Without a doubt Barnes Neville Wallis is one of Britain’s engineering geniuses and will be best remembered for his deceptively simple yet brilliant bouncing bombs that shattered the German dams during the famed Dambusters Raid of May 1943. What is less well known is the breadth and diversity of his fertile mind. As an engineer and scholar in many aspects of science and the arts, Wallis was able to turn his innovative mind very constructively to a wide range of problems.
At the end of the war, Wallis returned to Vickers-Armstrongs as the Head of Research and Development. Under his leadership, the company was at the cutting edge of aeronautical engineering. In order to conduct his research, Wallis and his team constructed the Stratosphere Chamber which was the largest in the world at that time at almost 20,000 square feet in size. It was constructed near the famous Brooklands racetrack at Weybridge.
As the Cold War became the new challenge, the Chamber was used to simulate impacts on aircraft travelling at 70,000 feet which was the target altitude for Wallis’ planned new supersonic plane. By building a large refrigeration plant, the Stratosphere Chamber was able to supply extremely cold liquid methane at each of the four corners of the facility. It was an immense enough facility that even the largest fuselages and cockpits could be accommodated, and was sophisticated enough to test impacts at temperatures as low as -60C and at an air density one-twentieth of that which is found at ground level. With its extreme cold capacity, the Stratosphere Chamber was also able to experiment with naval guns operating in frigid conditions, as well as fishing vessels operating in blizzards in the North Sea.
Since 1980, it had been mothballed, but during its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s, it was an epicentre of aeronautical and other types of research and development. Among the tests done in the Stratosphere Chamber was work on pressure cabins for the Viscount, Vanguard and VC10. Complete aeroplanes including the Scimitar and Sea Vixen were also tested there.
In 1955 Wallis agreed to act as a consultant to the Parkes Observatory (also known informally as “The Dish”) radio telescope project, located in New South Wales, Australia. At that time there was no one in Australia capable of building the Parkes telescope or even doing the engineering design. Wallis advised on the problems of deflection of the telescope’s structure, first by thinking of incompressible columns, of which Wallis held the patent, and then by recommending automatic compensation for changes to the dish’s parabolic shape, which was eventually used in the final design. In a significant departure from the design of previous telescopes, Wallis recommended that the telescope’s mounting system – the way in which it is turned and pointed to different parts of the sky – be ‘alt-azimuth’, rather than, for instance, the equatorial mount used on the earlier radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in the UK. Ever the engineer, Wallis also came up with the idea of the telescope’s guidance system, the ‘master equatorial’. Unhappy with the direction the project had taken, Wallis left the project halfway into the design study. Completed in 1961, the telescope’s “finest hour” was receiving part of the first TV broadcast from the Moon.
By the mid-1950s, air-dropped nuclear weapons were the deterrent weapon of choice for the superpowers, but developments in surface-to-air missiles were making high-flying bombers vulnerable. Low-level attacks became favoured, but this left the problem of releasing a nuclear bomb from low level while allowing the dropping aircraft to escape. As an alternative to the “toss bombing” technique which was developed and which still opened up the bomber to the target defences in the last stage of the attack, Wallis proposed a “momentum bomb”. The small, unpowered, winged bomb would be mounted “piggy back” on the bomber, which would fly past its target at supersonic speed. The bomb would then be released, whereupon it would fly a backwards half-loop arriving over the target, while the bomber continued safely away from the target at high speed. Although the concept was considered feasible by the RAE, it was never put into practice.
High Pressure Submarine
To avoid detection by surface ships, in the mid-1960s Wallis proposed a fast, deep-diving submarine. The high pressures would be met by a novel Wallis hull structure based on several interconnecting cylinders of small diameter, rather than the single large cylindrical pressure hull used on contemporary and modern submarines. Propulsion would be provided by a closed-system gas turbine, the engine breathing liquid oxygen from tanks on board, and recycling the condensed exhaust gases back into the empty tanks. Both the hull form and propulsion systems were investigated in detail, but were not thought to offer significant advantages, and were not taken up.
A Formula for his Demise
Up until his retirement in 1971 at the age of 83, Barnes Wallis strived to develop peaceful applications for his ideas. He was haunted somewhat by the terrible death toll of the Dambusters raid, both among the aircrew and those caught in the tsunami effect of the breached dams. To this end Wallis, wherever possible, made radio controlled models of his designs, so as not to risk the lives of test pilots. Wallis also donated his £10,000 prize from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors to Christ’s Hospital School in 1951 to allow them to set up the RAF Foundationers’ Trust, which allows the children of RAF personnel killed or injured in action to attend the school.
Wallis continued working long after his enforced retirement, characteristically deriving a formula for calculating the date of his demise; underestimating this by two years, he died in 1979.