Illustration 7 – Photo of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken around 1948. (Aeronautics, 1949 special issue, p. 55)

Tracking down the story behind our Beryl Jet Engine

When collecting artefacts, museums strive to document them as much a possible. The information thus gathered will allow future researchers to better understand the history of each object and the context surrounding its use. This kind of research connects us to many people and institutions across the country. In the project described below, the lack of information within the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation led me to reach out to the University of Toronto’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. My contact there was kind enough to get in touch with the university’s Archives and Records Management Services.

Illustration 1 – The Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl jet engine owned by the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation No. d’artefact no. : 1969.0269

Illustration 1 – The Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl jet engine owned by the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, Artefact No. : 1969.0269

This project began as a result of the collection rationalisation project of the corporation. Given its limited storage space, the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation needs to reduce the number of duplicate and / or superfluous items. A jet engine I considered for de-accession is described in the catalogue as an Armstrong Siddeley Beryl (catalogue number 1969.0269). This in itself was puzzling given that the Beryl was designed and produced, in small numbers, by Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company Limited of Trafford Park, a suburb of Manchester, England. Correcting the data in the catalogue might be a good idea. More importantly, I could not figure out what this engine, donated in 1969 by the University of Toronto, was doing in Canada’s national aeronautical collection. After all, the Beryl had not contributed in any significant manner to the development of science and technology in Canada. A search of the supplementary information files held by the corporation was of no help. As far as I could tell, the Beryl had been sent here for testing or study. The university might have acquired it directly, either from the manufacturer or a British government agency. On the other hand, the engine might have been donated to the university by Canada’s National Research Council.

Metrovick, as the company was commonly called, was a highly diversified heavy industry firm known and respected for its steam turbines, electronics, electrical generators and equipment, and diesel locomotives. Its facilities were among the largest in Europe. Possibly less known is the fact that Metrovick was a pioneer in the development of jet engines in the United Kingdom, both before and during the Second World War. Building upon its experience with steam turbines, the company developed the first Allied axial flow turbojet, a configuration that dominates today’s jet engine industry, and one of the first engines of this type in the world. The F.2, one of the most impressive and advanced jet engines of the mid 1940s, ran for the first time in December 1941. Flight tested in June 1943 aboard a suitably modified Avro Lancaster four-engined heavy bomber, the F.2 powered a modified prototype of the first Allied jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, in November of that same year[1].

Illustration 2 – Advertisement for the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 jet-powered flying boat fighter plane and its Metropolitan-Vickers jet engine. (Aeronautics, September 1947, p. 86)

Illustration 2 – Advertisement for the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 jet-powered flying boat fighter plane and its Metropolitan-Vickers jet engine. (Aeronautics, September 1947, p. 86)

The F.2/4, a version known from 1945 on as the Beryl, was the power plant chosen for the world’s first jet-powered flying boat fighter plane, the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1. The first of three prototypes of this twin-engined aircraft, affectionately known as the “Squirt,” flew in July 1947. It soon demonstrated excellent flying characteristics[2].

Illustration 3 - The Metropolitan-Vickers F.5 open rotor engine. (Automotive and Aviation Industries, 1 January 1947, p. 21)

Illustration 3 – The Metropolitan-Vickers F.5 open rotor engine. (Automotive and Aviation Industries, 1 January 1947, p. 21)

The F.2 was used to develop the world’s first turbofan, the most widely used type of jet engine in the world today. Better yet, it was used to develop what many see as the ancestor of the open rotor engine, a type of power plant with the best qualities of the turbojet and turbofan engines that could revolutionise the design of future short to medium range airliners. More interesting still, Metrovick came up with a derivative of the F.2 designed for use on ships. An example of this power plant was used as a boost engine on the world’s first naval vessel powered at least in part by a gas turbine. As well, a derivative of the Beryl was the first gas turbine used to deliver electricity to the national grid of the United Kingdom. Sadly enough, none of these engines was produced in any number. In 1947, perhaps short-sightedly, Metrovick put aside its aeroengine design work. It seemingly did so under pressure from the British Labour government, which wanted to reduce the number of aeroengine makers in order to better support them. Armstrong Siddeley Motors, Limited thus took over the development of Metrovick’s latest project, the superb and powerful Sapphire. Now deemed superfluous, the Beryl was soon abandoned[3].

