Invention and the Navy (Article)

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Invention and the Navy was a paper read at a Meeting of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors by Hugh Clausen, O.B.E., I.S.O., B.Sc.(Eng.), formerly Senior Principal Scientific Officer at the Admiralty, at the Royal Society of Arts on Friday, 30 January, 1970 reprinted with acknowledgements. In the chair was Rear-Admiral Frank Elliott, O.B.E., who was Gunnery Officer of H.M.S. Benbow throughout the First World War. Mr. Clausen served as a Lieutenant R.N.V.R. in that ship from 1915 to 1919: he and Lieut.-Commander Elliott earned their O.B.E.s for improvements in gunnery fire control gear. The talk is reproduced in The Naval Review, 1970-4, pp. 330-337.

Introductory Remarks

THE matters I have to deal with, Invention and the Navy, cover such a vast field that they could not possibly be dealt with effectively in a single paper. I propose to survey very briefly a number of inventions intimately associated with the Navy, especially some of those which have come within my personal knowledge; to make some comment upon Naval attitudes to invention; and last but not least, to examine the nature of invention and its relationship to design.

The Navy has always shown a strangely mixed attitude towards new inventions. In olden days there was, of course, less scope, and H.M.S. Victory, for example, refitting after Trafalgar, could have found pretty nearly all the facilities needed - except perhaps the size of the dry dock - in any of H.M. Dockyards of a hundred years earlier, just as ship's companies of those earlier days could have sailed and fought ships of a century later in time, with very litt!e practice.

Slow, sure development

Visiting H.M.S. Victory in Portsmouth Yard I have always come away with a better impression of good design and fitness for purpose than I have derived from any of my countless visits to modern ships of war. Progress was slow, and the ships and their equipment were the result of many years of development to the stage when they were, within the state of the art of the time, finished and perfect, and there was little or nothing that could be usefully added or taken away.

An early naval innovator, Admiral Vernon (1684-1757), after whom the Navy's Torpedo and Electrical Experimental Establishment was named, was famous for initiating new sailing rigs and tactics, but is best known for his institution of the rum ration, or grog, now apparently being done away with. I suppose all new inventions become obsolete sooner or later! Even the good ones.

In Nelson's time there were, of course, excellent (for the time) instruments, telescopes, sextants and other navigational instruments available, but things were, as a whole, left to the individual inventor.


A good example is the well known story of the ship's chronometer. The Admiralty, seeking a means for finding a ship's position at sea, had for long offered an award of 20,000 pounds, a vast sum in those days, part of which, after long shifts and struggles to get out of it, was awarded to Harrison, not an instrument maker but a carpenter by trade, whose marvelous chronometers are still keeping good time in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. He designed and made them himself, and the Government, thinking perhaps that there was some magic about it, withheld the award until a successful copy had been made by someone else. This was done by Larcombe Kendall, a well known watchmaker of the time.

This, like the contemporary work of James Watt with his steam engine, was a personal effort as were the later developments of the chronometer, and many other things. The idea of combining such facilities as were available in a concerted effort, with adequate support, is a thing of very recent growth, since my own time in the engineering world, in fact. Every advance was formerly the result of individual effort rather than organised collaboration. This is still largely the case, as can be seen by more recent examples which I will deal with later. Even now, large research establishments often depend for their success on the luck of having one or two men of real genius, not by any means the head man, to inspire and guide the rat, and show how to express an inventor's ideas in practical ironmongery.

The use of steam - and later of internal combustion engines - for propelling ships can hardly be called an invention, though innumerable inventions were involved in the development of the marine engine to its wonderful state of perfection in the 1900s, More it was overtaken by the steam turbine. This latter, foreshadowed by Hero of Alexandria about zero A.D., was the result of many inventions by many different men, each making his contribution, and the balance of importance between the 'invention' and the means for carrying the idea into successful effect has never been simple. It is perhaps of increasing complexity now, with the increasing degree of specialization, and separation of the different functions and activities concerned. The Patent Office, I believe, will accept for a patent either a new principle, or a new method of carrying an established principle into effect, provided that the means for carrying it into effect are fully declared in both cases.

