The outbreak of World War I severely curtailed several international activities of the Royal Society, including the production of the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature and involvement in the International Association of Academies. Some of the administrative slack was taken up by the 1914–18 War Committee and its several subgroups focusing on scientific and technical issues in the prosecution of military efforts.
Ordering and cataloguing of the archival resources left by this group of committees and held in the Society's Library began in 2006 with file-level descriptions of the Engineering Sub-committee papers. It has continued into 2007–08 with more detailed work on these and on the equivalent Food, Physiology and Chemistry Sub-committees.1 Although such administrative material may appear fairly routine, the correspondence surrounding specialist groups of the War Committee is actually very engaging. It shows the Royal Society's scientists grappling with practical problems of war, but also interacting with the civilian population on scientific matters.
The War Committee's terms of reference were noted in Council's report to the Fellowship of 1915. It was instructed ‘to organize assistance to the Government in conducting or suggesting scientific investigations in relation to the war, the Committee to have power to add to their number; and to appoint Sub-Committees not necessarily restricted to Fellows of the Society’.2 In fact, the first War Committee was quickly replaced by Council as a coordinating body, with original subcommittees reconstituted as sectional committees. The process included one subcommittee on war industries becoming incorporated into the Sectional Committee on Chemistry.
These subject-based war committees were therefore organized around Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Engineering. There were later additions, most importantly a Food Committee from 1916. However, the fourth of these is remarkable in that it seems to have been the first time that the Society had a dedicated general engineering committee since an original seventeenth-century group. Chairmanship was given to the mechanical engineer Dugald Clerk FRS (1854–1932), who proved an inspired choice. Clerk would go on to become director of engineering research for the Admiralty from 1916 and was knighted in 1917 for his contributions to the war effort.3
The Engineering Sub-committee, like the others, initially functioned by responding to questions posed by its counterpart sections of Government within the Admiralty, Board of Trade and Ministry of Munitions. In 1914, for example, the Admiralty supplied the following problems for engineering investigation.
A device for catching submarines.
Torpedo propulsion by chemical means.
The effect of explosion of a quantity of high explosive in proximity to aircraft; i.e. sound waves, pressure waves, velocity gusts.
To ascertain the variation in pressure at different distances from the centre of an explosion of each of several named explosives.
Is anything known as to the amount of acceleration the human frame can stand, without injury?
The movement of a submerged floating body in the neighbourhood of estuaries.
Later expansion of the committee led new members to add several items.
As to mine-sweeping.
As to aeroplane bombs and darts [flechettes].
As to appliances for listening in mines.
As to range-finders for aircraft.
The committee would examine the subjects by a nominated member's reading a summary note on each topic, for the purposes of discussion.4 However, the committee was also empowered to conduct experiments, aided in some cases by financial donations made by its members.5
There was some debate in all committees as to whether the public should be alerted to the activities of the Society's war groups. The initial ruling in 1915 was it should not: ‘while there is no objection to the publication of the fact that Royal Society is assisting the Government in regard to scientific questions arising out of the war, it is undesirable that either the existence or the composition of the various War Sub-Committees should be published’.6 This was relaxed somewhat over time. One committee function was to review inventions and to act as a filter for impracticable designs submitted to Government, and this resulted in some direct communication with the public. In at least one instance of work referred to the Physiological Sub-committee, a letter was drafted for the use of the Commissioner of Police Sir Edward Henry (1850–1931), giving the Society's opinion on the effectiveness of respirators for civilian use in the event of aerial gas attack. It was left to Henry to determine whether the advice (against the sale and use of gas masks) should be used directly as public information under the Society's name.7
Apart from administrative files dealing with committee membership and the agenda and minutes, the Engineering Sub-committee is represented in the Society's archives by general correspondence (MS/525/5) and papers on specific subjects in answer to queries such as those noted above. These activity files (MS/525/6) were not entirely limited to perceived services needs; a complementary set of files (MS/525/7) was opened from 1914 on assessments of inventions submitted, but these ceased in 1916, possibly as a result of the departure of the energetic Clerk. An additional engineering subgroup was formed to consider the performance of aircraft struts (MS/525/8) from 1916.