Illustration 3 – Advertisement for the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 and the Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl. (Aeronautics, November 1947, p. 129)

Illustration 4 – Advertisement for the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 and the Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl. (Aeronautics, November 1947, p. 129)

The SR.A/1 was abandoned as well. Reengineering its hull to accommodate another type of jet engine would have been expensive. Saunders-Roe Limited had little incentive to do this given that neither the Royal Air Force nor the Royal Navy showed much interest in the SR.A/1, or any other type of flying boat fighter plane. The performance limitations inherent to such aircraft were such that they could never fight in equal terms with land-based or ship-based jet fighters. The loss of two of the prototypes, in August and September 1949, and the death of a pilot only made things worse. The renewal of interest caused by outbreak of the Korean War, in June 1950, and the ensuing fear of a broader conflict soon petered out. The sole surviving SR.A/1 is on display at the Southampton Hall of Aviation. This aircraft seems, however, to belong to the Imperial War Museum of London.

Illustrations 4. Photos of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken in late July 1947 during test flights made off Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, near the Saunders-Roe factory. (Aeronautics, November 1947, pp. 90 to 92)

Illustration 5 – Photo of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken in late July 1947 during test flights made off Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, near the Saunders-Roe factory. (Aeronautics, November 1947, p. 90 )

Given the lack of significant Canadian context for the Beryl and the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation’s limited storage space, I concluded that this British engine would be a good candidate for de-accession, within the collection rationalisation project of the corporation. I made this case to a few colleagues at the museum in late July 2014 and contacted the Manchester-based Museum of Science and Industry to see if it might be interested in acquiring a jet engine designed only a few kilometres outside its doors. For one reason or other, the museum could not get back to me.

In early September 2014, while gathering information for a corporate monograph on the history of the Canadian aircraft industry, I came across a three paragraph article, entitled “Turbojet Gift,” published in the July 1953 issue of the Canadian monthly magazine Aircraft. The first two paragraphs are worth quoting at length:

“This month two turbojet engines will arrive at the University of Toronto, a gift to the Mechanical Engineering Department from Britain’s Ministry of Supply.

This gift is the result of a request made to the Ministry some time ago by the University. The two engines – a Rolls-Royce Derwent I and a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl – will be used for study purposes. They made the trip to Canada from the U.K. aboard the HMCS Magnificent.”

Illustrations 5 – Photos of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken in late July 1947 during test flights made off Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, near the Saunders-Roe factory. (Aeronautics, November 1947, p. 91)

Illustration 6 – Photo of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken in late July 1947 during test flights made off Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, near the Saunders-Roe factory. (Aeronautics, November 1947, p. 91)

Duly intrigued by this piece of news, I re-contacted the colleagues I had talked to and went looking for additional information. I also sent an email to the University of Toronto’s Department of Mechanical Engineering to see if it had anything on the Rolls-Royce Derwent and the Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl. My contact found nothing but was kind enough to contact the university’s Archives and Records Management Services. The people there have yet to find anything.

Illustration 6 – Photos of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken in late July 1947 during test flights made off Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, near the Saunders-Roe factory. (Aeronautics, November 1947, p. 92)

Illustration 7 – Photo of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken in late July 1947 during test flights made off Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, near the Saunders-Roe factory. (Aeronautics, November 1947, p. 92)

My efforts closer to home were not all that successful either. This being said, according to the July 1953 issue of another Canadian monthly, The Engineering Journal, a professor of Mechanical Engineering, E.A. Allcut, had gone to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take delivery of the Derwent and Beryl on behalf of the University of Toronto. He was apparently there when there were unloaded from HMCS Magnificent, a small aircraft carrier operated by the Royal Canadian Navy. A quick search revealed that Edgar Alfred Allcut (1888-1979) was the long time (1944-56?) head of the department of Mechanical Engineering. A master’s graduate from the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, Allcut had joined the University of Toronto in 1921, as an associate professor of thermodynamics. He retired in 1956 and was immediately named Professor Emeritus. Allcut certainly had an interesting and varied career. Besides chairing municipal and national air pollution committees, in Toronto and Ottawa, Allcut had sat on the National Research Council’s motor fuel committee. He had also advised the government of Ontario on matters of mine safety.

