The Airplane That Saved the World
What the RAF's World War II Spitfire can teach us about nurturing innovation and radical ideas.
When not whipping the media into a frenzy about seditious sapphists, Billing was running Supermarine, a ragtag and notoriously disorganized aeronautical engineering company which in 1917 had employed a second unlikely character: a shy but bloody-minded and quite brilliant young engineer by the name of Reginald Mitchell. On his first job, the foreman complained that Mitchell had served him a cup of tea that "tastes like piss." For the next brew, Mitchell steeped the tea leaves in his own boiling urine. "Bloody good cup of tea, Mitchell" was the response.
No surprise, then, that Mitchell reacted furiously when the large defense engineering company Vickers bought Supermarine and tried to place him under the supervision of the great designer Barnes Wallis—who later became famous as the creator of the bouncing bomb used by the Dambusters. "It's either him or me!" Mitchell fumed. Whether by good judgement or good fortune, the board of Vickers Aviation decided Barnes Wallis should be moved elsewhere, and Mitchell's team continued to enjoy Galapagan isolation from the committees of Vickers.
Then there was the most unexpected escape of all. In 1929 and 1930, Mitchell's planes—the direct ancestors of the Spitfire—held the world record for speed, winning the Schneider Trophy set up to test competing designs. But the government, which was providing much of the funding for these record attempts, decided that they were frivolous in a time of austerity. Sir Hugh Trenchard, marshal of the Royal Air Force at the time, called high-speed planes "freak machines." Without the development money for the latest world record attempt—and with Henry Cave-Browne-Cave not yet on the scene to pay for an "experiment"—Supermarine was set to abandon the project.
Rescue came from the most unlikely character: Dame Fanny Houston, born in humble circumstances, had become the richest woman in the country after marrying a shipping millionaire and inheriting his fortune. Lady Houston's eclectic philanthropy knew few bounds: She supported oppressed Christians in Russia, coalminers, and the women's rights movement. And in 1931 she wrote a check to Supermarine that covered the entire development costs of the Spitfire's predecessor, the S6. Lady Houston was furious at the government's lack of support: "My blood boiled in indignation, for I know that every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself against all-comers." The S6 flew at an astonishing speed of 407.5 mph less than three decades after the Wright Brothers launched the Wright Flyer. England's pride was intact, and so was the Spitfire project. No wonder the historian A.J.P. Taylor later remarked that "the Battle of Britain was won by Chamberlain, or perhaps by Lady Houston."
The lone furrow ploughed by Mitchell predated by over a decade the establishment of the celebrated "Skunk Works" division of Lockheed. The Skunk Works designed the U-2, the high-altitude spy plane which produced photographs of nuclear missile installations in Cuba; the Blackbird, the fastest plane in the world for the past 35 years; and radar-invisible stealth bombers and fighters. The value of the "skunk works" model—a small, unconventional team of engineers and innovators in a big corporation, deliberately shielded from a nervous corporate hierarchy—has since become more widely appreciated. Mitchell's team, like the Skunk Works, was closely connected with the latest thinking on aeronautical engineering: Mitchell tested his designs against the world's best each year in the Schneider Trophy races. But the team was isolated from bureaucratic interference. In a world where the government was the only likely customer, this was no small feat.
Protecting innovators from bureaucrats won't guarantee results. On the contrary: We can confidently expect that most of the technological creations that stumble out of these Galapagan islands of innovation will prove singularly ill-equipped to thrive in the wider world. But if the occasional Spitfire also results, the failures will be worth it.
Coming tomorrow: What the Spitfire can teach us about medical research.
Correction, May 16, 2011: This article originally misspelled Henry Cave-Browne-Cave's last name.
Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist. His latest book, The Logic of Life, will be published in paperback on Feb. 10.