Tim Harford's Adapt: What the RAF's World War II Spitfire can teach us about nurturing innovation and radical ideas.

Commentary about business and finance.
May 16 2011 6:50 AM

The Airplane That Saved the World

What the RAF's World War II Spitfire can teach us about nurturing innovation and radical ideas.

(Continued from Page 2)

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.

Correction, May 16, 2011: This article originally misspelled Henry Cave-Browne-Cave's last name.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

Public Opinion Should Not Dictate the Government’s Ebola Policies

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.