Thursday, 22 October 2009

Slide Rule: the autobiography of Nevil Shute

I can catch a 38 bus just outside the premises in Grosvenor Place where tutorials are held weekly to go to Clerkenwell, where I spend the night at my daughter's. The 38 goes down Piccadilly and this Tuesday I got out at the Royal Academy and walked across the road to Hatchards to buy Jan Morris's Conundrum which we will be discussing during the Liberated Women tutorial in a fortnight's time. The biography section there is big. By chance I picked up Slide Rule for light reading because Neville Shute had been a widely-read novelist when I was young and because I believed that he had had some connection with the manufacturers of one of the aircraft on which I had trained. This, as you may read, was a happy choice.

I read the book with astonishment. It was as if I had discovered that Charles Dickens had raised the money in the City to start a large blacking factory or as if Jane Austen had written novels as a relaxation from the rigours of running her fashionable boutique in Bath.

The title of the book may need some explanation to those growing up in a digital age. A slide rule is an instrument for multiplying numbers. It has one rule which slides within an outer rule, each marked with numbers which are distant from each number not by their arithmetical distance but by their logarithmic one. This enables you to add the logarithms of two numbers together and read off the result as if you had multiplied them together. Dependent upon the scale of the rule, you can multiply two large numbers quickly and easily with quite accurate results. Engineers naturally used slide rules extensively. One definition that used to be given of an engineer was someone who multiplied 2 by 2 on a slide rule, found the answer was 3.998 and rounded up the answer to 4.

Nevil Shute was born in the same year as my mother, 1899. He was the son of a senior civil servant educated in the classics, but he early showed much more interest in things practical and mechanical. During vacations from Oxford he talked himself into unpaid work with the infant de Havilland aircraft company. "Oxford was less important to me than my vacation work, which perhaps explains why I did no better than third class honours in my Finals. It is difficult to pump up any enthusiasm for the theory of concrete dams or electrical machinery when I was so deeply concerned with aviation."

He got a full-time job with de Havillands but left them in 1924 because all the senior men were only slightly older than he was. At that time conventional wisdom held that aeroplanes would always be too small for satisfactory long-distance passenger carrying, for which airships were the obvious answer. He joined the giant Vickers company who were putting together a team under the legendary Barnes Wallis to design and build an airship, the R.100, as the private-enterprise contender to the state-sponsored R.101. The relative merits of private enterprise versus state sponsorship in the development of grands projets have seldom if ever been more starkly analysed than by Shute, or apocalyptically described. In 1930 the R.100, with Shute on board as by now the leader of the project, made a successful return flight to Canada. The R.101, with the Air Minister on board, crashed in northern France on its way to India, burning 48 people to death.

Throughout this time and while he was working as the engineer Mr Cornwall, he wrote novels in his spare time as relaxation. When one was finally published, he chose as his nom de plume his forenames, thinking that he would be devalued as an engineer if he wrote under his surname.

With the abandonment by the government of airship development, Shute set out with a talented designer to establish an aircraft manufacturing company. The easy bit, he found, is making aeroplanes: the difficult bit is funding their manufacture. Anybody who has sought to raise money for a new venture or who has had to try to keep a company afloat when underfunded will suffer vicariously with him as he describes his efforts to do so. The agonising debates over product development will likewise resonate: do you stick with the tried-and-true or do you seek to compete with the big boys by being innovative? As he puts it, "The whole of Airspeed was a gamble, anyway; there was no future for us playing safe. We decided to incorporate a retractable undercarriage, hydraulically operated, in the new design."

This design was the precursor of the Airspeed Oxford, a twin-engined aircraft for which the company received an order for 136 from the Air Ministry in October 1936, as part of Britain's belated re-armament programme. This was principally used by the RAF as an advanced trainer: over the next eight years 8,751 Oxfords were built, 4,961 by Airspeed and many of the rest by its old rival and later owner, de Havillands.

The tone at end of the book is not, however, triumphant. In April 1938 his Board sacked him "to quell the disputes which were plaguing the company". Business, he writes, has "the starters and the runners, the men with a creative instinct who can start a new venture and the men who can run it to make it show a profit. They are very seldom contained in the same person. In Airspeed the time for starters was over and it was now for the runners to take over the company. I was a starter and useless as a runner; there was nothing now for me to start, and I was not unwilling to go after the first shock to my pride."

It is easy now to understand why he prefaces the book with a quotation from Stevenson, "To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is to labour."

I plan to write a future post including a story about the hydraulically operated retractable undercarriage on the Airspeed Oxford, the aircraft on which I did my training in 1952-1953.



No comments:

Post a Comment