The locomotive torpedo

The torpedo is a naval example of the complexity of the development of an invention. Originally just an explosive charge placed - somehow - close to a ship, it has passed through many stages of invention and design before reaching the (relative) perfection of the 21 inch heater torpedo of 1914, both British and German and the startling success of the Japanese torpedo in the second world war. The propulsion system where, in the older cold torpedo the cylinders were water jacketed to prevent them from freezing up whilst in the heater torpedo the water jackets were to prevent them from burning out, the automatic steering with gyro control, the depth regulating gear, and methods of construction and manufacture have involved a wide range of inventions. In much of this the situation was confused by the demands of secrecy. Robert Whitehead, working in Milan and under Austrian patronage at Fiume led to two, both originally almost identical, British and German torpedoes, the latter being christened the 'Schwarzkopf' to distinguish it from the Whitehead. The efforts of Whitehead and Obry, a famous Austrian engineer, to keep the controlling gear secret whilst at the same time trying to sell the idea to navies which insisted on both internal full knowledge combined with external secrecy became a bit awkward at times.

Gyro compass

The gyro compass provided a vast field for patents and inventions, for rivalries and law suits between various claimants. The directional gyro had been used in torpedos to control a short run, but to give a true North continuously for navigation was another story, and demanded much more effort. The gunnery master gyro, to give a real precision azimuth control was even more severe. The ultimate prize, if it could be won, seemed dazzling, and the struggles and rivalries, in which a sort of mathematical mysticism was apparent, were reminiscent of those around the philosopher's stone of The Middle Ages.

The first one used in the British Navy was the German Anschutz, originally of German manufacture but later made by Elliott Bros. under licence. Though these were carried to a very high degree of perfection in later marks in Germany, we were not satisfied with them, and they were all replaced by American Sperry compasses, first of American manufacture and later made here under licence. I was shipmates with both types in the first world war, and for some time was responsible for their maintenance.

The Brown gyro compass was tried by the Navy but never widely adopted. Brown also produced a 'slow wanderer' compass, for real precision work, with an occasional check from a north seeker. Great hopes were placed on these for gunnery controls at the time, but I do not think that they got very far, though the principles had useful applications elsewhere. S. G. Brownwas a remarkable man whom I knew fairly well; quite a genius in fact, in invention and design. He had been a laboratory assistant to Professor Perry, who was then, with Lord Kelvin, our national gyro expert. He not only invented his M type of sensitive element and follow up system, he designed it in all its detail, and built it himself, with his own hands. There was some lovely design work in it, and in the stepper motors and transmitters for the remote receivers, which I have always admired. It had a wide use in the merchant navy. Though he had no formal academic qualifications he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Here is a very particular case of the balance between the inventor and the designer. It should be clearly understood by all budding inventors that even when they have got their final specification filed this is only the beginning. The detail design and manufacture, on which success will ultimately depend, may both need equal or higher mental and intellectual qualities than the 'invention'.

I can illustrate this by another inventor in the gyro compass field, and as those concerned are now dead I can give names. Sir James Henderson who, when I joined the Admiralty, was Adviser on gyroscopic equipment, was a brilliant physicist. His analytical and mathematical work was often really brilliant, but he had no sense of mechanical design at all. He also had the bad luck of being unable to recruit first class people to help him with the design work. There were perhaps reasons for this: he seemed to me to work on the principle of 'heads I win, tails you lose'. Any failure of his material was always attributed to poor design. This may have been true, but he ought to have known this before manufacture in numbers was put in hand. The inventor who expects other people to carry out his ideas for him in the way of detail design will always be in trouble. He need not, as Harrison and S. G. Brown did, make the whole trial gear himself personally but, if he is a real 'inventor', he must be able to advance the state of the art - if need be - so as to enable it to carry out his ideas.

Invention is not the end

If he has not the technical ability to do this there are courses open to him. He can get down to it, learn from others, and try himself, as I have known men do. The highest value he may derive from this is a due sense of humility. Another way is to try to find some other man with the necessary abilities who is equally keen on the idea, and collaborate with him on a partnership basis. The idea may be brilliant, but the quality of the product depends on the detail design, and on the ability to embody in this, to an optimum extent, the results of experiment and trial, and service use. The place where quality is injected into the product is on the drawing board, and the instrument used for injecting it is a pencil. Who is it who holds - or guides in detail - this pencil? There is a grave lack of a tradition of really good precision engineering design (on which everything else depends) in our higher educational, industrial, and managerial circles.

