Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: "Slide Rule" by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is, of course, best known as the author of such highly regarded mid-20th Century novels as On the Beach, No Highway and A Town Like Alice. But that literary figure is not the central character of this autobiography. This is the story of an engineer and the story of an air-man.

The author was born Nevil Shute Norway, second son of a British postal official. (He dropped his surname from the attribution of his novels, lest his engineering colleagues think of him as "not a serious person.") He was smitten by the "aeroplane" at a very early age and determined to make aviation his life's work.

"Kenneth Grahame once wrote that 'there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.' With that I would agree, yet for a fleeting period in the world's history I think that aeroplanes ran boats very close for shear enjoyment. ... I count myself lucky that that fleeting period coincided with my youth and my young manhood, and that I had a part in it."

In that time (the book occupies the era between the World Wars) a life in aviation required daring, and it becomes clear that Nevil Shute Norway was possessed of daring sufficient to the need. At various times in his life he pursued aviation, the sailing of small boats off-soundings, and motor racing. But his daring was tempered with technical acumen and combined with an entrepreneurial spirit.

"...it is very good for the character to engage in sports which put your life in danger from time to time. It breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities which probably cannot be got in any other way, and a habit of quick decisions."

He took an engineering degree from Oxford in 1922 and went to work as a stress analyst for the De Havilland organization. Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, already famous as a designer of aircraft, was only the first of several aviation notables to cross paths with the author, and he provides measured portraits of each in turn.

In 1924 he moved on to Vickers, to work on the design and construction of the airship R-100 under the leadership of Barnes Wallis. Wallis, the prototypical English "boffin", was the guiding genius behind the innovative structure of the airship. When the design was complete Wallis went on to other projects (among them the wondrously rugged geodesic structure of the Vickers Wellington bomber's fuselage, and the "bouncing bomb" of Dambusters-fame). Nevil Shute Norway then became head of structural engineering for the project.

The R-100 was built as a competitive prototype in parallel with an Air Ministry design, the R-101. The author describes in detail his view of the relationship between the two programs and (somewhat uncharitably) of the shortcomings of R-101's design and its designers. In the end, the R-101 was famously disastrous, crashing on 5th October 1930 with great loss of life, on its first long-distance proving flight. The loss of R-101 effectively wrote finis to airship development in Britain.
"Aircraft do not crash of themselves. They come to grief because men are foolish, or vain, or lazy, or irresolute or reckless. One crash in a thousand may be unavoidable because God wills it so - not more than that."

The R-100, despite its apparently successful design, was grounded after the accident and subsequently broken up, the scrap being sold for a few hundred pounds. Nevil Shute Norway and his colleagues became, as they say, "redundant".

With this newfound freedom, the author's entrepreneurial side came to the fore. In 1931 he joined forces with the designer Hessell Tiltman to found a new aircraft manufacturing company, Airspeed Ltd. Given the economic conditions of the day, this was adventure of a high order, and the last 40% of the book is the tale of this adventure.

While Nevil Shute Norway was a highly competent engineer, Hessell Tiltman was a remarkably talented designer. So as the nascent company went forward the division of labor was that Tiltman designed the airplanes and Norway did about everything else – hiring staff, finding investors, dealing with suppliers, locating quarters, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

The firm struggled at the edge of disaster until they produced the Courier, a single engined "airliner" that outperformed all competition by virtue of its retractable undercarriage (not a first for Britain, but unique in that era). In fact, the author says that their design was reviewed by the designer of either the Spitfire or the Hurricane (Reg Mitchell and Sydney Camm, respectively - and he coyly refuses to say which) who advised that they omit the retractable gear. Some fast talking was needed to get the investors to ignore this advice, which would have left them as a no-name company with a me-too product. Right there, Nevil Shute Norway saved the company.

The Courier was enough of a success to lead to development of a twin-engined variant, the Envoy.

The Envoy was "militarized" to produce the Airspeed Oxford (at left), a multi-engine trainer that produced most of the bomber and transport crews who fought for the British Commonwealth in World War II. It was ordered and built in the thousands.

And there, perhaps, is the reason for Nevil Shute Norway's departure from the firm he had founded and nurtured. It had all become too big and too routine. He was jaded; as he put it, he was a "starter", not a "runner." In addition, he had begun to achieve some fairly notable success as a novelist. His books of fiction, written "on the back of the clock," were selling well and the motion picture studios were taking an interest. So in early 1938 he resigned as Managing Director of Airspeed, Ltd. His company would go on to considerable success without him and he would have his own success along a new pathway.

"An uneventful journey is a good journey for the technician."

Here, this autobiography ends. It does not describe the author's service as a Royal Naval Reserve officer in World War II, nor his emigration to Australia, nor his subsequent successful literary career. The original subtitle of this volume (1954 edition) was "The Autobiography of an Engineer", and as the book closes, that chapter of his life was ended.

Nevil Shute Norway died in January 1960 at the age of 60. He's left us with a remarkable memoir of a golden time in aviation history.


Dave Starr said...

Thanks for digging this book out and writing about it. I've long been a huge fan of Mr. Norway and consider it a bit of a shame that US students, if exposed to him at all, seldom seem to know anything about him except as the author of "On the Beach", hardly his best work.

I just recently watched an episode of "Britain's Greatest Machines" where they gave a sketchy description of the star-crossed R101 program, completely neglecting the fact that the R100, partially Mr. Norway's work, had completed a round trip trans-Atlantic crossing with passengers in 1930 ... before some famous trans-Atlantic fliers had even decided to make the flight.

Truly an interesting man and "Slide Rule" is well worth a read for it's insights into business and ethics, even ignoring its fascinating aviation vignettes.

Frank Van Haste said...


I'm glad you added the point that "Slide Rule" is highly worthwhile even if the aviation stuff is peripheral to one's interests. On this aviation-focused blog I gave that aspect short shrift.

Thanks for reading.


Dr.ATP said...


It's a great book -- I've read it twice in the past two years -- and you've captured it well. I'm a big fan of airships, as you might have noticed in my blog, and his discussion really added a lot to my understanding of the engineering involved. But, man, was he a prude!

Frank Van Haste said...


Re: "...prude", I guess he was a true product of his time - strait-laced Edwardian Englishman.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Fly safe(ly),


The Boemelaars said...

I'm fairly certain there was a follow-up volume, called iirc, "Set Square". He never wrote it.