Nevil Shute's other Career

Slide Rule    by Nevil Shute

William Heinemann, London 1954  ....   reviewed 3 February 1995 by David P. Stern


      Let there be no mistake: this is an old book, out of print, the life story of Nevil Shute. If you can find it in a library or on a second-hand book rack, by all means, get it.

      Nevil Shute was a British writer, and in the year after World War II some of his novels became well-known the world over. Most famous was "On the Beach," an end-of-the-world story set in Australia, after a nuclear holocaust that had destroyed Europe and America, a gloomy book and not Shute's best. "No Highway" tells about a nerdy British scientist ("boffin") who tries desperately to stop the production of a new airliner, having discovered in his lab that metal fatigue might cause its wings to drop off. It proved to be prophetic, because shortly after its appearance, the De Haviland Comet, the world's first jetliner, began losing wings in mid-air for what later turned out to be exactly the same reason. "A Town like Alice," which became a well-known film, is a love story starting in Japanese-occupied Malaya and ending in the Australian outback. And many other gentle, upbeat books--"The Trustee from the Toolroom", "Around the Bend" and over a dozen more, some published before the war.

      For an appreciable part of his career, this author led a double life. As Nevil Shute Norway (his full name), his main occupation for twenty years was aeronautical engineering, as builder and designer of airplanes and airships. It is no coincidence that airplanes figure prominently in many of his novels! "Slide Rule" tells of that other career, from his early years to the approach of World War II.

      Two stories form the core of the book. The more vivid one is about the R-100 airship, commissioned by the British government in 1924 as the first of what was hoped would become a fleet of swift airships linking the British empire. The task was given to Vickers which had built airships during WW I. However, before the contract could be signed, the Labor Party took power and decreed that two competing airships would be built, the "capitalist" R-100 and the R-101, designed and constructed by the government itself.

      The R-100 was entrusted to Barnes Wallis, a gifted and inspired engineer (later, in WW-II, the designer of bombs that destroyed German dams and fortifications, as detailed in "The Dam Busters", book and film). With a small crew (including Shute) and under austere conditions, he designed and built a great airship, within cost and schedule, and flew it in 1930 from England to Montreal and back. Shute was aboard and the book describes that flight, including some harrowing moments above the St. Lawrence River, when (for a few minutes) the R-100 was sucked helplessly upwards by a thunderstorm, the nemesis of airships.

      The builders of the R-101, meanwhile, enjoyed generous support and much better facilities. But there was a down side, too, because bureaucrats meddled with the specifications, and government managers proved sloppy in the design and all too lax with tests and inspections. The engineers at the bottom of the pyramid (whom Shute occasionally met) had no say, and the schedule was pushed from above even when it became known that a poor choice of materials had weakened the canvas cover of the airship to where parts could be easily torn by hand. The end was a tragedy: an inadequately tested R-101 took off towards India, crossed the English channel and went down in France, with no survivors. That ended Britain's love affair with the airship: the R-100 never flew again but was broken up for scrap.

     With some partners Shute next formed "Airspeed", dedicated to the production of airplanes. That is the second long story, and readers who speak lightly of "entrepeneurship" can learn here a few lessons. The timing was bad for any new venture, the beginning of the great depression, and Airspeed struggled constantly to make ends meet, to keep creditors at bay, and above all, to find buyers for its airplanes: only in 1938, when Shute left it, did it show its first small profit. Its airplanes were quite good--among other things, they pioneered the folding landing gear--but finding buyers was hard, until the clouds of a new world war began gathering over Ethiopia and Spain, and shady purchasers appeared, ready to pay cash as long as no questions were asked. Then Britain itself began arming and Airspeed could stop worrying about sales; it built bombers during the war and was ultimately swallowed up by its competitor De Haviland.

      By that time Shute was well into his other career, the one the world knew about. It is a rare individual indeed who can make his mark so well in two so different spheres!


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 18 January 2002