Before the First World War, Allcut managed the engineering and testing department of a Birmingham company located in the shop used a long time before by steam engine pioneer James Watt. During the conflict, he designed numerous machines for testing the materials used in the manufacture of warplanes and their engines. By late 1918, Allcut was chief inspector of materials at Birmingham-based Austin Motor Company (1914) Limited. In 1921, the company sent him to France to reorganise the farm tractor factory operated by the Société anonyme Austin. Allcut had just set up a consulting engineer practice when the University of Toronto informed him he had a job in Canada.

As interesting as all this information was, it added very little to the history of the Beryl jet engine currently held by the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation. This being said, Allcut’s life story is a textbook example of the ties that bind the many subject areas of the corporation (agriculture, aviation, land transportation, mining, scientific instruments, etc.).

Illustration 7 – Photo of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken around 1948. (Aeronautics, 1949 special issue, p. 55)

Illustration 8 – Photo of the first prototype of the SR.A/1 taken around 1948. (Aeronautics, 1949 special issue, p. 55)

Further research provided additional information on the Beryl. A look at KE EMU, the Australian-designed collection catalogue of the corporation, showed that this engine was donated in late January 1969. Interestingly enough, it came with twenty other piston and jet engines. The maker and type of one of the latter (catalogue number 1969.0271) are not known. The little information present in the catalogue led me to hope that the mystery engine could be the Rolls-Royce Derwent I mentioned in the articles published in Aircraft and The Engineering Journal. This would be doubly good news. On the one hand, a mystery artefact would be identified. On the other, the corporation would find itself the owner of one of the earliest types jet engines ever put in production. With a few early exceptions, the Derwent I powered the first jet fighter flown by an Allied air force. Introduced in 1944, the Gloster Meteor was a robust and reliable aircraft. A few Canadians serving in the Royal Air Force piloted this aircraft during the Second World War. Again, however, as interesting as this information is, it adds very little to the history of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation’s Beryl engine. In any event, the exact location of the unidentified engine has yet to be determined.

Indeed, I do not feel any real need to modify the decision that I had reached before stumbling across the three paragraph article published in the July 1953 issue of the Canadian monthly magazine Aircraft. As interesting as it is, the Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl turbojet did not make any significant contribution to the development of science and technology in Canada. Transferring it to another institution thus remains a valid option.

References:

[1] The compressor of an axial flow jet engine is made up of many rows of blades mounted on a rotating shaft that mesh with non-rotating blades fixed to its internal walls. Interestingly enough, American companies with experience in steam turbine design, i.e. General Electric Company and Westinghouse Electric Corporation, also developed axial flow jet engines during the Second World War. Metrovick itself was born British Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company Limited in 1899. It became a British concern controlled by Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon & Finance Company and Vickers, Limited in 1917.

[2] The Beryl was the first of the precious stones series of jet engines developed by Metrovick. Interestingly, the very first ejection seat delivered to an aircraft manufacturer by Martin-Baker Aircraft Company, Limited, one of major pioneers in the field, went into the Saunders-Roe SR/A.1

[3] A turbofan is a type of axial flow jet engine with a fan mounted in front of the compressor. An open rotor engine, on the other hand, is a type of jet engine with two sets of propeller-like blades mounted at the rear that turn in opposite directions. Individuals, families and groups visiting the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, will find information on these engines in Green Skies Ahead, a fascinating exhibition inaugurated in June 2011.