Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


Real and Fictional Model Engineers

By John Forester

This is a tale about one man, a bit about a few others, and a fictional character. The man was known as LBSC and the fictional character is Keith Stewart, the trustee from the toolroom, who was based, to some extent, on Edgar Westbury.

I once knew LBSC's real name, but for decades he was known as LBSC, for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. (Editor's note: According to a note I recently received from Arno Martens, LBSC's real name was Lillian Lawrence which he never used. He was known as Curly Lawrence to his friends.) He was born, maybe in the 1880s, into a family that had some railway connection, but was impoverished, probably by the death of his father. He had a mechanical bent, loved making things. He waited longingly until his mother had money to replace the broken fireplace grate, so that he could use the pieces as anvils for his work. His first steam engine had a cylinder that had started life as a brass cartridge case.

He went to work as an apprentice in the workshops of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. In those days, many railway shops designed and built their own locomotives, and every railway shop had to be able to completely rebuild its locomotives. I think that LBSC had some experience driving locomotives as well as building them, for his account of how to fire and drive a train from London to Brighton was entrancing. The railway set a standard of tons of coal for every thousand tons of train, and if the engine crew burnt less coal they shared in the savings. When approaching the climb out of the Thames Valley, it didn't do to have the fire hot but too thin, so that the suction of the engine's exhaust pulled half the coal up the stack. Neither did it do to have the fire just covered over with fresh coal, for then it wouldn't make sufficient steam to make the climb at speed. The fire had to be thick but hot all through.

LBSC obviously did well with the company, but then the Great War occurred. LBSC found himself managing the mass production of the world's first guided missiles, the naval torpedo. These were the height of Victorian technology: air, alcohol, and water compressed to one ton per square inch produced the steam for its engines; pressure transducers controlled its depth; gyroscopes and servo engines steered its course; fulminate of mercury ignited its charge of nitrated cellulose.

And then the war ended, there was depression, and there was no work for so talented a man as LBSC. In his idleness, somebody who knew of his previous expertise brought him a model steam locomotive that, though made by a famous maker, ran very badly. Like the others of the time, its fuel was methylated spirits (ethanol poisoned with methanol to make it undrinkable). "Poison gas producers," growled LBSC in later years. And its internal parts were designed all wrong, not like a real locomotive at all. "Of course it can't run properly, designed like that," commented LBSC, of the work of its famous maker.

The standard reply was, "But you can't make models just like the originals; they have to be different because they're too small. You're talking nonsense."

The end result was that LBSC was challenged to build a true miniature locomotive, one that burned real coal, too. He was the first to do so. The result was so successful that LBSC spent the rest of his life designing and building model locomotives, traction engines, model machinery of all types, and describing how to build them in articles for The Model Engineer. LBSC had a gift for describing complicated operations in simple terms. "According to the words and music by LBSC," became the refrain of model engineers the world over.

You note that, despite the other similarities, LBSC was a little too old for the character of Keith Stewart. But he had successors. At this time my bookshelves contain none of LBSC's articles, though I read them passionately at the time, before I could afford a machine shop of my own. However, I own two books by K. N. Harris on model steam engines and steam boilers. Harris writes about himself in the introduction to the book on steam engines. "I am not so foolish as to claim to have unique or exclusive knowledge about steam engines large or small, but I spent the first twenty years of my working life helping to build and erect them, later installing, testing, and maintaining them, and later still designing them. On the model side, I have been building them for over fifty years, so that I can at least claim to have had a fairly extensive practical experience of the subject." (Model Stationary and Marine Steam Engines, 1958) You note the similarity in date with that given for Keith Stewart's adventure ?

These model engineers were up-to-date as well as nostalgic. About 1949 there was discussion of how to form a Diesel exhaust valve into a turbine rotor one inch in diameter. When discussion turned to how much easier it would be to make it of aluminium three inches in diameter, running at the same tip speed to match the steam pressure, the originator confessed that his long-term ambition was a gas turbine engine, for which the high-temperature endurance of the exhaust valve material would be required.

The turbine wheel was part of a project for turbine drive for a steam vessel capable of taking the speed record away from the reciprocating-powered current record holder. That record was 76 m.p.h., from a boat running in a circle tethered by wire from a central pivot, with steam from the boiler so hot that the steam pipe glowed cherry red. The boats had names such as Vesuvius IX, such names demonstrating the frequency of mechanical and thermal disasters.

Keith Stewart was no slouch in modern engineering. "You could produce an induced current on the surface of a metal sphere that would act as a gyroscope, and from this you could devise a tiny automatic pilot for ship or aircraft models that would weigh only a few ounces. He was aching to get on with the experimental work, but first he had to write the last installment of his serial upon the Congreve clock." Then, later: "He went down to the workshop directly he got home and took the little bronze sphere of the automatic pilot from the bench and packed it carefully away in rags in an old cigar box with its tiny transistor rectifier and the delicate relays, clearing the decks for a more mundane job."

That was Nevil Shute writing in 1959 of Keith Stewart's adventure of 1958. At that time I was working out the manufacture of the electronics of the Minuteman I ICBM, working alongside the men who had worked out the manufacture of its gyros, first used on the Navajo cruise missile. Those gyros were perfect spheres rotating in perfectly spherical housings (with openings at each end for small sensing shafts to extend). So closely were these parts dimensioned and machined that the lubricant between them was no more than a thin layer of helium gas, but capable of supporting the spheres despite the shocks and acceleration of missile firing. So, you see, Keith Stewart was on the right track and up-to-date.

I think that it was one facet of the British educational and class systems that produced what one may say are literate engineers. Nevil Shute was a very great one among many. I think that I once met him in the office of his New York editor, Frances Phillips, but I knew well another, Reid Railton, builder of a car that held the world's landspeed record and of a boat that held the world's waterspeed record. On a less famous level, the quality of the writing in the British amateur scientific and engineering journals, such as The Model Engineer, or the discussions in the bicycling journals, was both competent and literate. There was a place for men who, in the USA, might have risen higher.

Here is Nevil Shute on the subject, in the thoughts of Professor Cyrus O'Leary: "He had subscribed to the Miniature Mechanic for nine years, and in that time he had come to have a deep regard for the design engineer whose lucid, modest, and well-written articles had taught him so much. They didn't seem to breed that sort of writer in the United States, and he had wondered why his country with so much engineering achievement did not throw up people of this sort. When he had met Keith Stewart he understood a little better. He had thought from the pleasure that the engineer had given to so many modelers that he would be in the twenty to thirty thousand dollars a year income bracket. When he had met him his regard for Keith was, in anything, increased, but he now realized that his income was three to four thousand, or even less. Few people of such ability in his own country would be content with so modest an income, and perhaps no engineers. The devotion to an art inherent in Keith Stewart's circumstances flowered more prolifically in Europe."

By all accounts, Nevil Shute Norway was a great man, an extremely literate engineer who understood what he chose to write about and who told the truth as he saw it. Everything that I have picked up over the years about model engineers demonstrates that Shute knew and understood that field as well.

When I hired production engineers, I was always pleased to see that a candidate had had the British training. For myself, though most of my education has been in the USA, I have both language and engineering degrees, and I have spent my life writing to explain engineering upwards to management and downwards to those who have to carry it out.