Houses. Everything else was upside."
It might also not surprise that the post has not elicited any great number of positive responses. Whatever: The first important point is that I'm off to 100 Mile House for my niece's birthday this week, I wanted to post something light, and the first part of this post, which is about the budget presented by Stafford Cripps in April of 1948, is something that deserves to be shoved out into the Zeitgeist. It's pretty much set-in-stone wisdom that Britain "bankrupted itself fighting the Second World War, and that narrative goes on to shape our understanding of the consequences of running up a large, public-sector deficit to address an existential emergency.

Which is an important point for these days. Global warming and all that, you know.

The second important point is that my purely rhetorical codicil about how Britain was unexpectedly innovative in the 1950s, turns out to be far more cohesive than I realised. Picking three exemplars of British innovation at random, and then exploring an alternative to the over-worked third one, I discover that it's all linked, due to the then-secret British atomic weapons programme.
Which also brings in 100 Mile House, thanks to Leonard Cheshire, part time giant-bomb dropping specialist, part-time cultist, full-time humanitarian. 

Pictured: Not the modern descendants of the Emissaries of Divine Light, down in 100 Mile's suburb (I know, I know!) of
Exeter, whatever you hear around here. However, the girl on the left is my man Brandon Konoval's sister. 

What did I want to get off my chest? First, that Britain was not "broke," in 1948. It was short of dollars. Like the rest of the world, because that's what tends to happen when you let the world's fastest growing economy run a trade surplus, and you decide to farm out agriculture to it.
Here’s the British budget pie for 1948:
Interest payments on debt under control, defence spending healthy but not excessive, the “welfare state,” all costs included, 30% of spending. Look at how tiny the NHS and education shares are!
Here’s the actual 1948 budget:
You have to squint a bit, as this comes from The Economist, which is very disappointed at the swingeing Labour £650 million surplus on £4.3 billion expenditure in the previous year, can’t let itself say so, and won’t for that reason draw your attention to it. In defence of those nasty old neo-liberals, it bears pointing out that the surplus has been doubled by dodgy book-keeping. Still, an almost 10% surplus on a budget that came in under estimate. That’s some healthy public finance, right there!
Not that that’s hard to do when GNP (as they used to measure things in the old days) is exploding ahead
The “Unemployment problem”
is that there aren’t any unemployed to go into coal mining and textiles
And the country is importing fewer manufactured goods than food, and exporting about five times as many industrial goods as it imports.
As we know, because we’re constantly reminded of the fact, there are issues. In particular, the United Kingdom is importing significantly more from “hard currency” countries (countries that have a positive or close to positive trade balance with the United States) than it exports to that zone, and this is leading to a “dollar shortage.” On the other hand, this is something of a Mexican standoff. Britain needs more dollars than it is earning because it is buying American wheat and tobacco, which means that it is shoring up farm incomes (especially since the February “break” in commodities). American farmers, and the politicians who want their votes, and, really, all Americans,* want Britain to keep on buying all of that grain.
You’ll note, by the way, that the hidden bit of this story is that Britain’s negative trade balance in dollars is telling a tale about how only exports to America count. Britain can ship as much as it wants to Germany, home of German engineering, but it won’t win dollars from that trade, so it doesn’t count. It’s this, and the fact that Britons are eating better and smoking more, and the rapid rise in American commodity prices that stands at the root of this whole “Britain is broke” thing.
‘Cuz it’s not broke. I repeat. Britain is not broke. What it is, is about to break out with this
and this
And this
And this
. . . And I could go on. (Said I, a few days ago. And I could go on --to this, as it turns out.)
This is how you do a codename.
The examples were the first ones off the top of my head, so there's a psychological value in presenting them as is, before I proceed to change my answer in one or two cases. They will all be familiar to the reader, although the Calder Hall nuclear power plant and Ferranti Mk. I much less so than the Vickers Viscount and Centurion tank. That being said, the story of the Ferranti computers and the first commercial nuclear reactor station lie ahead. The Viscount and Centurion have already been covered. I just have a bit more to say. 
