San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The R100/R101 Airship Experiment

In the 1920s Britain, fearful of the technological lead Germany was developing in airships, decided to acquire expertise in airship construction. There was political agreement that Britain should build an airship, but there was disagreement as to whether the airship should be built by private industry or a government agency. The issue was resolved by having two airships built, one by private industry and one by a special government research and development facility in the Air Ministry. It was to be somewhat of a contest to see how future airships should be built. Upon completion the private industry airship was to fly from Britain to Montreal, Canada and back. The government model was to fly to India, then still part of the British Empire, and back.

Vickers Ltd. was commissioned to build one ship and a government facility was setup in the London area to build the other. At that time helium was not available so hydrogen was to be the lifting gas. Since hydrogen was plentiful on the airship someone in government decided that the engines for propelling and navigating the airships should be fueled by hydrogen. Such an engine had not yet been developed.

The story of the program is told by Nevil Shute Norway, better known as the novelist Nevil Shute. Nevil Shute Norway had an engineering background and worked for de Havillands Aviation before going to Vickers to work on the R100 model doing mathematical computations of stress for the designing of the airship. As Shute described the experiment,

Finally, in effect, they said, "The Air Ministry at Cardington shall build an airship of a certain size, load-carrying capacity, and speed, and Vickers, Ltd. shall build another one of the same contract specification. By this ingenious device we really shall find out which is the better principle, capitalism or State enterprise." I joined the capitalist team. (SLIDERULE p.55).

The models were called the R100 (private industry) and the R101 (government).Vickers put together the design team and withdrew from the public eye at Crayford in Kent. After making an attempt at inventing hydrogen-powered engines for their airship they determined that it couldn't be done and opted for gasoline-powered engines. They then proceded to devote their efforts to designing the airship itself. The actual fabrication of the R100 was carried out at Howden in Yorkshire.

In contrast the government facility remained open to public scrutiny. After considering hydrogen-powered engines decided to built deisel-powered engines. Unfortunately the research and development needed to build deisel-powered engines proved to be much later than the government program anticipated. After spending much time and budget trying to create deisel-powered engines they were reluctant to abandon this effort and admit that this effort and public money had been wasted. So they continued to expend too much time and budget on this difficult task. I am indebted to Joe Ruh for correction of a previous version in which I attributed the problems in the building of the R101 to the attempt to build hydrogen-powered engines.

The Vickers team completed its model and after a shakedown flight make some corrections and flew to Montreal and back without incident. The government team rushed completion and started off on the test flight to India. The government airship R101 crashed in France killing all aboard.

Did the British government learn from the experiment the inadvisability of relying upon public agencies to provide products? No, after the crash of the public sector R101 the government broke up the private sector R100 and sold it for scrap.

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