I was never actively concerned in the design of the gyro compass, but I was very dependent on it to provide the stable azimuth as a basis for the gunnery fire control system, with which I was very intimately concerned. The gun-fire control system was perhaps an even more complex battle ground of rival personalities, systems, inventions and patents than the gyro compass. The combination of the two widens the field still further.

Like any other aspect of naval activity, its weapons give wide scope for invention. Naval guns were, I believe, used at the Battle of Sluys, in Edward III's time. They must have been pretty crude, but development has gone on, at varying speed, but without much real change until Victorian engineering development made great strides possible. The leaders here were those great engineers Joseph Whitworth and William Armstrong, who subsequently combined. This led to the very great extension of the ranges at which guns could be effectively used, and to means for increasing this effectiveness. The fixed mounting guns of land artillery could be used effectively at very long ranges, but firing from a moving ship at a moving target was quite another story.

Fire control

It was in 1900 that Arthur H. Pollen, a very energetic and versatile man of many activities and interests, was a visitor as a guest of the Captain on one of HM ships in the Mediterranean. He was interested to see that 'battle practice' was being carried out at about a quarter of the effective range of the guns, at a stationary target. He was convinced that this range could be vastly increased by the use of an accurate control system, and he badgered the authorities unmercifully to do something about it. He formed a company - the Argo Company - to develop his ideas, some of which were given trials in HM ships at various times between 1902 and 1914.

He had recruited a very powerful design team, including Isherwood and Landstad, both of whom I knew later. They produced a complete fire control system part of which was fitted in one of the Battle Squadrons of the Grand Fleet. It was far superior in execution - though with some disadvantages in use - to the somewhat later Dreyer fire control system fitted in the other Grand Fleet ships. This was produced by the London firm of Elliott Bros., where Mr. (later Sir Keith) Elphinstone collaborated with Commander (later Admiral) Dreyer In the development.

The difficulties and squabbles between the protagonists of these two systems, is a sorry story which I cannot go into in detail, though it constitutes an important chapter in the history of Invention and the Navy. Lack of collaboration put back the development of precision naval gunnery for many years. It would have been much better to have given full scope for the development of both, in fair competition, if that were possible.

I suppose one of the reasons for slow progress, and many of the now apparently unnecessary difficulties, was that there was, at the time, no real competent authority - in the professional sense - to deal with technical development. 'This led to such roundabout ways - or perhaps short cuts - as Mr. Pollen writing desperate letters to Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, pleading for better facilities for trials of his fire control system. The lack of channels for the development of new ideas, and the resulting frustrations and difficulties of personal effort appears again and again. An earlier example was the 'battle of the guns' fought between Armstrong and Whitworth, largely carried on in letters published in The Times in the 1860s and 70s.

A similar lack of what one might call professional competence in positions of authority appears in the story of the ill-fated H.M.S. Captain, a steam driven turret ship of unusual design with an extremely low freeboard, to which the Admiralty authorities also insisted on having a complete rig of heavy masts and sails. She was lost in a storm, with few, if any survivors: a fate which a little hindsight showed to have been inevitable. [Editor's note: Clausen may have been a clever man, but a student of history he apparently wasn't.]


One instance of the kind of difficulties which crop up in the development of naval material is the case of what became known as the Henderson firing gear. A very able Austrian engineer, Obry, whom we have met before, had developed an artificial horizon, to give the instant of firing when the horizon was obscured. This was seen, in Austria, by an Admiralty representative (Commander Dreyer, I believe) and recommended for adoption. Obry, however, insisted that as the mechanism was secret it could only be supplied in a sealed case, to be sent back to the makers for any repairs or adjustments. We could not, of course, accept any fighting material which we could not keep in repair ourselves, and turned the idea down, at the same time trying to produce a home made substitute. This was designed by Sir James Henderson and made by Elliott Bros., just in time, but only just, for 1915. Designed and made in a hurry, it gave difficulties in use. The idea was good, but the design was not up to the needs. The only available actual gyro wheel was the Anschutz type which was not really suitable.

