Friend and commenter Robert Blair kindly mailed me some books by Nevil Shute, and I have just finished his autobiographical Slide Rule, which focuses on the author’s experiences as an aeronautical engineer in the early days of commercial flight.
I know “Wow!” is not a very sophisticated, or even a particularly helpful, word in describing a book, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Shute, who missed out on becoming a pilot in WWI (he served in a reserve battalion of the Suffolk Regiment) nonetheless dove into the engineering side of air travel design after the war while it was in its infancy, and I know of no other book that so neatly combines the scientific aspects of flight with its commercial development, and does so in a way that is positively mesmerizing.
Slide Rule is concerned largely with two great events in Shute’s life: the design and construction of the air ship R100, and the ground-up creation of an airplane manufacturing company, Airspeed, Ltd. In the late 1920s, the British Labour government, seeking, as all socialist and quasi-socialist governments do, to expand the public sector, established a sort of contest in which the Air Ministry was instructed to design and construct a commercially-viable air ship, in competition with an air ship to be designed and built by the private firm, Vickers, Ltd. There is much in Shute’s recounting of the twin projects that underscores the superiority of free enterprise over bureaucratic management.
So the thing started, and each staff began work on the preliminary researches that precede design in a big job like that. It was no fault of the Cardington party [the government’s design team] that they had the Air Ministry press department always nagging at their elbow for a story to put out in order that the expenditure of public money might be justified, but the effect was a stream of optimistic forecasts in the newspapers from the men who were building R101 which in the end were to build a ring fence around them from which there was no escape…[T]he Cardington designers found themselves hemmed in behind a palisade of their own published statements which could not be broken through without some personal and public discredit, till one course only was left open to them, a course they never would have taken had they been free men, a course which was to lead to tragedy and death.Almost as dangerous, if not more so, as piloting air ships was the construction of them. The Vickers team worked in a “hangar” that was, in reality, an enormous (and leaky) old shed. The men labored far above the ground in building the skeleton of the ship, and in cold weather the framework would frequently ice over making for treacherous footing. There was also the little matter of working w-a-y above the ground:
The scale of the work produced its own peculiar difficulties, for most of us were unaccustomed to working on high places. When we first arrived at Howden I can very well remember venturing up the stairs to the passage ways in the roof of the shed 170 feet above the concrete floor, petrified with fear and clinging to the handrails with sweating hands at every step…By the time that the ship was half built we had lost all sense of height; it seems to be a matter of habit, because in my case the fear of heights has since returned, and is as strong as ever.After the tragic crash of the government air ship (and in spite of a very successful test of the R100, which flew from England to Canada and back), air ships had become less commercially viable than they had appeared to be just a few years before, primarily, according to Shute, because of the rapid improvement in the speed and carrying capacity of airplanes. It was at this point that Shute got the idea of starting a company that would manufacture airplanes, first catering to the demand from individuals and flying clubs, but quickly expanding to sell to airlines and, ultimately, the government. The crowning achievement of the company’s existence as an independent entity was the sale of an Airspeed Envoy to the King’s Flight (an RAF unit responsible for transporting the Royal Family). Watching the fortunes of this company unfold, from its original shoestring financing to its eventual sale to the de Havilland Company, is an excellent short-course in the workings of venture capital.
Although the book concentrates on Shute’s first love (flying), there is much, as well, on his first forays into fiction writing, much that is interesting and instructive (at least to this dilettante). Slide Rule is an honest, well-written depiction of an amazingly fruitful and active life, one that leaves this (fairly) sedentary reader almost dizzy with the sheer whirl of it all, but with a deep-seated respect for people, like the author, who make, rather than read about, history.