So let's start with the top, with the example I am least able to bring back to the British postwar nuclear weapons programme. The Vickers Viscount might be the single most emblematic British technological export of the 1950s, because it was the one that turned a heroic story of wartime technological innovation, the gas turbine, into export dollars in the civil sector. It's only anticlimactic in that you've seen it before. I'd like to change the answer to the big, long-range turboprop airliner that competed head-to-head with the big Douglas and Boeing mainliners. (Actually, in this story, one of the last Lockheeds, but that opens a bit of a can of worms, as I could talk at length about how the gradual attrition of American airline manufacturers shows the fundamentally broken nature of private-sector commercial aviation, and that might be a bit much on a road trip week.) 
But I can't, because the Bristol Britannia was a flop.  In the writeup, you'll see that the problem was a two-year delay in service entry, occasioned by the loss of the prototype to a reduction-gear failure and an ongoing problem with icing in the air inlets. 
By RuthAS - Own work, CC BY 3.0,
As both problems have been repeatedly signalled in the technical literature of 1948, one would be inclined to agree with Whitney Straight's Wikipedia-reported 1948 comment about the Proteus engine being an "obsolescent contraption," even if the author of the Wikipedia article doesn't. Clearly, Straight is incorrect in the sense that the Proteus went on to a long career as a marine and stationary power plant, probably due to the superior fuel economy possible from its free-wheel design, while the icing problems probably have a great deal to do with the reverse-flow air inlet that could, and should, have been designed out of it. 
I think. Probably some engineer could tell me why I'm completely wrong about that. On the other hand, the heroically trouble-free record of the Viscount's Dart shows what could be done, albeit on a much smaller engine. If I  had to draw a conclusion, it would be a silent, accusing finger in the direction of Roy Fedden, not one of my Favourite Historical Persons, anyway.  He might have been well away from Bristol by the time the Proteus was designed, but as long as the sleeve-valve Centaurus hung over it, it was still his shop. 
So much for the historical woulda-shoulda-couldas. By this late date, it should be clear that British shops are as good at building "feeder airliners" as they are bad at mainliners, and, instead of pointing fingers, we need to think about the subject in terms of economic superstructures. The issue, of course, being the nature of those superstructures. Because as the header material suggests, instead of bemoaning the superior size of the American vis-a-vis British economies, we should at least consider that public finance might play a role. 
My second example is a classic boy's toy, the Centurion tank, was a hardy late-war perennial, introduced into production just too late to punch Nazis, and still coming off the line in 1962, by which time it had evolved into that Holy Grail of armoured warfare design, the Main Battle Tank. 
Which may or may not be a thing that can actually exist.  As with grocery stores, so with tanks. They're always too small until they're too big. If you don't recognise the sexy war machine in the picture, it's the British Army's FV 107 Scimitar Armoured Reconnaisance Vehicle.  The Scorpion variant is older, but it had a lame 3" low velocity gun, whereas the Scimitar has the much more manly 30mm Rarden. 
When I set out to expand on my Quora post, it was with the knowledge that I had already talked about the interesting technical issues behind the Centurion --the various late war guns and Rolls Royce Meteor engine. I've even linked to Stone's The Great Tank Debate again. (I really liked that book.)

So where does one go for fresh material. I considered talking about the Conqueror heavy tank, and was astonished to learn that its 120mm gun was a borrowed American design, which makes it all the more dickish that the Americans declined to upgrade to the Chieftain's 120mm, retaining the Royal Ordnance L7 105mm tank gun.

But what made that gun so special?  I didn't think that there was much to say. The L7 was designed to fit into the installation for the 84mm 20 pounder, introduced in 1948, so it clearly represented significant metallurgical progress and perhaps better propellants, but that's not surprising.

on the other hand, my attempts to clarify the sequence of events ran up into confusing, if not contradictory claims. The L7 was test fired in the early 50s, first installed in an 84mm mounting in 1954, inspired in 1956, given its first field trials in 1959, and introduced into production in 1961.

