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Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer

by Nevil Shute

“Most of my adult life, perhaps all the worthwhile part of it,” Nevil Shute wrote, “has been spent messing about with airplanes.” Many of those involved in the early days of aviation have written memoirs, but few have combined an intimate knowledge of the nascent aviation industry with the writing talent demonstrated by Shute.

Born in Britain in 1899, Shute became famous as a novelist, producing such well-received works as On the Beach, A Town Called Alice and No Highway. Prior to emigrating to Australia and embarking upon a successful career as a fiction writer, Nevil Shute Norway, as he was originally named, was a well-known British aircraft designer. Slide Rule is the autobiography he wrote about his life in the aviation industry up until 1938.

During the 1930s Shute worked for Airspeed Ltd., designing a series of successful aircraft culminating in the well-known Oxford twin-engine trainer, hundreds of which were used to train Royal Air Force bomber pilots during World War II. His description of the establishment of Airspeed Ltd. says a lot about how difficult things were for a newly created aircraft company during the Depression.

Shute’s earlier career working for Vickers, however, will undoubtedly be of more interest to modern readers. While there, he worked with legendary engineer Barnes Wallis on the design and construction of the R-100 airship, which was the successful commercially produced contemporary of the government-built R-101. R-101 crashed on its maiden flight, resulting in the abrupt termination of the entire British lighter-than-air program. Meanwhile, the less-remembered Vickers-built R-100 flew across the Atlantic Ocean and back again, but it was retired and scrapped due to the loss of its government-built rival.

Shute not only worked on R-100’s design and construction, he also participated in its transatlantic voyage. What’s more, he was privy to details about the disastrous R-101. Shute has much to say in comparing and contrasting the rival airships, and he explains in detail what went wrong with R-101, and why.

What emerges is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls inherent in large-scale industrial projects, particularly when they are controlled by bureaucrats rather than by competent administrators and engineers—with conclusions that are still relevant today. Those in charge of today’s aerospace projects would do well to peruse Slide Rule.


Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.