An instance of the other thing, where the engineering design of the hardware was outstandingly good, though it suffered from some limitations in the basic idea, was the director firing gear as fitted in the Grand Fleet just before and during the 1914 war. The naval man behind this was Admiral Sir Percy Scott who, perhaps more than anyone else, was the prime stimulant to naval gunnery efficiency. The underlying principle was not new, having been used in Nelson's time, when the guns of a battery were all set to the same elevation and fired together by signal from the one which had its sights set for the range. As fitted in modern ships there was, of course, much more in it than that, though the principle was the same. This gear, designed by a genius of a man at Vickers, Arthur Perham, whom I met later at the Admiralty, was the finest example of good design work over a wide range that I have ever seen, bar none. I do not suppose that any of it survives, more's the pity. Even by modern standards it was quite outstanding, and to create it from nothing, so to speak, which was the case as there was nothing to develop it from, was remarkable. I learned a lot from it, as I did from other designers of the time.


When after the First World War, the Admiralty were forming a new section to deal specifically with the design of fire control gear - for the first time - Isherwood, Pollen's chief design man, who was on the Committee, brought along Landstad, his own man, so I did not get on to that work until later. It was just as well for all concerned. I hadn't enough experience then, but, working next door, on allied fire control communication material, I learned enough to take over from them after the completion of the first generation of post war fire control ships, when the demand which later formed the nucleus of an important branch of the Electrical Engineering Department (afterwards formed into a naval Branch) and later still merged into the Engineering Branch, is of some interest. It has been written up by two of its senior members, but I do not suppose it will ever be published. It is not my place to deal with it here. I had too close a personal connection with it.

I have mentioned a few firms to whom the Admiralty went in search of talent to design and make its instruments, the Argo Company of Pollen, which had the benefit of Isherwood's design talent and the fine craftsmanship of Thomas Cooke, of York, Messrs. Vickers, who approached our fine precision mechanical work from the heavy engineering end, and Elliott Bros., who got there from the fine scientific instrument making end. There were several others, perhaps the most notable being Messrs. Barr and Stroud, world famous for rangefinders and associated gear. I knew both Dr. Barr and Dr. Stroud well. They were both teaching engineering, and had combined to answer an advertisement in The Times in 1888 announcing a competition for a rangefinder for army use. The history of the firm's development from these small beginnings to their 30 foot optical rangefinders makes a fine story, too long to go into here.

Another famous firm is Evershed and Vignoles, originally only concerned with electrical instruments. Evershed produced a balanced circuit type of transmission of information which was very successfully used through the Navy until it was superseded by elements of the magslip or synchro type after the last War. Their first instrument, a helm indicator, for showing the rudder position on the ship's navigating bridge, was fitted in 1895 or thereabouts. The order from my present Chairman, then sitting in the director tower, and passed by me, in the transmitting station, to the gun turrets: 'Follow Evershed' revives many naval memories. Alfred Graham, who was for something simpler and cheaper specialised in loud speaking naval telephone that would do much the same thing. equipment was another firm which did. The history of that small section, which much good work for the Navy both before was formed in the Admiralty in 1920, and and after the 1914 war.

