Sunday, 20 January 2019

Book review: "Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer", by Nevil hute

Many books immerse you in a bygone world. Sherlock Holmes plunges you into a mid- and late-Victorian London, whilst Philippa Gregory drowns you in Tudor intrigue. "Slide Rule" takes you soaring through the aeronautical world of the 1930s.

Nevil Shute was one of the best-selling authors of the 1950s, with books such as 'On the Beach' or 'A Town like Alice', and he is most famed for his writing.

However Shute was also an engineer, and 'Slide Rule' covers that portion of his life, before the Second World War and literary fame intervened. His early life is mentioned, including a fascinating portion about his time in Dublin during the Easter Rising (his father was head of the Post Office in the city at the time, although he was fortunately outside the building when it was taken over). To get him  away from the troubles, his parents sent him to Oxford.

After Oxford, he went to work for De Havilland at the start of that distinguished company, and learned to fly - a skill he loved, and one that proved very useful in his later work. It was a time of rapid change in the aeronautical industry, and he soon moved on to Vickers for the start of the massive R100 airship project. Much of the book covers his work on this ship, and its rivalry with the ill-fated government-run R101 airship. He became the project's Deputy Chief Engineer by the age of 30 - something that perhaps could only happen in what was a 'young' industry.

One theme of this book is socialism versus capitalism, especially when it comes to engineering. In his view, the excess money (unfairly) thrown at the R101 project hindered it, whilst the fixed-cost contract Vickers had for the R100 forced them to be efficient. I got the impression that he was too involved with the project to be truly impartial, and besides, the costs of such projects are now so great that any lessons are probably irrelevant: even SpaceX relied on government money via NASA to develop their Falcon 9 rocket.

An interesting section of the book details how stress calculations for the R100 were completed. Two men ('calculators') would work for weeks calculating the stresses on the ring of girders forming a section of the ship, finding mistakes or problems and recalculating, until eventually the calculations done by different means agreed. These would just have been a small part of the calculations the ship required, and it highlights how much time and effort was required to do something that nowadays might only take a few seconds on a computer.

The R101 disaster caused the government to turn its back on airships - a move Shute admits was probably for the best given the rapid increase in aeroplane performance throughout the 1930s. Out of a job, he decided to start his own company with a fellow R100 engineer, Alfred Tiltman. They named their company 'Airspeed', and the second half of the book highlights the problems of starting a new company in a rapidly - and  radically - changing industry. Shute is disarmingly honest about some of the financial techniques he used to keep the company afloat and how, if the dice had rolled differently, he could have ended up in jail!

He eventually left Airspeed in 1938, his capabilities as Managing Director being more suited to running a young company than a relatively mature one with a bulging order book. He does not give the impression he minded leaving, nor does he appear to object when, during the war, de Havilland took over Airspeed.

This is very much the autobiography of an engineer, and his personal life is scarcely mentioned. His wife only graces the pages on a few occasions - mostly in how her job allowed him a little financial security. It would have been nice to have heard more about her, and his two children only get a short mention at the end of the book. It would also have been nice to hear more about Shute's work during the Second World War, when he worked on special projects and weapons. Perhaps that was because this book was published in 1953, when the events of the war were still raw and many special projects were still secret. It feels as though the book ends too soon.

I'm slightly surprised I had never read this book before, but I shall be reading it again in the future. Shute may have got fame from his writing, but his other work probably had more of an impact on the world.

4 out of 5.

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