Thursday, 20 May 2004

Miles Ahead of their Time

Miles M52This is an article about things that nearly were. It's about a small firm that at one time was responsible for the development the first practical ballpoint pen, the first practical photocopier, and what would have been the first supersonic manned aircraft, but got the credit for none of them.
From an advertisement for Miles Aircraft in 1943:
1933 Miles Hawk was FIRST modern aircraft to sell for under £400.
1934 FIRST manufacturer to fit split flaps as standard.
1935 FIRST, second and third in King's Cup.
1936 FIRST to introduce monoplane training in the R.A.F.
1937 Miles Kestrel trainer FASTEST in the world - 296 m.p.h.
1938 Miles Master wins LARGEST contract ever placed for a trainer.
1940 Miles M.20 was FIRST and only modern fighter to be built in 9 weeks.
1941 Miles M.28 was FIRST aeroplane to carry four people at 160 m.p.h. and over 20 m.p.g.
1942 Miles Libellula - MOST successful unorthodox aeroplane.
It's the story of an airfield near what is now the Woodley Technology Triangle, in the heart of SE England. An airfield so long, and with a gravel pit at the end, that it was used as an emergency landing field for badly-shot-up aircraft of all types, and was home to some of the Blackest of Black projects, much like Lockheed's Skunk Works near Burbank is today.
Blossom and F.G.It's the story of some remarkable people, imcluding a one-eyed former actress and divorcee who drove a baby Fiat (and anything else) at terrifying speeds (she'd lost the eye in a car accident), and was an insanely brilliant aircraft designer and draughtswoman. Blossom Miles.

Miles Aircraft was a lot like Bert Rutan's mob today. An Art Deco version.

As is widely known (at least amongst people who are cognosecnti of ballpoint pens):
[The] principle of the ballpoint pen actually dates back to an 1888 patent owned by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather. However, this patent was commercially unexploited. Laszlo Biro first patented his pen in 1938, and applied for a fresh patent in Argentina on June 10, 1943. (Laszlo Biro and his brother Georg Biro emigrated to Argentina in 1940.) The British Government bought the licensing rights to this patent for the war effort. The British Royal Air Force needed a new type of pen, one that would not leak at higher altitudes in fighter planes as the fountain pen did. Their successful performance for the Air Force brought the Biro pens into the limelight.
It took a lot of development effort to make Biro's ideas work in practice. The first successful models used ball-bearings from crashed Spitfires (literally - remember Woodley Airfield was a graveyard for many aircraft that staggered home, badly damaged.). These were the only ball bearings machined to a sufficiently high degree of precision. Much of this work was performed at Miles Aircraft, with some at the nearby RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) at Farnborough. Miles machinists were quick to make these pens up as fast as they could, they were ideal for writing at high altitudes in unpressurised, unheated crew compartments. Theirs were the first production-quality, reliable ballpoint pens in the world. But...
Laszlo Biro had neglected to get a U.S. patent for his pen and so even with the ending of World War II, another battle was just beginning..
A battle fought too late for Miles Aircraft to gain much financial reward.
May 1945: Eversharp Co. teams up with Eberhard-Faber to acquire the exclusive rights to Biro Pens of Argentina. The pen re-branded the 'Eversharp CA' which stood for Capillary Action. Released to the press months in advance of public sales.
June, 1945: Less than a month after Eversharp/Eberhard close the deal with Eterpen, Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds visits Buenos Aires. While in a store, he sees the Biro pen and recognizes the pen's sales potential. He buys a few pens as samples. Reynolds returns to America and starts the Reynolds International Pen Company, ignoring Eversharp's patent rights.
October 29, 1945: Reynolds copies the product in four months and sells his product Reynold's Rocket at Gimbel's department store in New York City. Reynolds' imitation beats Eversharp to market. Reynolds' pen is immediately successful: Priced at $12.50, $100,000 worth sold the first day on the market.
December, 1945: Britain was not far behind with the first ballpoint pens available to the public sold at Christmas by the Miles-Martin Pen Company.
The rest, as they say, is history.
BIC ® dominates the market. Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman, capture the smaller upscale markets of fountain pens and expensive ballpoints.
Today: The highly popular modern version of Laszlo Biro's pen, the BIC Crystal, has a daily world wide sales figure of 14,000,000 pieces. Biro is still the generic name used for the ballpoint pen in most of the world. The Biro pens used by the British Air Force in W.W.II worked. Parker black ballpoint pens will produce more than 28,000 linear feet of writing -- more than five miles, before running out of ink.
About the Miles Copycat photocopiers, little is known. They were originally invented by the Miles technicians to copy the huge amount of technical drawings needed when manufacturing aircraft, a great improvement over the old 'blueprints'. They used the same electrostatic principles later patented by Xerox.From 'Miles- the Post-War Years'
In November 1947, Miles Aircraft was forced to cease trading. There were many reasons for the financial problems, not all of them of the company's making and questions remain about the behaviour of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the company's bank and certain of its financial advisors. In fact, when the company was restructured, many non-aircraft activities prospered in other hands, notably the Biro pen, the Copycat photocopier and its range of electric actuators.
Some parts for them are known to exist, but that's all.