Secrecy overdone

When demand for these naval gunnery instruments was growing, say from 1900 onwards, although there was a very fine tradition of mathematical and scientific instrument work, the kind of material needed for naval or military use had no real broadly based tradition behind it of how such things should be designed and made. The process was slow, and encumbered by demands of official secrecy. I often think that this was overdone. More harm can easily be done by withholding information from people who could have made a useful contribution than would have been done by disclosure to a possible national rival. I could quote many instances. In any case the basic knowledge, the scientific theory, cannot be kept secret. Science is completely international. On the other hand, the technology, the practical know-how, the ability to design and make the material which will carry out the known principles really well is not international at all. It depends on personal talents. It is not by any means a matter of how much money is invested in it. Over and over again I have came across cases - I still come across them - where we know everything about the theory, and have plenty of money to put into it, but have never developed the know-how, the practical engineering design side of the thing at an adequate level in the organisations concerned. This is all part of our national neglect of the art of engineering at the higher levels of educational, industrial and managerial activities. The classic case is, I suppose, the watchmaking industry. Incidentally one of the finest possible export activities. The raw materials of a fine watch movement, which sells for pounds, probably do not cost as many pence - including the jewels. In the 1860's we dominated world markets in watches in much the same way as the Swiss do now, but by about 1912 the industry had practically disappeared. The reason is simple. There is relatively little in making watches-- the real problem is in the design and manufacture of the high precision automatic machine tools which can turn out component parts with sufficient accuracy for random assembly to give good timekeeping. These industrial arts, which form the basis of industrial prosperity, have always been neglected at our higher levels, and, as I have remarked before, the present tendencies in the organisations concerned seem to be going in the wrong direction for recovery.


A good instance of this is the exaggerated emphasis now placed on 'management', as if this were something that could be considered separately from the activity that is being managed. Good management and organisation are naturally very necessary, but the activity that is being managed is 04 even greater importance. It demands equal - if not higher - human qualities. The situation as regards this is being made mwe by the efforts of our professional institutions and higher educational establishments in their efforts to create 3 clear distinction between professional engineers and technicians. By doing so they are depriving the former of the ability to carry out their duties properly - to lead as well as to manage the technician - so that both, and the country as a whole, can enjoy the benefits of a higher state of development of the art of engineering.

The inventor

A point I want to emphasise is the real meaning of the word 'inventor', and the relations between the man who thinks of an idea and the man - or men - who carry it through to a practical stage of development. My experience has invariably been that the latter is a far more severe, intractable, and demanding profMern (person? — TONY LOVELL, Editor.) than the former, and is not merely a matter of providing the necessary financial support. The creative idea may be a real 'brain wave', but it can be done by one man in his spare time, or sitting in a deck chair in the garden on Sunday afternoon. The progress to reality, the development from bare ideas to useful ironmongery, may involve hundreds, if not thousands, of. people, working to a concerted end, supervised and co-ordinated by - whom? Does the inventor guMe and control the lay-out drawings, the detailing and process instructions required to raise the 'state of the art' to the stage at which it can cope with his Ideas and demands? If not - who does! The case of the inventor who has an idea but is not capable of expressing it in really effective form is hard. But unless he can express it in effective form, either by making it himself, or by doing the design work himself in effective form, so that the thing could be made, with confidence, In accordance with his drawings and instructions, it IS extremely difficult for him to convince knowledgeable people that the idea is a good one. If he has to rely on someone else to 'lick his ideas into practical working form' he must not expect that this essential work can be relegated to a lower level. He must be able to supervise this work himself, and should not blame his draughtsman for not being able to make up for What are really his own deficiencies.

In the course of a long working lifetime m - and very closely associated with - the engineering industry and the Navy, I have met, admired, cursed, collaborated with, and suffered from, many kinds of Inventors. In every case that 1 can think of the design of the actual hardware has been a more difficult and demanding problem than the invention, as such, or the idea behind it, even in the case of the relatively small scale material that I have been associated with. In the case of major operations such as steel manufacture, or gas turbines, this is much more so. Inventors who complain of the difficulty of putting their ideas over should remember this. They should also remember that words are an utterly inadequate medium for the transfer of thought in developing from ideas to ironmongery. Models may be of value in helping to explain how an idea works, and helping others to understand it, but that is all. The only thing that really counts is the complete set of detail working drawings and process instructions, to which the thing can be made with confidence in the result. The design is the critical matter, and the draughtsman or designer who does this work must not be considered as the equivalent of the typist who puts into tidy form the manuscript scrawl of the author. He is more like Shakespeare's poet : 'and as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown the poet's pen turns them to shapes. and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name'.


