The shape of the future: Barnes Wallis’s 1929 airship design


R100 cover loresThe name of Barnes Wallis is of course well known to students of the Dams Raid. But I bet that most people would struggle to remember many of the other projects, besides the so-called bouncing bomb, which he worked on throughout his long career as an engineer.
Back in the 1920s, Wallis headed the design team which built the R100 airship. This was a privately designed and built rigid British airship made as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, a competition to develop a commercial airship service for use on in the British Empire.
The scheme is described on this website, dedicated to the work of Barnes Wallis:

Two airships were to be built and trialled against each other, the best elements from both being used to develop a second generation of airships. The ships were to have a speed of 70 knots and carry 100 passengers over a range of 3,000 miles. One ship was built by the Royal Airship Works at Cardington under direct Government control, and the other was built by Vickers (under their subsidiary the Airship Guarantee Company) on a wholly commercial basis, with Wallis as Chief Designer. Although built to the same specification, and hence broadly similar with a length of over 700ft and a capacity of 5,000,000 cubic feet, Wallis’s R100 and the Government R.101 were very different in the detail of their construction.
R100 was built from Duralumin (a light aluminium alloy) while most of R101’s structure was stainless steel. R101’s gasbags were held in place by a novel parachute-type harness, while Wallis developed a geodetic wire mesh for R100 to give greater gasbag volume. … most of R100’s structure was built from just 11 components (which could thus be mass-produced in their millions) and the entire structure was built from just 41 different components. Duralumin tubes of the length Wallis required were not available, so he designed a machine which would take flat Duralumin strip (which was available in long lengths), form it into a helix, and rivet the edges together to form a tube.

R100 first flew in December 1929. It made a series of trial flights and a successful return crossing of the Atlantic in July–August 1930, but following the crash of R101 in October 1930 the Imperial Airship Scheme was terminated and it was broken up for scrap. R100, which it could be argued had the more innovative design, was thus terminated even though it had a more successful life.
The brochure (from the Ray Hepner collection) whose cover is shown above would seem to have been designed about the time of R100’s first flight. The internal pages have an interesting design, which involved some hand mortising of metal type. The typeface is a large size of Garamond, with the full point hand cut so that it fits exactly above the tail of the curve of the swash capital R.

R100 inside lores

Wallis went on to use a similar geodetic wire mesh design for his later Wellington bomber, which made its maiden flight in 1936. More than 11,400 Wellingtons were built over the next decade, making it the largest production run of any British bomber in the Second World War.
Ray Hepner has also sent me some more pictures of Barnes Wallis taken at Reculver in Kent in 1976, 43 years after Wallis’s previous visit, to observe the last test drops of his Upkeep mine, the weapon used on the Dams Raid. Here are Lady Wallis and Sir Barnes, alongside Ray, who is sporting a particularly fine pair of 1970s flares.

Wallises+Hepner1976 lores

All pics © Ray Hepner Collection.  

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5 thoughts on “The shape of the future: Barnes Wallis’s 1929 airship design

  1. Anthony Knight August 25, 2016 / 7:43 am

    A good photograph that I haven’t seen before.

    As stated the idea of geodesics to support the gas bag wiring was taken a step further in the lattice-work that formed the frame of the Wellington Bomber.

    Despite being Chief Engineer, Wallis’ original idea was opposed by the management of the Airship Guarantee Company and he turned to Prof L.N.G. Filon of Imperial College, University of London who provided the complex mathematics and equations to prove the theory and thus enable the complex construction to be turned into a practical reality.

  2. Alistair Hopkinson August 25, 2016 / 9:34 am

    The Eagles Golf Center in between Howden and Spaldington still has an enormous concrete block with a tethering ring on the 9 hole golf course. The site originally was used for the building of the airships.

  3. Anthony (Tony) Knight August 25, 2016 / 2:47 pm

    Yes Alistair that quite right, the R100 was built there and Barnes Wallis lived in a small bungalow on the site, Certainly Barnes Jnr. and Mary were born there. There’s a pub by the railway line and level crossing that has been renamed the Barnes Wallis Inn

    By the way could I ask Ray Hepner the story behind him having the photograph taken with Sir Barnes and his wife?

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