Barnes Wallis

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, FRS, commonly known as Barnes Wallis, (September 26 1887October 30 1979) was a British scientist, engineer and inventor. He is best known for inventing the bouncing bomb used by the RAF in Operation Chastise (the Dambusters Raid) to attack the Möhne and Eder dams in the Ruhr area in May 1943, during World War II.

Barnes Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire and educated at Christ's Hospital School, leaving school at sixteen to start work in a shipyard. He originally trained as a marine engineer but turned his hand to airship design and then aircraft design. He worked for Vickers and its successor companies (including British Aircraft Corporation) from 1913 until his retirement in 1971.

His many achievements include the first use of geodetic design in engineering, in the gasbag wiring of the R100, in 1930 the largest airship yet designed. He also pioneered the use of light alloy and production engineering in the structure design of R100. Despite a better-than-expected performance and a successful return flight to Canada in 1930, the R100 was broken up following the tragedy that befell its "sister" ship, the R101 (which was designed and built by a separate Government-led team); the later crash of the Hindenburg led to the abandonment of airships as a mode of mass transport. (Wallis was not involved with either of these airships.)

Wallis's pre-war aircraft designs included the Vickers Wellesley and the Vickers Wellington, both also employing a geodetic design in the fuselage and wing structure. The latter was one of the most robust airframes ever developed, and pictures of its skeleton largely shot away, but still sound enough to bring its crew home safely, still astonish today. The geodetic construction offered a light and strong airframe (compared to conventional designs) with clear space within for fuel tanks, payload etc.

Following his achievements with the bouncing bomb, immortalised in the 1954 film The Dam Busters, Wallis designed the Tallboy (5 tonnes) and Grand Slam (10 tonnes) deep penetration ("earthquake") bombs used to attack V1 rocket launch sites, submarine pens, and other reinforced structures, as well as the Tirpitz battleship. These two bombs were the fore-runners of modern bunker-busting bombs, and could enter the earth at supersonic velocity. The Tallboy should not be confused with the 5 tonne "blockbuster" bomb, which was a conventional blast bomb.

Wallis did much pioneering engineering work to make the swing-wing concept functional (though he did not invent the concept). However, despite very promising wind tunnel and model work, his designs were not taken up. His early Wild Goose (late 1940s) hoped to use laminar flow, but when this was shown to be unworkable, he developed swing-wing further for the Swallow (mid 1950s) which could have been developed for either military or civil applications. The UK government instead adopted the BAC TSR-2 (which Wallis did not work on, though one of his sons did) and Concorde. The BAC TSR-2 project was ignominiously scrapped in the mid 1960s in favour of the American F-111 (which had swing wings), though this order was also subsequently cancelled.

Wallis also proposed using large cargo submarines to transport oil undersea, hence avoiding surface weather conditions. This idea was put into practice on a tactical level by the Germans, with their milch cows.

During the 1960s and into his retirement, he developed ideas for an "all-speed" aircraft, capable of efficient flight at all speed ranges from subsonic to hypersonic.

The story described in The Dam Busters reflected a trend throughout his lifetime, that his ideas were rejected by those in authority (and who controlled funding sources).

Following the appalling toll in aircrew from his Dambusters project, he made a conscious effort never again to endanger the lives of his test pilots. He also became a pioneer in remote control of aircraft.

Wallis became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1945 and was knighted in 1968.

Wallis appears as a character in Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships - the authorised sequel to The Time Machine. He is portrayed as a British engineer in an alternative history, where the First World War does not end in 1918, and Wallis concentrates his energies on developing a machine for time travel. As a consequence, it is the Germans who develop the bouncing bomb.


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