Apart from the great earlier changes involved in the turn over from sail to steam propulsion - which is far too wide a subject for me to touch on - the period from 1904 to 1914 was probably the time of the most rapid development of naval material either before or since. It included that well known election party cry: 'We want eight, and we won't wait'. This was eight capital, superdreadnought ships, to be laid down in the one year's building programme! This astonishing thing was done, and those ships were some of those which fought at Jutland in 1916. Since the last war, however, I suppose that progress may have been even more rapid - though the quantity of material made has been very much less - but I could not deal with these matters. even if I knew what was going on. Progress is probably more rapid than it was during my active time. In earlier days, though the difficulties of carrying an invention into effect were probably greater than now, the process was simpler. The inventor usually played the major part in carrying out the whole project, as was the case with James Watt with the condensing steam engine. He not only did the design work and made his models himself ; he controlled the manufacture under his own personal supervision. He had to. There was no one else who could have done it. Today few inventors can carry a major project through themselves. They are usually dependent on a very well developed 'state of the art', though there are not lacking men for whom the current state of the art is not adequate to fulfil their ideas. They have to raise the whole standard of technique somehow, to enable their ideas to materialise. These men are the real leaders. This usually - though not always - means getting financial and moral support from the many activities concerned. Instances are the Parsons Steam Turbine and the Whittle Jet Engine. I do not think anyone could have been said to have 'invented' either the torpedo or the gyro compass, very important instances of naval material. The number of separate inventions concerned with these two Instances 1s just colossal. A few names, however, the Austrian Obry and Robert Whitehead for the torpedo in the 1870's, and Sperry and Anschutz for the gyro compass in more recent times, do stand out as having made the most important contributions to the state of the art, which is still developing. Another great name, Dr. Draper, of MIT inspired and led the work on constrained gyros which led to the present incredible accuracy of submarine and space 'inertial navigation'. This is still developing. It was referred to in The Times today.

Nuts and bolts!

The mixed attitude of the Navy towards its fighting material can best be indicated, I think, by the deprecatory remark I have often heard about some officer who is really interested in improvement in it: 'Oh, yes, so and so is a very good nuts and bolts man'. Admittedly this interest in material matters may not be regarded as the naval officer's most important characteristic. It often stands in the way of his naval career. In many cases such a man is sacrificing himself to make up for the deficiencies of the whole organisation, as someone, somewhere, at a pretty high level in the hierarchy, with a very high level of user knowledge and professional technical competence must attend to these matters if useful progress is to be made. My long series of post war articles on these matters In the Naval Review laid great stress on the damage done by this imbalance between the user and the designer of naval fighting material. Would Admiral Vernon's contemporaries have referred to him as a good nuts and bolts (or masts and sails) man?

This neglect of real competent attention to the quality of its material Which I have described as naval weakness may be possibly only one aspect of a characteristic social weakness in the whole country: a great respect for the 'scientist' or the 'inventor' combined with a most remarkable level of respect for the 'nuts and bolts man' who turns the invention into a practical working form. The present shortage of men who can do this kind of work well is not at all surprising. It is a direct result of the lack of appreciation by the country as a whole of this kind of activity. This leads to doubts as to our economic prospects. The Feilden Report of 1963 deserves careful study. The lessons that I see for h e future are, that over-emphasis on 'research' has diverted attention from the means for carrying the research to the stage of useful reliable hardware. The results of this have been serious. To recover we need to reverse some current trends, such as the attempt by universities and professional institutions to make a clear cut distinction between professional engineers and technicians. The greater must include the less, and unless a man is or has been a very good technician he 1s very unlikely to be a good engineer. Science can do nothing unless supported by engineering at an adequate level. The importance of 'management' as a thing in its own right, apart from professional competence in the activity being managed, has been exaggerated; and important decisions are taken by men at an administrative level who are not capable of exercising a right judgement as to the effect of their devotions.

The simple fact is that adequate attention must be paid to all aspects of the product, including selling it, at all levels of the organisation concerned. If this 1s done the profit, whether operational or financial, 1s almost automatic, as a kind of by-product. On this warning note I will pipe down, leaving time for discussion. If it seems that I have only been dealing with - in Wordsworth's words : 'Old, unhappy, far off things and battles long ago' it must be remembered that human nature only changes slowly - if at all - and that, measured in these terms the twenty-five year? back to the last war, and the fifty-five years back to the other one, are really quite brief periods.