You would think that all of this had been sorted out, but, as far as I can tell, it hasn't been, and extremely cursory research into the early days of the Royal Armament Research and Design Establishment, Fort Halstead soon led me over to Tube Alloys and this paper, Jonathan Aylen's "First Waltz: Development and Deployment of Britain's First Atomic Weapon," published in 2015 in the International Journal for the History of Engineering and Technology. 

I'm frankly far from certain that the electrical firing and new propellants developed for Blue Danube were carried over to the L7 (actually, later models of the 20 Pounder, but details, details), but it explains the discrepancies in the narrative by reference to atomic secrecy, and allows me to direct attention to a fine paper that parallel's Hermione Grainger's book in upending simplistic narratives of research and development.

Avlen is less theoretically ambitious, but in some ways his picture of the development of Blue Danube is an even greater challenge to our conventional understanding of technological progress than Grainger's account of a production as an integral part of the design process. Blue Danube goes even further: production is prior to design. Given that the size and shape of the "physics package" and casing are determined in advance and considering the basal simplicity of the internal mechanism, a wide range of subcontractors could be set to work producing the parts. Once assembled, and only then, did a Blue Danube design exist; but even it then evolved as the contractors returned to their benches and refined their initial offerings.

Tube Alloys was a big, albeit famously austere project, spending "only" 12% of total Ministry of Supply outlays over the five years between Cabinet approval in January of 1947 and the Operation Hurricane (not so good with the code name!) test-firing in October of 1952. Given the scope of the project, many subcontractors were involved. Avlen develops the aerodynamic work of a small group at RAE Farnsborough that could not believe that it was doing the real work, imagining that they were just pursuing an alternative line of inquiry to some larger and more professional working group elsewhere. Leeds locomotive builder Hudswell Clarke did the casing. Percival Aircraft found the suspension system that fixed the physics package within the ballistic case more profitable than the Mergansar. It was then cushioned by airbags made by the most "accommodating and competent" rubber hot water bottle maker that the Atomic Weapons Establishment could find in the industry directory. Proximity and backup clockwork time and percussion fuzes were made at Woolwich, which had an established expertise. Avlen is particularly taken with the way that Whiteley Electrical Radio Company, of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, solved the problem of "pitchpotting" the mass-produced firing mechanism in a solid, cast dielectric to protect delicate electrical components from the stress of delivery.

However, to the extent that this long and somewhat link-free (due to writing on  my Surface) digression leads back to the discussion, the issue is that firing mechanism itself. Firing an imploding-core bomb driven by cast blocks of PETN is very challenging, and there was plenty of room to do it better in 1950, and thereby extract a higher explosive efficiency from the uranium and plutonium of the core, which was the point of the exercise in the first place. W. J. Challens's small group at RARDE Fort Halstead came up with a system consisting of a power supply, trigatron switch, pulse transformer, trigger isolator and arming unit. This was coupled to a trigger unit, discriminator and junction box serving eight high-voltage capacitors. The trigatron, a gas tube recently used for switching between input and output on airborne radars, which tested the limits of existing switching with their very low pulse intervals, was particularly challenging to make. But so were the capacitors.

Again, it is far from clear to me how much of this work was at all applicable to the development of the L7; but, when you think about it, the technical challenge of firing off a high-velocity shell from the inside of a tank that also has to accommodate a four person crew is considerable. The appearance of the fume extractor on late models of the Charioteer probably signals the point at which the evolution of deflagrant gas in the breech of the gun became so rapid, intense and toxic that the crew was at serious risk. Influence from the ongoing work on Blue Danube seems like a reasonable inference. If not, I have brought attention to Avlen's article, and to an extraordinary national effort at a time of purported financial "exhaustion."

Although since everyone knows that real innovation is accomplished by technological-creative destroyers who drop out of Stanford or luck into a generous buyout package from coding Paypal, I don't know how much relevance any of this has. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Britian seems to have had a strong lead in metallurgy from the late C19 (they took the Krupp process and improved it, making British battleship armour about 10 per cent stronger than German). The Merlin engine and the first reliable jet turbines are other examples.