Model of an M.52

Now for the saddest story of the three. The Story of the Miles M.52. It's still a matter of controversy as to exactly why this project was cancelled. The story given out at the time was that 'Manned Supersonic Flight is too Dangerous'. But there were queues of test pilots waiting to fly in an M.52, regardless of the risks. Quite a few were German POWs who had flown not just Me262 jets, but some of the more advanced (and often hideously flawed) prototypes put out by various German design bureaux.
From Miles- A Brief History :
Outstanding was the Supersonic Project literally built round a Whittle turbine. DesIgned during the closing stages of World War lI, it had been ordered by the Government with the object of attaining the hitherto unbelievable speed of 1,000 mph. After the War ended, chicken-hearted Authority lost its nerve and cancelled the razer-winged projectile before completion so that the Americans, whom the same chicken Authority enabled to study the design, got there first.

Subsequent tests with the air-launched rocket-propelled models showed that the straight-winged Miles design could have achieved its goal. Its success full-scale might have altered the whole pattern of Britain's post war aircraft progress.
From Miles - The Post-War Years
With the Miles M52, the dream of supersonic flight and the glory of being the first to achieve it, was within the grasp of the small team at Woodley, when it was snatched away. And why? Even today, over fifty years later, the controversy is still unresolved and can cause heated discussions among aviation historians. Was it a cost-cutting government - that did indeed go on to decimate the British aviation industry?
Were they under pressure from other sources?
Did well-meaning but influential individuals completely fail to understand why a queue of test pilots wanted to fly it?
Or did so-called experts so completely misunderstand the aerodynamics of supersonic flight?
From the Museum of Berkshire Aviation :
In 1942 the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aviation approached Miles Aircraft with a top-secret contract for a turbojet research plane designed to reach supersonic speeds. The Miles M.52 was designed for a speed of 1000mph at 36,000 feet to be reached in 1.5 minutes.

New ground was being broken in all areas of technology and design. The wings were very thin and designed to lie within the Vee-shaped shock wave created by the aircraft nose at supersonic speeds.
A principle later used in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter...
The fuselage had a separate cone shaped nose section housing the crew of one. In the event of an emergency, this pressurised pod was to have been separated from the remainder of the fuselage by using explosive bolts. The pilot was to have made his final exit by parachute.
A similar method is used for escape from the F-111.
Engine development went to the Whittle company utilising the W2/700 with after burning - later known as the Rolls Royce Derwent. Further power was to have been obtained by fitting a specially ducted fan to increase the airflow through the jet system.
This would have been the first aircraft with an afterburning Fanjet, the same type of angine used on all fighter aircraft currently in production...
However, at the end of the war, the Director of Scientific Research, Sir Ben Lockspeiser, cancelled the project " view of the unknown hazards near the speed of sound ....... considered unwise to proceed with the full scale experiments." In reality, despite 90% of the design work completed and with 50% of the construction finished, the project fell to a Treasury savings measure.

