Barnes Wallis

1972, J. E. Morpurgo

A biography, borrowed from Portland State University library, TL540.W27 M67 1972b

Barnes Wallis (1887-1979) was a British engineer, famous for designing the R100 airship, the Wellington bomber, and the bouncing bomb system that destroyed the Mohne dam and flooded the Ruhr in 1943. Wallis also developed geodetic construction, promoted the use of duralumin (aluminum-copper alloy) instead of steel in aircraft, and developed the 10 ton Grand Slam "earthquake" bomb. Much of the onsite development involved living onsite, away from his wife and family, in spartan living conditions, tormented by frequent migraines and bureaucrats.

Wallis failed, too, and towards the end of his career worked on new projects and prototypes that never saw production. This is sad but inevitable - Wallis grew in stature and competence during Britain's zenith in wealth and power; after the second war, Britain was ruined, impoverished, without an empire, and without hundreds of thousands killed in the war. The war launched the career of many innovators and scientists, and the atomic bomb and the ICBM changed the methods of war. Britain no longer needed new bomber fleets, and civilian aircraft were now supplied in abundance by Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed in the US.

Wallis's last aviation design projects, the Wild Goose and Sparrow tailless variable-geometry designs, were brilliant explorations of new aircraft geometries for incrementally higher performance. But there was no real need for them, and their takeoff/landing problems were never really solved.

Not mentioned in the book, but postwar aviation progress was in powerplants - jet engines and rockets - and survival and endurance matter more than top speed. That includes pilot endurance, because a 10% faster plane requires 20% more turn radius and 10% more turn time in gee-force-limited turns. No modern plane can outrun a modern missile; it must evade destruction with countermeasures and low-observable design.

Wallis's last design project was for container cargo submarines. Again, an interesting optimization, but worldwide cargo infrastructure is adapted to surface ships. A submarine might be more efficient (the book claims this without supporting explanation), but the ports would not be, and cargo ships spend most of their time in port, loading and unloading. Indeed, most rivers and bays are too shallow to accomodate a surfaced but deep draft submarine. A more technical biographer would provide answers to such questions, or note the absence of answers.

This biography emerged 5 years before Wallis's death at age 92. Wallis capped his career up to 1972 by devoting himself to his alma mater, the residential public school "Christ's Hospital" ("hospital" meaning hospitality or hosting, in this case, young students). Wallis worked as the school's treasurer, raising large sums to expand its facilities in Horsham, West Sussex, southwest of London. His proudest accomplishment was establishing the R.A.F. Foundationers, scholarships for the children of military pilots. This included those orphaned by the many daring missions of the 617th Squadron, starting with the Dam Busters raid and followed by many others, better chronicled in Paul Brickhill's book "The Dam Busters".

Morpurgo's book has many fascinating details, but is plodding - surprising for an author of dozens. The author is an English teacher, not technical, so he names Wallis's many ideas, but he does not describe or diagram them so they are understandable. He focuses mostly on Wallis's repeated conflicts with authority - bosses, bureaucrats, colleagues, competitors - and the reader gets the impression that Wallis alternated between obsession and bitterness. Although Morpurgo spent much time with Wallis gathering information for the book, he wrote about what he understood - personality conflicts, incompetent bureaucrats - without really understanding the technical community, among which Wallis was important but not of sole importance. Computers, communications, electronics, atomic energy, chemistry, biology, medicine - all these competed for limited research funds. In retrospect, if the money Britain spent on rocket and aircraft development had been spent instead on these other areas, perhaps Hungarian refugee Andres Groff would have become Britain's Andrew Grove, and England would now rule the global semiconductor industry. Britain gave the world many inventors, and many scientific geniuses; who knows how many more languished in neglect, without funding or encouragement, while meager funds were used up by half-complete imperial scale showpieces.

BarnesWallis (last edited 2015-04-01 19:18:57 by KeithLofstrom)