From the beginning of the Engineering Sub-committee, interest in naval engineering matters was strong, and the difficulties of gaining an insight into the requirements of the British Army were noted by the committee member Admiral Henry Jackson FRS.8 A sensible report on conditions at the Front was submitted by the editor of the Morning Post, Howell Arthur Gwynne (1865–1950),9 but most of the activity of the subcommittee was directed towards naval and aerial warfare (particularly anti-aircraft systems, and measures for attacking Zeppelins), rather than British Expeditionary Force operations. There are therefore few first-hand accounts from serving army officers, but a letter file relating to Lt Frederick Corry contains some useful descriptive material. Corry's interest in locating German guns by sound was quickly referred to the Society's Physics Committee, when it was discovered that the better-known artilleryman ‘young Bragg’ was about to depart for France with just this research responsibility.10
The most detailed piece of weapons research conducted under the committee's auspices and outlined within the activity files was on the movement of submerged bodies in estuaries. The practical development being considered was the creeping mine, an anti-ship device that would drift into harbours and estuaries, making use of tidal action. Joseph Ernest Petavel FRS took a keen interest in this idea, as did the committee's chairman, Dugald Clerk. Several variants were tried, including the attachment of a trailing anchor to a bobbing mine, but this had the potential to snag easily. The notion of using gas to vary the buoyancy of a free-floating device eventually took hold, giving the weapon a sub-sea oscillating action.
The practical development of the mine would eventually fall to Clerk and to Sir Charles Parsons FRS (1854–1931) (figure 1). The C. A. Parsons Company began tank testing (using a water-filled boiler turned upside-down and fitted with a cut-out observation window) at its Heaton Works in early 1915. Timing devices, originally developed for civilian gas buoys, were provided by the Engineer's Office at Trinity House. In the military version these clocks would control the depth of the mine, timed to vary with the tides by the release of compressed gas. Two prototypes of the mine were sent to HMS Vernon, the navy's anti-submarine and torpedo establishment in Portsmouth, and Parsons was sufficiently confident of the design to have the Admiralty draft a secret patent, taking in Clerk's contributions.11 The committee's files contain many large-scale engineering drawings of the device.
Practical (i.e. battlefield) applications of such research work are not part of the archive, and it is therefore not possible to assess the committee's value, if any, in those terms. It is likely that the main benefit to the 1914–18 war effort was far more prosaic, in making the best use of the administrative time available to government departments, particularly the War Office. There are few examples of out-and-out crank correspondence here, but a specimen letter by W. H. Errington, referred to Clerk in 1915, illustrates some of the potential pitfalls for officialdom in dealing with the public in wartime. Errington (who is otherwise unidentified in these papers) had presented an idea for a heat-ray to the War Office, in the spirit of H. G. Wells's invading Martians. The invention was to use an arc lamp and rock-crystal lens to focus heat over a distance of 10 000 yards (figure 2).
Clerk might easily have dismissed the proposal out of hand as he had done with other clearly unworkable suggestions. However, the situation was complicated by the fact that Errington's introduction had come via the Evening News and a military officer had mistakenly intimated to the inventor that there might be something to his idea. Sensitivity to the possible press reaction to the notion that good ideas were being squandered in time of war meant that Clerk took the trouble to draft a long and scientifically reasoned letter explaining why the heat-ray could not work. This was unanswerable (although Errington gamely tried) and was something to which Clerk's position at the Royal Society and scientific expertise was far better suited than that of general staff officers or civil servants.12
- © 2008 The Royal Society
Much of this work has been undertaken by Rebecca Pohancenik under the Wellcome Trust's Research Resources in Medical History scheme.
CMB/36 Minute book of the Royal Society War Committee, 1914–18.
For example, by Charles Parsons and George Thomas Beilby, who presented £300 each in 1915.
Op. cit. (note 4), p. 7.
Op. cit. (note 4), pp. 20–22.
MS/525/5/2/7, H. B. Jackson to D. Clerk, 22 February 1915.
MS/525/5/2/3, H. A. Gwynne to W. Crookes, 4 January 1915. The report is in contrast with Gwynne's later reactions to the war, when he became notorious for advocating a military coup against Lloyd George's government in 1918. Keith Wilson,
MS/525/7/3, Corry–Oldham correspondence file, June–July 1915. Lawrence Bragg's war work is outlined in
An overview of Parsons's wartime committee work appears in
MS/525/7/1/24–27, W. H. Errington and others, July 1915.