All design data was sent to BELL in the USA and in 1947 the sound barrier was broken in the BELL M.52 look alike, the XS-1. Also, the Rolls Royce Derwent engine appeared in the USA as the General Electric Type 1!
On the other hand, the USA gave the UK a multi-billion-dollar loan to help UK pay its war debts to America. There's a bit more to the story than that, as well. With Roosevelt's death, all the 'gentleman's agreements' that Roosevelt and Churchill may have had were null and void. Rossevelt had kept the Haberdasher from Missouri out of the loop. Truman had to go on only what he knew, not what people with their own agendas might be telling him. The co-operation that had resulted in the UK 'Directorate of Tube Alloys' being transformed into the US 'Manhatten Engineering District' evaporated, and the UK Scientists working in Oak Ridge were sent packing - but had to leave their notes behind. Similarly, the Bell Corp had send a delegation to Miles, and were given all the results from the supersonic wind tunnel tests, and in particular, data about the all-moving tail on the M.52. Some months later, the quid-pro-quo Miles delegation to Bell was informed that their visit had been cancelled 'For Security Reasons'. It was later revealed that US authorities didn't want anyone to know about the big secret they'd 'discovered'. Which secret? You guessed it... the US secret of the all-moving tail was only revealed in the 1950's.
Following the cancellation of the M.52, the Government instituted a new programme involving "no danger to test pilots and economy in purpose." This was another way of saying that it was planned to use expendable, pilotless, rocket-propelled missiles.
In October 1948 a second rocket was launched. This was successful and a speed of Mach 1.5 was obtained. But, instead of diving into the sea as planned, the model ignored radio commands and was last observed (on radar) heading out into the Atlantic.
This isn't quite true : in fact, the drone had been commanded to self-destruct by putting itself into 'uncontrolled flight' by pulling up into a radical loop, causing it to break-up. But the engineers and stress analysts at Miles had designed it to face the unknown challenges of supersonic flight : the wings had been built with cells, so each small area of them had a different flutter-frequency. The drone promptly did a 15+ g loop and carried on...
The final touch of irony came when even these rocket trials were suspended, the reason being, "the high cost for little return". The total dividend from this investment was the information that a small scale model of the Miles M.52 had successfully broken the sound barrier. But, the United Kingdom had already lost the chance of being the first nation to achieve piloted supersonic flight.
How do I know some of these (unpublished) details? My father originally wanted to build bridges. He enrolled in Liverpool University in the early 1940s. Because the normal course had been compressed (it was wartime, remember), in order to do the subjects he wanted, the only other ones available that fit his class schedule were on supersonic airflow for turbines in power plants. Come 1944, when he graduated, there he was, one of the small handful of people with training in both supersonic airflow and structures. So he was assigned to Miles, to work on the wing design. All his work, his notes, and the circular slide-rule he'd invented specifically for supersonic airflow calculations was literally stuffed in a Tea-Chest and consigned to Bell Laboratories. Alas, he died in 1993, before the movies of the 1948 rocket tests had been declassified, and shown on the UK's Channel 4, so he never saw the M.52 fly.

But he did get to meet - and shook hands with - General Chuck Yaeger.

Recommended Reading:
The Miles Aircraft Story, a site with some magnificent original artwork available for sale.
Miles Aircraft, a site that captures the late 30's Art Deco spirit of the times.
The Museum of Berkshire Aviation. Like so much of Britain's historical heritage, Woodley Aerodrome is now a housing development. But this small fragment of it remains as one of the top small aviation museums in the world.
(Cached) Rand Holman Show Online
BBC article

1 comment:

dave howard said...

i have to say that derek and eric broke the barrier and not the bloody yanks who not only stole our designs but also stole von brauns